Chiapas, Mexico: Zinacantan, another Indian village — Johnny Monsarrat Mexico Trip

Another Indian village not far from San Cristobal is Zinacantan. Here, the villagers have more contact with outsiders than the residents of Chamula do, but they aren’t necessarily happy with having too many visitors, and they definitely don’t like some of the meddling the Mexican government is doing.

For example, the government wants to build hospitals and schools here, but they’re demanding that the Indians here stop practicing cultural traditions like having an oligarchical government and having polygamous marriages in which one husband might have as many as four wives. The Mexican government considers those practices unethical, but for the Indians, they’re part of a culture that’s existed for thousands of years, and they don’t want to give up any piece of that culture.

Compounding the problem, the Indians here sympathize with the Zapatistas, who at least try to find solutions that will allow the Indians to hold onto their ancient practices while still gaining modern benefits. The government obviously doesn’t want the Zinacantan residents to help the rebels in any way.

Zinacantan includes a number of Spanish-style buildings, but according to Senor Lopez, the structures are mostly less than 20 years old. Before they were built, the village consisted entirely of huts, and the huts are still the predominant structures here. The village, to me, appears less impoverished than some parts of Merida, but Senor Lopez tells me this area has some of the worst poverty in the entire country.

Most people have seen pictures in National Geographic of impoverished residents in less developed countries. I always assumed those residents were among the poorest, but here in Zinacantan, I find out differently. Some of the women here have appeared in National Geographic--and they’re considered the stars of the village because they have connections with the tour guides who bring the photographers and journalists here. It’s all about who you know.

The church here is beautiful, and I sneak a few pictures even though Zinacantan residents don’t respond any better to having their photos taken than the people in Chamula. There’s an odd blend of Catholicism, Indian traditions, and modern times here, as inside the church we find Mayan idols beside the trappings of the Catholic religion, while songs from the US, like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, play through a tinny speaker.

Zinacantan, like Chamula, gives me a good glimpse into the real life of some of the residents of Chiapas. Unfortunately, Senor Lopez says it’s likely that three decades from now, some of this culture won’t even exist, as the Mexican government continues its efforts to assimilate the people here.

Johnny Monsarrat: Senor Lopez tells me that all
Senor Lopez tells me that all these Spanish-looking buildings are only 20 years old or less. Previously, there was nothing here but huts. Now it's maybe 80% huts. To my untutored eye, we saw worse poverty in Merida, but all the tour guides tell me that here, in Chiapas, is the worst poverty in Mexico.
Johnny Monsarrat: My guide knows these women, wh
My guide knows these women, who allow tourists to visit their home so they can sell embroidery. Thus obligated, I buy some embroidery and never use it.
Johnny Monsarrat: Only the lucky or aggressive v
Only the lucky or aggressive villagers make contact with tour guides. These women are some of the best-connected. They even got their pictures in National Geographic and are very excited about it. Makes sense, doesn't it? When National Geographic comes to town, naturally they visit the people the tour guides take them to. So when you're seeing the poor people in a magazine, you may actually be seeing the local superstars. These women are some of the superstars here in Zincantan.
Johnny Monsarrat: The church at Zincantan. Despi
The church at Zincantan. Despite the willingness to connect with modern society, they'll still stone you here if you take photos. I sneak some, feeling a little guilty. This is the church. Notice the green cross? The Mayans were using the cross as a religious symbol even before the Christians arrived. You can barely make out some traditional costumes.
Johnny Monsarrat: The church, again. They have a
The church, again. They have a weird mix of three cultures: the ancient Mayan religious traditions, the Catholic symbols, and now -- modern USA-style Christmas holiday stuff. We went inside and there was a tinny mechanical box playing 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and 'Frosty the Snowman' right next to the ancient Mayan idols the locals sort of sneak into the Catholic church. Very, very weird. My guide tells me that all traces of Indian culture will be gone here in thirty years.
Johnny Monsarrat: On our way back, we passed the
On our way back, we passed the brand new airport. Might be an exciting locale for my book! I snap some photos and we don't get arrested.

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