The classrooms were minute, filled with rows of broken down wooden desks, with a chalkboard in the front. On several of the days I was there, the principal asked if I would teach the class because the regular teacher had not shown up. Like their regular teacher, I was unable to communicate with students in their native language. Like the students, Spanish was my second language and I was not fluent. This put us all on more equal footing.
Zinacantan, like many villages in the area, maintains a strong traditional culture. Most of the men, women and children wore the traditional bright red clothing of their village. Most of the men farmed corn. There was also a small ornamental flower industry that gave Zinacantan a modest economic edge over its neighbors. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for boys to drop out before they had reached middle school to help their fathers in the fields. In many villages, it was also typical for the girls to quit school at this age to start families or to help at home. Perhaps because of their relative “prosperity,” girls in Zinacantan were marrying later and staying in school longer. In my school, girls were in the majority, and many aspired to get out of the village and become doctors or go into business.
I did not teach these students anything new. I had not come prepared to teach and the school had no resources on hand to help me. Instead, I spent a lot of time getting to know the kids and reviewing basic biology with them. Despite the fact that their regular teachers seemed to take a lot of mid-week vacations, these students knew more biology than many of the students I encountered on my first teaching job in San Francisco. This was probably due, in part, to the fact that the Mayan students were at school because they wanted to be there. Anyone who didn’t want to be there was at home or in the fields. But it was also a small, tight-knit community with rigid mores. It was not a place that tolerated laziness, arrogance or selfishness, nor a place where students could develop bad academic or behavior pattern.
It was several years after the Zapatista uprising had begun. Zinacantan village had not been particularly affected by the uprising. Nevertheless, there was considerable graffiti throughout the area, around San Cristobal, Chamula, and Zinacantan, on walls and fences, not only in support of the Zapatistas, but in support of teachers, students and unions. A common slogan was, “Books and Scholarships, Not Repression.” I had been in Chiapas a few years earlier, just prior to the uprising, and don’t remember any graffiti in support of popular causes. The movement had inspired and emboldened people, even the majority who had not taken up arms. In 1995, the Zinacantan region kicked out the corrupt bosses of the PRI who had ruled the country since the revolution. They voted in the PRD who later violently attacked a peaceful rally of 4000 Zapatista supporters in 2004.
One reason why the Zapatistas were so popular among the Maya was that they were primarily Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya themselves. There was probably a sense of ethnic pride. There had been a long history of institutionalized racism against the Maya and profound economic and political marginalization. The racism and marginalization continue to this day, not only by other Mexicans, but by foreign tourists, too. People visit from all over the world, eager to see the beautiful textiles, pottery and other handicrafts. They romanticize Mayan resistance and rebellion and indigenous “harmony” with the Earth. Yet, in my experience, many tourists treat local people like living museum pieces, taking snapshots without permission, or invading their villages in tour buses during festivals or rituals.
One day I traveled by horseback from San Cristobal to Chamula, a nearby Mayan village, along with a group of eight other gringos and a mestizo guide. Because I had been living in San Cristobal all summer, some U.S. ex-patriot neighbors asked if I would chaperone their two tween-age boys. The guide was a local language instructor who I knew. We had visited Chamula together the week before. He drank too much in their cantina and had to get off the bus on the way back to puke. The others in the group were strangers.
The ride up the mountain was rugged, scenic and lovely in every way imaginable, much of it through dense pine forest. Once we arrived in Chamula, however, I realized we were in trouble. Our guide immediately disappeared into a cantina. It was the end of a village festival. There were a lot of extremely inebriated local people. Many were unconscious. A group of men gathered around us as we rode into the central square. They started to stare and point. There was a tall, blond-haired woman in our group. The locals were clearly interested in her and started to touch her hair. This, of course, terrified her, and she started to scream. This, in turn, either scared or angered the men, and they became more aggressive.
The situation was extremely volatile. We need to leave quickly, but the others were catatonic. I suggested we head out. They didn’t want to leave without our guide. “Forget our guide,” I said. “He’s in the cantina getting drunk. He’s no help to us now. When I say go, follow me.”
I have no experience with horses whatsoever. I suspect none of us did. It didn’t matter. We had to act quickly and decisively or things would get dangerous. I shouted at the men to let go of her and told everyone to ride. I pushed the men’s hands away from her and screamed at her to ride away. The rest of us followed.
Amazingly, it worked. We escaped Chamula without further incident. The trip back was much slower. It was raining. The horses were more cautious and tentative as they made their way down the steep mountain trail, but they knew the way back. My saddle was the wrong size and the dampness was causing me to slip and slide. By the end of the three hour trip, I felt like a Hollywood cowboy, with my legs bowed out, and the worst saddle rash imaginable. But we survived. The boys’ parents were very appreciative. I took a long nap, on my belly.