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Worshipers in San Pedro Chenalho follow Father Marcello into the Church of Saint Peter in celebration of the corn festival.
Worshipers in San Pedro Chenalho follow Father Marcello into the Church of Saint Peter in celebration of the corn festival. (Globe staff photo / Essdras M. Suarez)
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In Chiapas on the Edge

For some indigenous people, a life of struggle, devoid of basics

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / December 18, 2005

JUAN ALDAMA, Mexico

''Marcos never existed."

The driver leans from his perch inside the luggage compartment of the broken-down bus. ''It is a myth. He was just somebody who put up a show."

An Indian man steps forward: ''Marcos does exist as a person. We believe him. . . . We are Zapatistas."

What to think?

The driver and a group of short, brown men are stuck at a desolate crossroads in the middle of Mexico. The idling Indians traveled more than 3,000 miles for a chance to pick tomatoes. The boss broke his promise, so they are heading back home, without a peso for their efforts, to Chiapas, the country's southernmost state.

Twelve years ago, Subcomandante Marcos became the black-masked face of the unexpected Indian army that emerged from the Chiapas highlands. The Zapatista rebellion pushed the plight of poor indigenous communities in front of the rest of Mexico, and the world. The rebellion presented muggy terrain of danger and shadows: Gun-toting Indians emerging from thick forest only to harvest corn or make their case. They came from villages of despair, where tired children linger as Mexico modernizes.

If the divide between rich and poor cuts deep in Mexico City and the central states, what can it feel like at the very edge?

Hugo Alberto Palacios Morales, the bus driver, says that once the engine is fixed he is going to take some uppers and hustle the Indians home with a 20-hour ride. He considers what is the best place to see reality in Chiapas.

''Selva Negra," he says. The name translates as Black Jungle.

''It's called that because of the fog. You can't see anything right in front of you, even right in front of your eyes. It's like smoke, the fog. Thick."

Nine days later, in the mountains of Chiapas, cold rain falls. A mother peers from behind the door of a concrete block home. Her tattered dress hangs loose, exposing her breast. A child's face appears, and the woman elbows it back inside. Another child pokes behind her, and she swats.

A farmer picks his way down a trail from a small church, crosses a creek, and climbs onto the porch. Jaime Solórzano Rodríguez is his name. He wears a clear plastic tarp over his clothes and holds a green synthetic rope. He explains that Selva Negra is the jungle all around. The village, he says, is called Anexo del Cielo, or Annex of the Sky. Eighty-five people live in the homes scattered in the shallow gully. They tend cattle owned by a bank and grow corn and beans.

''What we do here is feed ourselves," Solórzano says. ''We can barely make it through some times. June, July, and August are months of hunger."

Fog descends. Thick wood smoke beats back cool gusts. Two dogs take cover on the porch. Solórzano banters with a younger man in their native Tzotzil language. They laugh riotously. The woman watches from a narrow opening in the doorway.

Fog closes until only the nearest house is visible. It floats, alone. Solórzano says that at night, people with flashlights walk ahead of slow-moving cars to guide them along the roadway.

''My beloved Annex," he says.

The gateway between earth and sky sits at the top of Chiapas, a geographic foundation upon which all of Mexico rests. The state's southwestern boundary is Pacific coastline; the east is home to Mayan ruins and the Lacandon jungle. In the southeast, Chiapas joins easily with the dry hills of Guatemala. In the middle of it all, land rises up, covered thick with pine forest, or opened for coffee, corn, and beans.

Most of Chiapas's 4.2 million residents are not Indian, and they tend toward modern cities, such as the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, an easy sprawl with a glittering mall and a professional soccer team, the Jaguars. But more than 1 million Chiapanecans are indigenous, speakers of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, and other languages with Mayan roots. Their homes, mostly, are set not along sea or city's edge, but in the hills above.

The Indians are everywhere, in dark evening or at break of day. Along paved roads and rocky trails, grandmothers hunch with stacks of firewood on their backs. Young fathers tote sacks filled with grapefruit-sized pumpkins. Children sprint whether wearing shoes or not. Trucks, buses, and taxis careen past, racing from clutches of roadside huts to bigger towns, political centers where local power lies.

In San Pedro Chenalhó, seat of a municipality of 35,000 people, an inflated plastic Coca-Cola bottle stands two stories high in the wide town square. Next to it, young men play basketball as ''Let's Get Retarded," the hip-hop hit by the Black Eyed Peas, pumps from a stereo. The players, clad in low-hanging shorts and tank tops, sprint easily in the thin mountain air. The games, part of a daylong competition, stop only briefly, and a light-skinned young woman with Spanish features tosses free Coca-Cola T-shirts at the lean, dark athletes.

Directly across the street, in the stone simplicity of the Church of Saint Peter, Father Marcello preaches before pews filled with hundreds of Indians, many women and children wearing shirts and shawls with woven threads dyed red, blue, and green. One mother with bare feet cracked and caked with dirt shuffles five children on and off her lap.

