I arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas in late February 2020, exhausted after a night’s journey from the coast. The chilly mountain air was the first surprise of many. To be honest, I knew very little about STEPS, the state of Chiapas or most vitally about the complex indigenous landscape surrounding me. Not that I now pride myself of being an expert on any of these topics – but I do believe STEPS, or rather the insightful people in the organization, gave me an insight into a world that only grows bigger, the more you learn.
I remember being nervous standing there in the rather dreary bus-station of San Cristóbal. The bus largely filled with sleepy European-looking backpackers had just been stopped in a roadblock by masked protesters protesting low salaries and poor working conditions by gently extorting the bus driver and its confused passengers. “Welcome to Chiapas”, I said to myself and dragged myself to the office for the first time –
To my luck, my first day with Steps happened to coincide with the last day of carnival which is celebrated all over México and especially within many indigenous communities. Carnival is celebrated all over the world as a mainly catholic event where devotees splurge on food and festivities before starting the traditional fasting, symbolizing Jesus Christ’s 40 days and nights in the desert, where he refused the constant temptations thrust upon him by Satan himself. When I think of carnival, I think of beautiful scantily dressed women, desires let loose, hierarchy abolished for an evening of intoxication – more or less the counter opposite of the catholic gloominess.
In San Juan Chamula, the village where we went that first afternoon, carnival was not a celebration for Jesus Christ – it would be outrageous to think so – but it is a very good key to understanding something fundamental in many indigenous mythologies. During colonial times the only way for indigenous culture and worship to continue was to appropriate the Cristian symbolism which the Spanish brought with them and forced upon the indigenous population. Ironically, resistance proved to survive the best in the very core of oppression. This has created a vibrant hybrid of Christianity and indigenous (in Chiapas mostly Mayan) culture and religion, which my first day at “the office” most certainly introduced me to. A quick footnote is also in place here: religious syncretism has been and can be a harmful element, in the sense that over time the original belief is lost in the new symbols and the struggle itself lost in the cover-up lie, oh well it is not that bad, at least our believes are somehow tolerated – in other words it can be a strategic way of suppressing the will of indigenous/traditional people. An example of this comes from my own home country, Denmark, where Nordic mythology was strategically (and also violently – but that is a whole different story) faded into Christianity, in the process taking over the core religious celebrations.
This syncretism could be seen everywhere in San Juan Chamula that day: prayers at Christian alters in Tzotzil, the green crosses (that you can read more about here), that at first glance seem Christian but have a rich pre-Columbian significance in the region, the ceremonial use of posh, a sugarcane liquor and traditional medicine, (and later in the evening not so ceremonial). Rocio, who works for STEPS and being chamula is very knowledgeable about her roots, tried to explain some of the many small ceremonies and traditions surrounding us that hazy celebrative afternoon.
San Juan Chamula was once outside of San Cristóbal but the cities sprawling urban growth has tied them together, now residing a 20-minute colectivo-drive through the much less polished outskirts of the city. Arriving, one could feel the thrill of celebration in the air and bustling of the village. Thousands of people were gathering from the invited nearby communities and all dressed in their finest clothes. Chamula people traditionally wear sheep fur cloth; wests accompanied for wide-shaded hats for the men and impressive black shirts for the women – which can cost more than 1000 dollars due to the many hours put into creating them. I remember standing on the top of hill watching down towards the main plaza and seeing what looked like swarms of moving fur, children running in-between and through them. Entertainments was plentiful – dancing, ceremonial running over burning pine, bull-running, drinking and for the bravest (and drunkest) amongst the young men, bull-riding. Rocio told me, that if there were no casualties, it would not be a real carnival, at which I laughed nervously.
When I now think back on this messy, colorful (and in the end, not that sober) first day, I realize what I understood, though not much, was the pride of the Chamula people. They were celebrating their strength and faith, their pride of being who they are – which is something they are generally not allowed in a neo-colonial structure where their culture and identity is placed in the bottom of the social (and economic) hierarchy.
Which brings me to the purpose of STEPS. Which I will talk more about in part II of this little diary – so hang on, out there.