Indigenous Women of San Cristóbal: In Search of a Place in the Globalized World and Local Society

Editor’s note: San Cristóbal de las Casas, located in the central highlands of Chiapas, was catapulted into the limelight on 1 January 1994 when the Zapatista rebels chose it as one of four places in which to launch their revolution. They were later driven out by the army.

The following is the result of various conversations with indigenous men and women struggling for their subsistence in San Cristóbal de las Casas.  To be Indigenous and female on the American continent (also known as Cemanahuac Tawantzinsuyo) equals being vulnerable to all the prejudices of society, the historical and contemporary ones, to not be seen and to be the victim of choice. The presence of indigenous women in San Cristóbal de las Casas in the State of Chiapas, Mexico is connected to many factors shaping people’s lifestyle and to some contemporary issues. Traditionally, the city was the place to go and sell their products, attend religious festivities and take care of legal matters. Now this is only partially true.

Many of the women living in the town are displaced due to the violence in their communities, the political tensions, religious differences, and because as women they were unable to make a living back in their communities. The most common reason for this is the displacement of their whole families. Their husbands, and their male children have migrated to Mexico City or the US, and this also makes it harder for them to survive in a traditional manner. This forced relocation creates Indian ghettos, just like the ones created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the US. These sprout in the outskirts of the city of San Cristóbal and lack the most basic services and urban planning. The women that inhabit these improvised neighborhoods have to find a way to earn a living that is different from the one they had in their communities of origin. The indigenous women of San Cristóbal are in a constant struggle for their subsistence and that of their families. They sell candy and food, weavings, they entertain, prostitute themselves, baby sit, clean houses, wash clothes, pour drinks, pose for pictures. In this hectic situation, they also try to find a place where they can claim belonging; however, the rest of society is not willing to recognize them as people that matter. People often chase them away from public spaces; these people are not inspectors or police officers, they are citizens concerned with the “good” appearance of the town. This gives room to a now common trend among indigenous women in San Cristóbal that is spreading all over Mexico: the guerrilla marketing of their products. This consists of carrying whatever you are trying to sell — cigarettes, fruit, weavings– and picking a corner, then trying to sell as much of it as you can for a period no longer than 40 minutes, hopefully before an inspector shows up or a concerned citizen removes you. The city is pretty “relaxed” in allowing people to sell their goods in front of the main cathedral with one condition: set up is only allowed after 9:30 p.m.  when only the party-goers are out. The women are also discriminated against by the hippies, Ladinos (name given by indigenous people to people of Spanish descent) and foreigner craft sellers and street performers that abound in the town and who fight with them for the public spaces where these various groups attempt to earn a living.

It is ironic how the “concerned citizens” are demanding and abusive towards the indigenous people, yet they turn docile and willing to serve those who are foreign, light skinned, or have European physical traits. It’s stunning to witness this transformation. The question that many pose is: where are the men? They can’t all be victims of violence or migration. The answer is complex. Many point  to the shortcomings of men or try to portray them as alcoholics or lazy. No matter how true some of these assumptions may be at times, it is also true that it is harder to market yourself as a dark, non Spanish- speaking indigenous male to a foreign tourist clientele, and it is that trade which dominates the work industry in the town. The tourists want to see the friendly sirvienta (servant) not the face of their gardener or construction worker back at home selling them crafts of pouring their coffee. Just like in any other part of the world, many men, old and young, that try to be supportive succumb to the pressures of providing for a family and bail out or simply cannot make ends meet. Added to this, there’s a hard reality added to the mix, right now Mexico has the lowest development rate in the whole continent. San Cristóbal relies on the labor of the indigenous people for its survival; they produce the majority of the products in the markets, since meat is the only industry that is fully controlled by foreigners and wealthy Mexican ranchers. These are careful to hire nice mestizos that are not revolt-prone like the Indians.

The agriculture of the region is still productive, yet this is very far from being something that really provides a significant income for the people that work the fields. The cause for this is the absence of proper remuneration for the products of their labor. The production of the peasants is usually purchased at a low price and resells at a much higher one. There are Fair-trade efforts; however, these still make up a minority in the commodities market. The effort of gaining a fair payment for their products is one of historical proportions in Mexico, and one has to consider that Chiapas is one of the states that was never a stage of any part of the 1910 revolution that attempted to achieve justice for those who work the land. The people that visit Chiapas get to see a romanticized or clean version of the town, and this manifestation of gentrification is the same one that shows trendy neighborhoods in other parts of the world. They find the stereotypical margaritas, flowery shawls, cuisine that is passed off as authentic in order to match their knowledge of Mexican dishes back at home. People get a culture in a package at cool places; these do not cater to the indigenous people who are not allowed in unless they work there.

