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Don’t Be A Stranger: Some Thoughts On The State Of Affairs In Chiapas

June 13, 2011

Driving through the mountains of Northern Chiapas, taking the old highway from Villahermosa through miles of banana groves, hibiscus fields and mountains that more closely resembled Peru, or maybe even China,  than the landscapes I usually associate with Mexico, I got the feeling I was very far from home.

That was before I arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas to discover throngs of dreadlocked white people prancing through the streets dressed like Himalayan harlequins, pipe-smoking American “thinkers” with berets and Dickensian peacoats, and skeletal vegan backpackers, pale and weakened by the altitude, crouched on every street corner.

At that point that I began to suspect that not only was I far from home, but far from Mexico as well. 

Tourists and Expats

My suspicions were confirmed when, about fifteen minutes after parking my car and beginning my trek up the Real de Guadalupe pedestrian zone, I witnessed an American girl, probably in her early twenties, openly and unabashedly selling what she claimed were marijuana brownies out of a basket she carried much in the same style as the Tzeltal women selling belts and other knick-knacks.

Now, before you think I’m some kind of prude, let me say that I have no moral problem with marijuana.  However, I do think there’s something slightly brazen, if not downright offensive, about Americans peddling drugs in Mexico knowing full well that close to 40,000 Mexicans have been brutally slain in drug-related violence since the drug war began in 2006.

I can only chalk this kind of arrogance up to racism, the kind of racism that leads twenty-something American girls to believe that they are somehow exempt from the rules that govern life in Mexico, that they have something special that those 40,000 slain Mexicans simply didn’t have.  This particular brand of specialness seems to be possessed by a great number of foreigners living and vacationing in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Turistas de la Revolucion

To make the foreign scene even more uncomfortable is the sheer number of political tourists who have turned their stoned prancing around San Cristobal into a fantasy of support for the Zapatista uprising.

You don’t have to be William F. Buckley to wonder if a tourist bar in the centro called “La Revolucion,” or stencil graffiti that says “Every Kiss is a Revolution” isn’t somehow diluting, or downright perverting, the message behind the Zapatista rebellion.

I mean, if every kiss is a revolution, then third base must be Armageddon.

Cute graffiti can’t possibly offer much comfort to the majority of Chiapanecos who live without toilets, running water or electricity and suffer some of the highest incidence of Chagas infection in the country.  But nitty gritty details like that are seldom sexy.  Emma Goldman once said “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”  The rhythm of public health is seldom one you can dance to.

If every kiss were a water filtration system?  Now that would be a revolution.

And of course, even a very liberal gay man like myself runs the risk of being branded a right-wing homophobe if, when encountering English-language advertisements for the San Cristobal lesbian march that took place earlier this year, he asks how the Chiapaneco proletariat feels about foreign lesbians marching through their city, and whether or not a lesbian march might be yet another manifestation of the colonializing forces that said working class is fighting against.

No one wants to be the stick in the mud who hates fun by asking whether the efforts of those organizing the lesbian march, or of the animal rights groups who recently protested bullfighting in Chiapas by lying in the streets doused in fake blood, might be better focused, for the time being at least, on more pressing issues such as getting clean drinking water and prophylaxis against deadly diseases like Chagas to the million-plus Chiapanecos who have neither.

Of course, those who stand by tired cliches like “you have to walk before you can run” are seldom known for being the life of the party.

In cheering on the armed insurgency in the state you’re vacationing or expatriating to, you put yourself in the enviable position of being able to leave should the violence escalate (God forbid.)  As a foreigner, there’s nothing stopping you from abandoning your Mexican comrades to fight and die in Chiapas while you’re on a plane, American passport in hand, straight back to Mommy and Daddy’s house in Berkeley when the fun is over.

Libertad Verdadera

The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas had the misfortune of being thrust into public consciousness just as some particularly shrill and often overzealous brands of environmentalism and anti-colonialism were beginning to gain steam in the U.S. and Europe.  Bien-pensant liberals in the Western World quickly seized upon the Lacondon as an example of why colonializing a people and cutting down the rainforest in which they live is a bad thing.

And yes, it is bad.

But white people are allowed to choose for themselves whatever kind of life they please.  If they want to cultivate crops and raise goats in the forest, they can.  If they want to live in cities and wear jeans and listen to Lady Gaga on their iPods, they can.

This is where pushing back against colonialism runs the risk of becoming the enforcement of a pastoral life upon a people on the basis of their race.  God forbid a liberated Lacandon, who by virtue of the Mayan “cosmovision” of course has a “special connection with nature,” might choose to emigrate to Los Angeles and do the ecologically unthinkable by opening up his or her own gas station or, imagine the horror, become a NASCAR racer.

