A Travellerspoint blog

What poverty looks like in Chiapas:

meeting Mexico's second-class citizens

semi-overcast 22 °C


Me again - such a big day I had to write down all my thoughts and impressions and pass them along.

We booked a tour to visit two indigenous villages close to San Cristobal, and again, my preconceived ideas were blown out of the water. Based on indigenous villages we had visited near Oaxaca a few years ago, I imagined picturesque towns, filled with weaving studios, and markets and shops operated with dignity and self-possession. Our group included an American woman, a couple from the U.K., another from France, and two young Chinese women. We were extremely lucky to have Adolpho as our guide. He spoke passionately about his country's troubles - the government corruption, the appalling education system, the brutality of the police and military, the oppression of free speech, and the anguish of his people having to live with such social injustice. Adolpho was born in Mexico City, has lived in Europe and travelled throughout North America, and has returned with mixed emotions to live in his country.


There are 68 languages in Mexico, and locally, 10 Mayan languages - each distinct from the other and from Spanish. We were to visit two indigenous villages, Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula - both populated by the Tzotzil people. Because of their proximity to San Cristobal, they receive a lot of tourists, and the government has applied a small entrance fee to both villages, and not one peso goes back to the community. Enroute to the first village, Adolpho told us about the criminal treatment of his country's indigenous people, not only by the government, which has intimidated and robbed them (hence the Zapatista uprising in the 90s), but by their own countrymen. Fellow Mexicans look down on them, considering them dirty and "sellers of chewing gum".

Adolpho explained that 55 million Mexicans live in poverty. The minimum wage is the equivalent of $5.18 US a day - what Stephen and I paid today for two coffees and pastries. Twenty-two million live in what is considered "extreme poverty", which means they don't have enough to eat. The indigenous Mexicans fall largely into the latter group. While school is considered mandatory in Mexico, attendance is not enforced. Further to that, families are required to buy uniforms and books in order for their children to attend, and these are luxuries that are beyond the reach for many Mexicans. As a result, many children stay home and work with their parents - selling trinkets on the street, or shining shoes, or selling Chiclets. The little girl in the top picture is one of millions of Mexican children whose future is bleak - at age 7 or 8, she already knows how to say "What's your name?", and " very good price". LIfe is earned one peso at a time, and it's never enough.


As soon as our van landed in Zinacantan, we were beset by groups of kids saying,"photo", "photo". They pose with you for 10 pesos (less than 1 dollar), and if we felt uncomfortable with the contrived photo op, Adolpho set us straight - this is a profitable revenue stream for them. Their "costumes" are in fact not costumes at all - these are their traditional, everyday clothing and each indigenous group has variations. We were told that purple is the "in" colour this year. This family appeared to have a little more comfort than many of the other villagers we saw.

The protocol around taking photos is very unequivocal - If you take a photo inside a church in these villages, you will be put in jail (probably after you are first beaten).

Taking photos of the exterior of churches and of the towns is acceptable, and if people happen to be caught in the middle, that is fine too. But, as Adolpho pointed out, nobody appreciates having a camera pointed at them (unless you have asked, and possibly paid for that privilege) - it is as rude here as anywhere. Common sense and respect go a long way.


The pristine white church in Zinacantan was simple inside - filled with flowers. This is a massive flower growing area, and no surprise - the calla lilies we pay a few dollars for at home earn the grower a few pennies a piece.

Next stop was a weaving cooperative where a number of women sell their wares. We watched this woman demonstrate how she weaves, with this simple hand-held loom.


We were ushered into a back room for our lunch. Two girls made fresh tortillas in front of us, while another woman cooked them on the tortilla grill, and we were invited to eat as many as we liked - topped with fresh cheese, beans, sauce and a tasty powder made from pumpkin.


From there, we drove to San Juan Chamula. Adolpho gave us a little background on these folks, whom he describes as "tough". Over the years, they have resisted both the Spanish invasion, and the "justice" of the Mexican police and government. Their religious practices are unique, their drinking habits prodigious, and as Adolpho said, "you don't want to mess with Chamulans." Duly noted. As we drove into town, it felt like we were going back in time by 200 years.