Every night, when the performance of the day is over, the indigenous women go back to the outskirts of the city, to spend the night in makeshift houses that are not seen by the people that visit the town. Ironically, there’s a mystified image of Maya people, yet individuals fail to recognize the people in front of them as such, or of value. The real people are too far away from the Hollywood imagery and new-age books and workshops. While a tourist buys an expensive amber medallion with a pseudo Mayan calendar sign on it, the last midwives in the area are selling underpaid weavings, cleaning houses and dying of old age, and their knowledge in their heads– the one that the tourist glamorizes– is lost forever. The harsh truth that few want to acknowledge is that the indigenous populations have been robbed of their cultural meanings and icons. These belong now to anthropologists in Ivy League universities and to spiritual gurus that are not Mayan or indigenous. Also, this bio-piracy has taken its toll on indigenous women in San Cristóbal. Often a willing curandera (traditional healer) living in the city, shares her and her culture’s knowledge only to have it literally stolen by an educational institution or a pharmaceutical company. In Mexico the immaterial cultural patrimony is not protected, leaving indigenous groups to fend by themselves.

There’s a misunderstanding about why people visit San Cristóbal, people who supposedly have a more socially aware perception of things. It is that of supporting the Zapatista movement. However, the Zapatista causes and dreams that these people look for are in the streets, surviving and well,  and in the communities outside of San Cristóbal. These well-intentioned people flood the restaurants and cultural centers that do not cater to the indigenous population and are fooled by sellers of pseudo-Zapatista memorabilia trying to make money out of the movement. The real centers and human rights institutions that support the Zapatistas and other communities that work for the improvement of their living conditions and the exercise of their human rights are under constant harassment from the governmental security agencies under the nation’s current application of the Merida Plan (The US, Mexico and other Latin American countries  have engaged in an initiative to wage war against drug trafficking, organized crime and money laundering).

There’s a pebble in the shoe of the well-to-do people in the city, and even if they do not like it, the indigenous women are the public face of San Cristóbal. The tourist industry uses and grinds them just like the Maquiladora system (in-bond industries along the border)  does to women in other parts of the country. They are the majority of the people hired in the businesses, often for way too small of a salary. They are objects of many abuses, and if they are not fired, they often decide to quit. There are plenty more young women willing to endure unjust labor conditions. The town relaxes its grip on the women when it is convenient for its image, when the high tourist season starts and the Indian image is in demand, then they are allowed to cautiously step into a more public arena. This phenomenon has been disturbed by the current instability due to the global economic crisis and since the swine-flu scare that has chased visitors away.

In San Cristóbal one might not see sweatshops, yet they are there. One might not find any racist literature, yet racism is very well known and acted upon, China-made weavings sell in the store fronts and are advertised as the products of authentic Maya people. The town is full of excess and contradictions. To the ruling social group’s discontent, there’s dignity, awareness, education and a growing trend in native women to not look down on themselves. They organize and educate each other on and about fighting the triple oppression given to them by history: that of being women, indigenous and poor. This tension between being indigenous and proud, versus Mexico’s historical abuse creates a world of possibility. Notions of equality and justice are sprouting all over the city. The Zapatista female thinkers’ ideas, along with their women’s revolutionary law, have spread all over Mexico and many other parts of the world that have become aware of the struggle of indigenous women of Chiapas.

Currently, various associations and international NGOs are supporting the struggle of these women to regain the use of their cultural symbols, spaces and communication forms which they do not have and deserve access to. They seek the  opportunity to encounter each other as equal subjects which also gives them the characteristics of community and of an identity of a specific group of people (Chamulas, Zinacantecos, Choles, Tzetzales, etc.), and that also differentiates them from other groups. A culture of inclusion and tolerance is the main catalyst to achieve this. Liberation for Indigenous women in San Cristóbal means fair opportunities to exercise their right to subsistence, economic equality, access to the “public” spaces, responsible use and preservation of the earth and its resources, cultural sovereignty, the respect for and exercise of their human rights.

For those hoping for a quick solution a simple fact has to be ‘brought up. It has taken 518 years for conditions to be like this for indigenous people in the continent, so it is only just to believe that it will take a while to come back from there as a society. Sustainable development has three major factors at its core: environments, economics, and sociopolitics. This attempts to meet  human needs, while at the same time restoring and preserving the earth and its resources in order to maintain it and meet those human needs in the present as well as in the future. Sustainable development means finding a balance between human needs and the limits of the earth. Acknowledgment of the rights of others to exist is part of this development. Once again, sustainability for indigenous women of Chiapas means working for human, land rights and economic justice. This in an equitable social environment where they are subjects, not objects of the public policies, which currently are not developed to reflect or include their realities. In a restorative justice approach, there needs to be serious growth in women’s standard of living, education, community and equal opportunities. This will result in a fulfilling experience of living as indigenous women and human beings. Lastly, there has to be a global educational effort to create awareness, and make the impact of current efforts like the ones by the Zapatista women and various NGO’s last. This will ensure the validation and continuation of the work and its relevance. The liberation of Indigenous women in San Cristóbal de las Casas is the liberation of all women. The respect of women equals respect for the earth and can be interpreted as sustainable development. Achieving this will result in a just and equal society for all.

Tomás Ramírez is head of Infinite Conversations, a privately owned provider of consulting and training services which uses indigenous, traditional, and contemporary models. He is of Chichimeca ancestry and a member of various indigenous organizations in the Chicago area. He worked as a human rights fellow abroad with the International Human Rights Law Institute. He currently works with youth involved with gangs, mediation in conflict ridden areas, and as a minister for the Native American Church.