Thursday, August 03, 2006

Mayan if I smoke?

What is it about the indigenous of Chiapas?

The Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz, took a tour through his new diocese in 1962 and came to a realization, the same one that Bartolome de las Casas understood when he arrived in 1523: these people are already the children of god. That is, the Indian is so modest and generous and good that he or she only needs to be steered towards the door of the church, not corrected by it, and having spent a very little bit of time in the Bishop´s diocese, I must say that I agree.

Take last night for example. I found myself in the very fine plaza of Comitan de Domingez, around eleven p.m., feeling a little peckish. The square was nearly deserted, just a handful of teenagers and some Mariachis drifting around in the semi-darkness, making a few strains on the old mandolin. An old woman stood by her buckets, and modestly inquired if I was interested in a tamalito de mole or two.

Well indeed I was, and I sat myself down and tucked into a couple that she served me, still hot from the banana leaf each was wrapped in. And damn me if they weren´t the finest tameles de mole I´ve ever had in my whole meandering life of sordid travels. Eight pesos worth of pure gastronomic goodness. You´ll rarely find a more inept and unethusiastic traveler than I, but at that moment I felt the sweet taste of victory right there in el centro de Comitan. But that´s not the point I was trying to make.

The point was that this woman embodied all that is so good about the Mayans, the calmness, the grace, the absolute grandmotherly sweetness of that lady. Its these very traits that the Spanish conqistadores must have come across, and promptly set about raping, enslaving, and killing in just the way a good European will when they´re far from home and feeling relaxed. More recently, we can say with perhaps greater authority (which one always wants), these are the traits that have kept Chiapanecan indigenous people totally ignored by the political process, and totally exploited by the economic one.

Is this an attempt to blame the Mayans for the exploited misery that they have lived in for for five centuries, a nasty, backhanded compliment that nice guys finish last? Well, not exactly. Its more a comment on the behaviour of the mestizo society here in Mexico, which is of course little different from that of you-know-who in you-know-where. And still the Mayans keep their dignity.

(It must be said that most of the Mayan communities high in the highlands of the Lacandon forest and elsewhere really are scared witless of outsiders and want nothing to do with them, for very good reasons that you may have heard about already. But the need to make a peso or three drives many of them into town to sell whatever they can cobble together. The truth is, I don´t know a goddamn thing about what the Mayans are like with each other, just through the inevitiably limited interaction I´ve had buying a bottle of water, etc. But from that and a bit of reading I´m happily making sweeping generalizations. If you don´t like it, denounce me in front of the Comintern and satisfy yourselves by reading blog entries about the long-drop toilets of darkest Siberia, a freezing hell I´ll never see the end of.)

1 comment:

Jesse's sister said...

Ah, intro to them was the very early 20th c diaries of a Harvard anthropologist. Great photos, lots o' folklore.

It's true the Maya have come down in the world since losing control of their vast city complexes and maize-gods (see also Romans,Roman empire and Italy, viz) but it's great to see 'em still truckin'. Some of them even live in DC and contribute to things like the Smithsonian (and not by being exhibits either).

I'm not sure the locals are all THAT passive though...aren't the Zapatistas in your neck of the woods? Hasta la vista. And happy belated b-day, by the way :>