Marcello, whose broad cheeks are common among local Indians, wears a white robe.

''We're going to thank God for his word, for the corn, for the bread, for the tortillas," Marcello tells the congregation in Spanish, before continuing in Tzotzil.

In a three-walled hut next to the church, cooks tend two large vats covered with banana leaves; one holds chicken soup, the other atole, a drink made from corn, milk, water, and sugar. Manuela, a 10-year-old girl, tells a tale about how corn makes children strong. Victorio, 12, shifts from Tzotzil to Spanish for another legend, contending that Spaniards brought corn to this land.

Marcello leads the congregation through the church's front door to make three slow laps around the town square and the boisterous ballplayers. Wealth and power in Chenalhó and other indigenous communities are typically enjoyed by a few local leaders. Many get their money by controlling the village soda and snack food markets.

The congregation gathers near the simmering atole, and Marcello tells the crowd to let those who are hungriest eat first. He talks privately about an indigenous congress at a local diocese in 1974, an early catalyst for Indian political awareness.

''We discovered that the system here in Mexico is an exclusive system, in which the indigenous are not taken into account, in every aspect," he says. ''We lack the basic services: education, healthcare, land."

Marcello, 31, recalls the beginning of the Zapatista rebel movement and the quick military crackdown that came after its armed uprising in 1994. In Chenalhó, civilian Zapatistas were driven out by Indians affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which was then nearing the end of seven decades of continuous rule of Mexico. The Zapatistas resettled 10 miles east, perched higher in the hills in a community called Polho. There, men grind coffee near a sign that reads: ''THE PEOPLE ORDER AND THE GOVERNMENT OBEYS." Around a bend, armed Mexican soldiers stand watch from behind razor wire and sandbags.

In 1997, in the village beyond the military post, armed gunmen loyal to the government stormed a gathering of Las Abejas (The Bees), a pacificist group supporting increased Indian rights. Forty-five people, most women and children, were killed in the Acteal massacre before others fled this region of squirrels and rabbits, coffee plants and banana trees, for other terrain.

The Bees and their families have since returned to a half dozen communities, including Los Chorros, a village set in a bowl of rich fields and forest that is home to deep-pitched songbirds. They share the town with PRI-istas, as the pro-government Indian residents are called.

''They're hiding their weapons here, we just don't know where," one member of the Bees says of the PRI-istas. ''At any given time, things could get worse and blow up."

The man, dressed in jeans and a light blue T-shirt, sits on a bench in his dirt yard near fat sacks of corn. His wife squats in a corner picking kernels from cobs to prepare tortillas. The oldest of the couple's five children, boys and girls aged 2 to 19, help with the work.

Their tidy compound of four small wood buildings is set at the top of Los Chorros, at the end of a steep trail cut with ruts from rain runoff. By 6 p.m., the air chills. Fog coats ridges. The chatter of people and chickens fills the vacuum of dusk. The man says that most weeks he can buy meat for his family. Bad stretches expose the weak foundations of their existence.

''It comes in seasons," the man says, speaking of his children's health. ''There are seasons they get the flu, high fevers. And seasons when they get stomachaches, and start vomiting."

A government clinic is just over the hill, he says. But as a member of Las Abejas, not ''signed up for the government programs," his children do not get medical attention.

''Thank God I haven't lost any kids yet, because I buy medicine when I have money," he says. ''When I run out, I find herbs to save their lives."

That there is still conflict, let alone tension, is hard to fathom when entering the cozy colonial capital of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, set in a high valley below the hills where many Indians live.

San Cristóbal was founded as a Spanish outpost in the early 1500s and soon became a base for Dominican monks. The city still has towering churches and a grid of roads dividing thick-walled homes. That and the cool mountain air make San Cristóbal, also home to a Volkswagen dealership and a McDonald's, a place one popular guidebook describes as ''a delight."

On the city's main square, the idea of rebellion has become industry: Sidewalk vendors sell Che Guevara T-shirts for Europeans and Americans who can afford revolution, while Indian children and young mothers sit on curbs hawking bubble gum and colorful wool blankets.

The Zapatistas live where they long have, over ridges and down dirt roads, in villages such as Morelia. A few hundred yards past a dusty town square where a young girl with a soiled face lists in a doorway, a sign quotes Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary of a century ago: ''The land belongs to those who work it."

On the other side of the sign, near a steep ravine that leads deeper into forest, a low building serves as the headquarters for one of five Zapatista autonomous zones. In 1994, the Zapatistas demanded better schools, hospitals, and working conditions for Indians; access to land and power in politics and media; and autonomy within Mexico. In 2003, short of new federal laws granting that autonomy, the Zapatistas reorganized land they had seized into the five communal zones, called ''los caracoles," or ''snails." According to the Zapatistas, snails are a Mayan symbol that represents the opening of the heart. The Mexican government tolerates, but does not support the caracoles.