But the college-educated Westerners of the world know that Lacandons aren’t supposed to think that way, because they’re supposed to be jungle-dwelling subsistence farmers that love nature.  Right?

And God forbid a liberated Lacondon would decide that his or her personal cosmovision most closely resembles that of Catholicism or Protestantism or something the Lonely Planet set finds equally uncool and mainstream.

You can hardly call the academic-led enforcement of dress code, occupation, and religion, as well as dictating where certain indigenous groups are allowed to live in order to be “authentic,” a means of liberating them from the horrors of colonialism.

The Carousel of Progress

Tourists and expats in Chiapas who fancy themselves socially responsible activists, particularly those expats who own businesses related to tourism, may want to ask just how Chiapas is benefiting from tourism.

When CNN Mexico reports that violent confrontation between two Chiapaneco Maya groups claiming rights to the admissions concession of Cascadas de Agua Azul, a popular tourist spot, has resulted in two deaths in the past year or so (the most recent one having taken place in February,) and reports of as many as seven kidnappings related to this conflict have been printed in other news sources, it becomes harder and harder to imagine one’s tourist activities as supporting the people, or even supporting some vague humanitarian ideal.

Perhaps Emma Goldman should have said “If poor indigenous people will be killing each other over tourism dollars, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”

The sort of “Marxism” preached here has encouraged an appreciation of materialism, but not of the dialectical variety.

Those who managed to stay awake during political science class know that normative Marxist thought not only held little respect for traditional religious and ethnic exclusivity and divisiveness, but viewed those very things as instruments of oppression.  How the importance of traditional dress and religious practice, and how the advancement of an acutely mystical ethnocentricity, became the centerpieces of an avowedly “progressive” political movement claiming Marx as one of its inspirations is anyone’s guess.

The Right to Corruption

I always tell myself to stay away from tourist hotspots.  But without fail I always go against my own instincts.  In this case, I made the regrettable mistake of visiting San Juan Chamula, which was billed to me, as well as every other tourist in town, as an authentic native village just outside San Cristobal where the natives were so authentic in their religious practice that the local chapel had been de-sanctified by Rome.

My first inkling that something was wrong at the church at San Juan Chamula came when the attendant at the front door said he did not have change for the fifty peso note I handed him to cover our forty-peso entrance fee.  I knew, judging by the sheer number of tourists going in and out of the church, that he had to have had ten pesos to make change.

So I dug deeper in my pockets and found enough coins to cover the entrance fee, and paid our way, refusing to give this goofball the satisfaction of short-changing me.

At the entrance to the chapel, there are numerous signs, in English and Spanish, forbidding visitors to take pictures inside the sacred chapel.  Nevertheless a tourist visiting the church whipped out his camera and snapped a few.  When this was discovered by one of the guards, a mob of about eight men, together with a few local children, blocked the exit to the church and began barking at the tourist in the kind of Chiapaneco Spanish that even other Mexicans have difficulty understanding.

They reminded him that this was their house of worship and they considered it holy, and demanded that the tourist hand over his camera so they could see the pictures.  I wasn’t certain where the tourist was from, but having several years of Russian instruction under my belt I was able to determine, from his panicked chattering with his companion, that his native language was Slavic in origin, and that he had no idea what these men were saying.  The children attempted to grab the camera from the tourist’s hand.  He put it in his pocket and held it tightly.

My travel companion rushed to help find some way of diffusing the situation.  He discerned that the tourist spoke a little French, and he translated the mob’s demands into French.  They reminded him that the church was a sacred space and should be respected as such.  They wanted to see him delete the pictures from his camera and pay a fine of two hundred pesos.

Reluctantly, the tourist pulled the camera out of his pocket and flipped through the pictures.  The children gazed at the screen, and for each photo the tourist had taken they gleefully shouted, “Two hundred pesos!  Four hundred pesos! Six, eight, one thousand pesos!”  They cackled like little devils and reached for the tourist’s camera, taking delight in the look of horror on his face.

My companion pulled the leader of the mob aside for a one-to-one chat.  “He doesn’t speak Spanish.  He was only taking pictures because he’s interested in your culture.  The last thing on his mind was offending you or showing you any disrespect.  You’re scaring him.  Please tell him you aren’t angry and ask the mob to back away, and we’ll figure out a solution that will make everyone happy.”

The leader thought for a moment, and asked his friends to disperse.  They came to an agreement that if the tourist deleted the pictures in his camera and payed four hundred pesos, he would be free to leave.  The tourist complied, and as he was stepping out of the church and back into the mob that was waiting outside, the leader of the group informed him that if he wanted photos, they sold postcards of the church and the sacred rituals that took place there at a concession in the parking lot.

