I spent a week in San Cristobal de Las Casas for many reasons. For one, it has cool temperatures, something not often said for Mexico. Then, there were the many parks and natural spaces that offered incredible views. And finally, the city is the state’s cultural centre. I had to go obviously.
The state still has omnipresent Indigenous cultures defending their heritage through the practice of religious and social ceremonies and traditions. For one, corn (maize) is a household staple that is present in almost every meal, but also in rituals and spirituality. I watched El maiz en Tiempo de Guerra at Kinoki, a cultural center offering free viewings of documentaries, this film explains how the political fight for Indigenous rights is argued and magnified through the use, the consumption, the planting and the religious representation of corn. I also attended the Corn festival where different cooperatives and producers offered their rendition of corn gastronomy and art. Therefore, I can undoubtedly say a Corn festival does exist!
I also quite obviously tried Pox (spoken as Posh) alcohol made from corn. It is quite similar to mezcal, but I found it was slightly sweeter. I also tried it in the form of chocolate liquor, quite enjoyable!
The city itself is quite nice with its small colonial buildings and plazas. I found that walking around the city permitted me to find so many different artisanal shops and artist centers. The restaurants were varied and offered incredible local food, but also international flavours. I ate great Indian food at Cardamomo (Spanish for cardamom) and awesome ramen at Mercadito Nomada. I was a very happy person after those meals!
As well, the city offers countless museums, almost all barely the size of a house. Some explain the importance of jade, amber and traditional medicine in Chiapaneco modern and past daily life. During my stay in San Cristobal, I felt myself participating in the city’s culture simply by walking in its streets. Either by entering a local shop or by stumbling on a religious ceremony. I heard most of the three-day preparations for the day of saint Guadalupe by hearing the popping of firecrackers nightly and seeing the daily parades. At one point, the noise was so much that I had to put on my earplugs to take good photos. What I wouldn’t do for you all! (Dear parents, I was at a safe distance)
San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán
Close to the city, two small villages offer tourists the chance to peep inside the daily lives of Indigenous communities. Zinacantán and San Juan Chamula both offer different experiences. I went with a local guide and a Spanish girl whom I had met in my hostel in Puerto Escondido and who was in the same place as me in San Cristobal! In the first village, I had the chance to witness Chiapaneco traditional weaving and share some tacos with a local female weaver.
In the second, we had the chance to visit the local market and church. The people living in San Juan Chamula still wear traditional dress and continue practicing their ancestors’ religion. Therefore, they believe that a picture taken of them means their souls are locked or stolen. It is why it is highly inappropriate to do so and why I did not capture much of my time there. A visit there offers a drastic change even from typical Mexican culture as they follow their own social and religious code. Women dress in colourful and sparkly long tops and skirts while men wear fur jackets, jeans, cowboy boots and hats.
During my time there, the city was the site of a religious gathering and many surrounding villages came over to partake. The market was full and the chickens ready for sacrifice were on display! Inside the church, people were lighting coloured candles in prayer, each colour present for a specific reason invoked in the prayers, offerings of different kinds were placed by the candles. The place was filled with light from the velas, the peculiarity of the sight was beautiful in a different way than normal. During their prayers, they were passing coca-cola bottles over the lighted candles. The belief, as our guide explained, was that the drinking of the soda would cleanse the body as the burping that comes with would expel bad air and energy.
Our guide also explained that before colonization and general modernization, the coca-cola bottle would have been water or a different liquid. As the Coca-Cola company implemented itself in the state, it polluted and got priority access to the waterways which eventually meant that no available water was drinkable to the citizens. Potable water prices soared as coca-cola prices dropped. Today, water costs more to buy than Coke, which now means the average Chiapaneco drinks around 2 litres a day of soda. As that process went on, even the most independent Indigenous communities saw their religious beliefs and ceremonies changed by capitalism.
As I left San Cristobal, I took these lessons of modern-day Indigenous resilience and change with me as I headed off to Palenque. I watched the Netflix series 1994 on the Zapatista movement which swept across the region. I learned it was in part a response to the implantation of the NAFTA agreement which, in the movement’s view, disregarded and went against the needs of Indigenous and rural communities.
Stay tuned for my next post on the various Mayan ruins I visited.
Do read about Coca Cola’s impact in San Cristobal: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/world/americas/mexico-coca-cola-diabetes.html