Emily Walworth ‘10
I shift my feet on the damp earth. Sitting on a child-sized chair, I glance around at the group of people sitting or standing in an informal circle. Subdued light from the overcast sky filters through the open doors on either side of the hut, echoing the aura of calm and softened exhilaration that surrounds us in the misty air. Across from me a woman is dressed in an ornately embroidered shawl of blue and purple flowers. A piece of cloth tied around her neck and back cradles a sleeping infant, oblivious to his surroundings.
It was just three years ago that I joined the Chiapas Project and started selling the women’s artisan products around Los Angeles. I felt a distant connection to women whom I’d heard so much about, but had only seen in pictures. Finally this past summer my classmates and I traveled to Chiapas, the southernmost part of Mexico, to get to know indigenous women of the Zapatista movement, Las Mujeres de Maiz en Resistance , whose merchandise we have been supporting back in Los Angeles. Each handbag, scarf, and blouse that we sold was a work of art, hand-woven and carefully embroidered by women striving for autonomy in the face of extreme poverty and oppression.
I had to change gears. After going around the room, each person saying their name, welcoming, and thanking us, the room became silent for a minute; surprisingly it was a comfortable and natural silence. Our teacher had told us that these women had a different sense of time. They were content to simply be, instead of fretting about what they should or could be doing. But even more than this, they seemed to have complete confidence in their values and their way of life. A little mystified, I wondered what it was that could make these women so confident and united when there were so many things for them to be worried about.
Back in Los Angeles I often feel that I am either doing something, planning to do something, or agonizing about something I should be doing. Sitting around is being “bored,” and is generally perceived as “unproductive.” It all seems different in Chiapas. There is no rush; their life has an unhurried feel to it. I feel as if I’m trying to keep up with my life; they pull theirs back to keep pace with them. They have a kind of oneness with their world and themselves that I have lost in the diversions and distractions that come with living a convoluted life in Los Angeles. I am constantly questioning societal norms and the path and purpose of my life. The women in Chiapas, however, have a kind of self-assurance I’ve been searching for.
I’m striving to find a coherent self in a fast-paced culture that seems to compartmentalize everything significant. Everything in my life has taught me to adapt myself to my situation, and sometimes it’s hard to find the “me” that connects them all. At school the self that comes out is sharp, perceptive, and motivated to succeed. While rushing from class to class I try to understand as much as I can within the time I am given. When taking care of my grandma, conversely, I have to slow myself down. Recognizing that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s, I patiently repeat for the fourth time in the past five minutes that school is great, that I’m in my senior year, and have been working on my college applications. In this situation my role is to just keep her company because my presence gives her comfort. On the other hand, I act completely different with my friends. I talk and laugh with my classmates, thinking up songs to sing at Arts Fair or planning a trip to the Griffith Observatory. Years of theatre have taught me to immerse myself in a situation, but rushing from each one of these selves to another leaves me no time to reflect on things from the perspective of the “me” that is in them all.
I didn’t know what to expect from this trip. I have found that Chiapas has given me space to reflect and recover a part of myself that has been missing for a while. This part of me takes time in pondering over an idea, so as to thoroughly understand it. I frequently find myself mulling over how the world works, how people think and feel about things, and why we act the way we do. I realized from this that each of my “selves” are all connected by my yearning for a deeper understanding in my life.
Las Mujeres de Maiz en Resistance taught me that finding a core to unite one’s self gives a person inner strength. It is this inner strength that gives indigenous people of Mexico the power to fight for their rights and autonomy from the Mexican government. Just as they are united with each other, they are united within themselves.