First stop - the church. Incredible inside - it is as much a healing centre as a church - the floor is covered in pine boughs, and families kneeling on the floor in front of candles - some silent, some chanting - all of them praying for a sick family member. Apparently, it is colour-coded - all white candles indicate nothing too serious; a number of coloured candles suggests more complications; and a great quantity of candles requires divine intervention. Candles on the floor are asking for favours from God - candles on the tables are giving thanks.


Last stop - the graveyard. Chamulans don't go in for the extravagant cemeteries, nor for the Day of the Dead celebrations found in most of Mexico. This simple cemetery had sheep grazing on one side, and an abandoned church in the centre.


Yesterday afternoon, we went over to the Na Bolom Museum, and as luck would have it, arrived in time for a guided tour. In this case, and in the case of our trip today, our guides made 1000 percent difference in our experience and understanding. This house belonged to Trudy and Frans Blom, whose combined archaeological, anthropological and photographic talents are showcased.


Trudy spoke seven languages before leaving Europe, then learned six Mayan languages during her life here, and she took over 55,000 photos of the Mayan people - most of them entirely unique, as she developed a rare trust that few outsiders attained. She and Frans lived a bohemian life, counting Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Trotsky among their many friends. Frans died in his seventies; his bohemian life having caught up with him. Trudy lived into her early 90s - an activist until the end.


portraits of Trudy and Frans


One of Trudy's dear friends - the wife of Emilio Zapata

This couple lived in Chiapas for decades and devoted themselves to the protection of the Mayan people, in particular the Lacadon people. They were instrumental in helping to slow down rampant clear-cutting of the jungle, and although they are both deceased, their property exists to continue on with their work. Scholars and volunteers come from all over the world to study the Mayan culture and languages. Indigenous families are housed and fed free of charge while in San Cristobal for medical treatments. A massive garden surrounds the many buildings, and a library of thousands of books and papers is available for students. This appears over the door to the library: roughly translated: Knowledge is necessary for peace and dignity


So much to think about - way too much to fit into a blog post. A few days ago, when Stephen and I were stopped at a light on our way to the canyon, I heard this death rattle beside me, and looked up to see an ancient old man with sightless eyes, begging for a few coins. For some reason, he scared me and I was paralyzed - I just stared at him, then the light changed, and we drove away. I can't stop thinking about him. At times the sheer number of people with their hands out is simply overwhelming. The level of truly dire poverty here is the worst we've encountered so far, and for every peso you give, you could be giving 100 more. We can only hope that the money we leave here is better than if we did not come here at all.

Much, much more to come in a couple of days...thanks for bearing witness with me.

Posted by millerburr 18:31 Archived in Mexico

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your not even close to Sayulita anymore, I spent a lot of time in Central America and by the looks of your photos your there now. To me it is so different and so beautiful.

Thanks for sharing, I get to live vicariously.

Btw, beautiful in the west but freezing in ontario.

by Robbi

Your travels have certainly showed you the true side of Mexico...very insightful, thank you for sharing

by LeeAnn

Ginny, much to think about here. Thank you for this moving portrait. I think you should consider journalism at some point.

by Shelagh

getting someone to give you a tour is a smart idea, wish I would have done the same, but when your young it's all about travelling on the cheap.

by Robby

Hi Ginny and Steve,

To me what I believe is so important in your bearing witness is not a few pesos left behind but the awakening in your heart and consciousness, and from that place, the connections that you have made, and a deeper sense of Ubuntu (roughly translated as "I am because we are"). Thank you so much for sharing... a deep bow to you. Sandra

by Sandra Thomson

Excellent stuff, experiential education travels for you xxx

by Dave

Thank you for sharing what must have been difficult for you to witness at times. Mexico is a land of contrasts, as you are experiencing first hand. The poverty deeply saddens me as I know it does you. Travel can change a person.

by Heather

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