Pay the piper, and you too can own postcards of a space too sacred to photograph.

I once visited the Church of the Talking Cross in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a place known for being frosty to outsiders and touchy about those who ask questions.  Even there, a place of worship with just as much (if not more) religious and political tension than San Juan Chamula, I found the people to be, at the very least, observant of commonly-accepted modes of social behavior and manners.  And there was certainly no one out front selling postcards.

Never before in Mexico have I seen children take such delight in frightening a well-meaning, if misguided, tourist.  But the revolution gives people license to indulge in their worst instincts, to pay back corruption with corruption, to extort money in the name of religion in the same way it was done to them.  Revolutionary ideals make way for money-making schemes.  Sacred spaces become cash cows, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.  When bleeding hearts and guilty white persons want to dip their toe in the revolutionary waters, there will always be someone there to sell them the postcard.

Leaving San Cristobal

When I got back to San Cristobal and the rain came, and the cute faux-cobblestone streets of the quaint little tourist center became slippery death traps for the locals riding their bicycles home from work, it hit me: this is exactly what the expats of Merida are trying to recreate.  The gay Pride parades, the pedestrian-only rows of overpriced organic vegan Thai restaurants, the easy access to marijuana even as Mexican suppliers are being murdered by the thousands–it is the worst imaginable case of having your cake and eating it too: a little slice of Berkeley, surrounded by staggering levels of poverty, corruption in the name of a struggle for equality, and oppressed groups pit against each other in a violent battle over the spoils.

I thought that I encountered a lot of bad expat behavior in Merida.  I thought I had been unlucky in my choice of places to live and work in Mexico.  Little did I know that the epicenter of bad gringo behavior was a few states away.  But it makes sense.  After all, San Cristobal was an expat hot-spot long before Merida became one, and these things have had a lot longer to take hold.

All photos copyright 2011, Expats Anonymous.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. logansafi permalink
    June 25, 2011 1:47 am

    Tourists of all sorts are almost always annoying. Still, why so much venom from this writer?

  2. June 25, 2011 11:09 am

    Logansafi: I don’t know what part of “Americans are selling drugs in Mexico, expatriates are organizing anti-bullfighting demonstrations while villagers are starving and dying from easily preventable diseases, and people are killing each other over tourism dollars,” you didn’t quite understand, but I’d hardly call a negative reaction to any of those things “venom.”

  3. mexicano permalink
    July 1, 2011 6:29 pm

    Well said! This is an excellent article and deserves a wider audience!

  4. Rodney permalink
    July 3, 2011 9:05 pm

    We (see below) were hoping to visit San Cristobal de las Casas, Agua Azul, and Palenque this December. Now I’m not sure. Any advice from readers?

    We = one American from Los Angeles + one Mexican from Merida, two gay men in a long-term (18 years) relationship. We’ve traveled around the Yucatan quite a bit and had a great time. We’ve never been to Chiapas.

  5. July 5, 2011 1:19 pm


    If you want to go, then by all means, go. Chiapas is very beautiful. Just be aware going into it that you are visiting what is often called the most corrupt state in Mexico, and the tourism industry is by no means exempt from that corruption.

    And remember that conflicts at both Agua Azul and Palenque have resulted in violence in 2011.

    If I were to go again, I would stay in Chiapa de Corzo rather than San Cristobal. That puts you right at the mouth of the Sumidero Canyon and easy driving to San Cristobal (it’s about 30 minutes away by cuota.) Do some research on Chiapa de Corzo. It’s quite charming.

    But my experience was such that I’m not going back to Chiapas anytime in the foreseeable future.

    I will say that I was knocked out by Tabasco. Comalcalco is one of the most beautiful and impressive ruin sites I’ve seen. They also have a fabulous museum. And no one goes there! The Parque de la Venta in Villahermosa is also fantastic.

  6. Dana permalink
    August 29, 2011 6:28 pm

    Glad snobish tourists miss the whole point of what San Cristobal is about. Thank you for the laughs gringo.

  7. August 30, 2011 10:21 pm


    Wait… wait a minute! You use words like “glad” and “thank you,” yet you use them alongside seemingly incongruous words like “snobish.” [sic]

    I half-suspect you just might be employing the literary device known as “sarcasm!”


    Well, “thank you” for your constructive, in-depth analysis and critique of my editorial! You’ve really educated my readers on what the “whole point” of San Cristobal is with your hard-hitting comment, which doesn’t pull any punches. The World thanks you for it!

    I, for one, didn’t even realize that a city could have a “whole point.” I learned in English class that there could be a “whole point” to a novel or a “whole point” to a news article, but not a city. What is the whole point of Los Angeles? Or Kansas City? Or Pittsburgh? I look forward to hearing your important thoughts.

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