Writing (1)

The Odyssey

Lily Garrison ’06

We sit in the sparsely furnished, white-walled room, surrounding a panel of masked men. Outside the glassless windows, the night sky descends at a threatening rate, but the moist warmth of the day persists. Our backs are damp with a mixture of sweat and river water. The strangest cries ring through the night from somewhere in the nearby jungle. These screams sound like the shrieks of thrill-seeking teenagers in a theme park, but instead they come from small monkey-like creatures that I imagine swinging and leaping wildly from branch to branch.

We had arrived at Roberto Barrios midday after a breathtaking drive through verdant hills and down into a misty valley. This was the first of several Zapatista villages that we would visit in Chiapas. When we climbed out of the vans, the increase in humidity was overwhelming. Then the waiting began. Before meeting any of the artisan women or Zapatista government officials, we first had to be approved by the Good Government Council. Our leaders, Niki and Hillary, seemed slightly annoyed; they had gotten the approval a week before so that we could avoid doing it today. The reason for the delay, it turned out, was that the council’s members rotate every two weeks.

We decided to prepare lunch in a small open-walled shelter. Even under it, everyone was uncomfortable in the oppressive heat. Many of the artisan women stood nearby watching. Their sons ran in and out noisily, while the girls hovered wide-eyed and shy around their mothers. Eventually we got official permission to meet with the women and we congregated in their tiny shop. Colorful embroidered bags hung from the rafters, and our group, being on the whole much taller than the women, had to duck in order to avoid them. The women put on masks before talking with us. Usually they would not hide their faces until we took pictures at the end of the conversation, but now an Oakwood graduate was filming the entire meeting.

The women spoke in low voices and many avoided making eye contact with us. Some remained silent. Others, more forward, laughed easily and spoke with assurance. What to me was most memorable about our meeting was the women’s descriptions of their daily lives. They have to wake when it is still dark to make tortillas — a process that continues for hours. I began to understand the weight of our day-long visit. While we ate our lunch of store-bought bread and fruits and sat around chatting about the Oakwood gossip — the senior water fight, the prank, classes — the women too were waiting on the Good Government’s blessing. Suddenly I felt conflicted. Our presence gave them a break from their grueling routines, but at the same time we were a burden.

After a few hours with the women, we walked through the jungle to the nearby waterfall. The word “waterfall” is inadequate to describe the scenery. There were several vast, blue pools on different levels and each pool overflowed over red rock, rolling down into the next. It was dazzlingly beautiful. After we left I heard that the Mexican government wants to build a superhighway that would connect the waterfalls to the Mayan ruins of Palenque — making them a center of tourism and profit.

At length, the time came for us sit down with the Good Government Council. These councils exist in all of the five caracoles, which are the principal Zapatista administrative centers. The word caracol means snail shell. They use it because the shell forms a spiral — going in and going out — just as knowledge and communication travel into and out of the villages and even out into the foreign world.

We enter a long building whose outer walls are covered with colorful murals. No glass covers the windows, and the warm drowsy evening flows freely through them.

The Good Government Council has nine members, each from a different village, representing the different autonomous municipalities in this zone. Two of them are women. The men seem proud of the women and see their presence as a sign that the Zapatista cause of gender equality is being realized. At the same time, they emphasize that the women are very young and still have a lot to learn. The council has approved certain questions and each of the members has a pre-assigned question to answer. When the women’s turn arrives they appear quite nervous and do not speak for long. When they finish, without fail a man jumps in to elaborate. The speakers use a noticeably broad and philosophical style in addressing us. They fill their remarks with metaphors, and they talk about the Zapatista resistance in abstract terms, rarely using facts to illustrate the quality of their lives.

Roberto Barrios differs from the other caracoles in that it is not united behind the resistance; instead there is a constant strain between the rebels and the government supporters. At the end of our meeting with the council, it had become completely dark and we walked down the road to get something to eat from the bread store. It was filled with teenage boys who were sharing a liter of soda that they had won in a soccer game. Suddenly Niki and Hillary were trying to get us out of the store. This was slightly irksome, considering that it was their idea to go to the panaderia in the first place. They later explained that, unbeknownst to us, we were surrounded by government supporters. I don’t believe that this moment held any real danger for us, but it hinted at the divisions in the community. Roberto Barrios was so different from the nearby waterfall. How could such a poor, torn village have a natural paradise next door?

Not all of the villages were as economically depressed as Roberto Barrios. One of them was on an old, lush ranch; its owners had abandoned it after the 1994 uprising. The Zapatistas who took it over converted it into a village, which they named “Primero de Enero,” the date of the uprising. Here we met with women from all over the area in a large building that was once a barn. That evening I was the spokesperson for Oakwood, whose duty was to introduce the group and explain our purpose in coming to Chiapas. As I talked, I could hear the women giggling and whispering. I was mortified. What had I said? Was my fly unzipped? Mickey later explained that the women were whispering; “Chica! Chica!”, because to them it seemed bizarre that a girl would introduce the group when there was a large supply of boys on hand. The women were tickled by this aberration.

While the caracoles were physically very different and our experiences in them were varied, I was struck by how the men and women from the different villages used the same terms in discussing their resistance to the central government. The similarity in the descriptions of their intentions and dreams seemed to support the caracol metaphor of knowledge flowing into and out of places and minds. While the villages are fairly far apart, and telephones are non-existent, the rebels still manage to stand together behind their wishes for the future.

The last two days of the trip we stayed in San Cristobal de las Casas in order to spend time with the women whose products we sell at Oakwood — the Women of Corn in Resistance. These women come from different villages but gather together every so often to strengthen their artisan cooperative and discuss their designs. We met in the outskirts of the city in a secluded building made up of several rooms surrounding a patio. We spent much of our time here playing games. Many of them were rather silly — they did not involve any challenge or obstacle — but they helped to overcome the women’s shyness and our hesitancy to separate from our friends and really make an effort to converse with the women.

At one point, we split up into groups of both Oakwood students and cooperative women and tried to recreate some aspect of one another’s lives in skits. For example, in one group the students and the women switched clothes, and while the students sat around a make-believe fire patting imaginary tortillas, the women came out wearing baggy pants, hooded sweatshirts, and sunglasses and rhythmically bobbed their heads to the unheard beat of their earphones.

At the end of our two-day visit with the women in San Cristobal, we had a lovely goodbye. A mariachi band came. Later, we danced with the women to their traditional music. By our standards, their form of dance is more like a zombie gait. When we tried to add a little spice to their endlessly repetitive weight-shifting dance, the women blushed and laughed heartily. For the last activity the groups sang for one another. We stayed with the women until about eleven, when we said our final goodbyes. The night seemed like the perfect close to our trip.

It is strange that we were in Chiapas only two months ago. Now that I have readjusted to my everyday routine, it has become a far-off and already slightly patinaed dream. But when I got off the plane in Los Angeles and passed through immigration, the freshly tanned returning tourists seemed as foreign to me as the women in the villages had been only a week before.