Inside the office, a committee of three men and three women sits beneath a Zapatista poster advertising the website of supporters in Germany. The committee members do not give their names and agree to answer a visitor's questions only in writing, after discussion among themselves. A stout woman with thick black hair and earnest eyes reads first:

''We do not work as leaders with authority. We all participate. . . . Every time we get together, we nominate a general secretary, coordinator, treasurer," she says.

Outside the office, two teenagers clang an overpumped basketball against a steel rim, again and again. Colorful murals depict masked farmers holding rifles. One shows the portraits of three Zapatistas killed on Jan. 7, 1994. A boy sits on a nearby wall holding a wooden replica of a rifle. It is the closest thing to a firearm visible in the compound.

A second woman reads: ''Now that we have formed a caracol, other brothers, even from other parties, come to us, to help us solve problems we might encounter."

Downhill from the basketball court, a tired horse stands next to a gate guarded by a thin man who speaks little. Days before, residents of a caracol village claimed they were harassed by armed Indian neighbors affiliated with the PRI. Outside a low, wooden guesthouse, a Scandinavian woman reads an English-language copy of ''The Great Gatsby." She is there, she says, as a volunteer and supporter of the Zapatistas: She would serve as a witness if local opponents come to threaten or harm them.

At the committee table, a man with a particular air of authority elaborates on the second answer.

''Before . . . the more fertile soil was owned by landlords," he says. ''Since, we have taken possession of those lands. . . . Now we have our own health care. . . . Education is better because we have our own teachers."

Is this better, living in self-governed isolation in the forested hills of Chiapas?

Zapatistas plan in January to begin a national road show with Indian groups and international supporters to force debate during the country's presidential campaign.

The first woman responds again, from another written statement. She mentions the unmet goals of the 1996 San Andres Accords between the Zapatistas and the government, which were to have included Indians more completely into the country's power structures.

''We are missing a lot that we have not been able to accomplish," she says.

What about poverty? The Indians of Chiapas make up just one-tenth of Mexico's total: There are more than 10 million more, living mostly in rural stretches of Oaxaca, Yucatan, and other southern states. They suffer higher rates of malnutrition than non-Indians; they have less access to drinking water and healthcare; they live shorter lives. The statistics often become personal along the rural roads traversing green slopes thick with corn, or grazed by goats: A 3-year-old boy, for example, walks haltingly. He wears no pants and is no bigger than a healthy child half his age.

In one of the caracol's villages, San Miguel Chiptic, an hour southeast, residents carry wood held by cloth head straps and share their yards with chickens and ducks. A store at the edge of San Miguel sells soft drinks and chips, but it sits at the end of six miles of dirt road that link the village to a two-lane highway.

In a field alongside that dirt road, Sébastien Aguilar Díaz, 36, swings a blunt ax at the stump of a tree.

''If you don't work, you don't eat," he says. His wife collects firewood from a thinned stand of trees nearby. The couple has five children, the oldest an 11-year-old girl. Diaz does not live in San Miguel, the Zapatista town, but a mile back another, smaller dirt road, in La Florida, a village home to 70 families.

The narrower road heads through thin forest, descends toward a river with deep pools and then, after a sturdy concrete bridge, climbs past passion fruit trees. During heavy rains, the road washes out. No matter the conditions, sick villagers need to be carried first a mile to the wider dirt road, then six more to the edge of the two-lane paved road that leads to the small city of Altamira and its modern clinic. No one in La Florida owns a car.

Juan Sanchez, a 24-year-old with slicked-back hair and wraparound sunglasses, stands beneath a passion fruit tree. While La Florida is also home to supporters of the PRI and PRD, the national Party of the Democratic Revolution, Sanchez says he is a Zapatista.

''Because there is no justice, no democracy, no liberty," Sanchez says. ''We want to be able to participate."

Behind him, wooden fences frame a network of thick grass lanes. A sturdy man wanders the lanes blowing a hollow goat horn. More than a dozen men emerge from homes and return from fields of beans and corn. They sit on a wide lawn at the center of the village; it opens on a long, lush valley. A woman passes with a basket on her head. Goats graze.

Jacobo, the 35-year-old who summoned the men, says he supports the PRI. The party, despite losing the presidency in 2000, guards strength at the local level. The PRI, Jacobo says, gave fertilizer to the village: After six months of requests, four sacks arrived. Another man says the PRD donated two sacks of fertilizer. Someone jumps in to say that maybe the PRD did not give fertilizer after all. Oh, says the first man, maybe not.

The conversation turns in circles. The group nods in confirmation that there are no Zapatistas in the village. Jacobo says he was a Zapatista before, but not now.

''We truly don't know what party can help us now," Jacobo says.

A gray-haired man with bare feet and bad teeth grows agitated. Bartolo, 67, does not care who connects La Florida to electricity and medicine, food and education. He knows that he is alone, harvesting thick-kerneled corn that only grows well when the hard rain falls.

''I don't know about politics. I know about poverty," Bartolo says. ''All we want is gravel, so we can build a road to the main road."

Contact Tom Haines at haines@globe.com.

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