Blog 7 A San Cristóbal de las Casas

Blog 7   A         San Cristóbal de las Casas                                         20 December 2012


We strike up a conversation with someone on the street, or in a restaurant, a store, a lancha, a park, wherever, and the first two minutes are as ritual as the opening of the mass.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States, near Boston, in the northeast. But recently we live half the year in Mexico.”

“But your parents are Mexicans, aren’t they? Or from someplace in South America? You both speak Spanish so well . . .”

“No, our ancestors were Europeans. We learned Spanish in school. And then, we’ve spent a lot of our lives in Spanish-speaking countries.”

“It’s not your first trip to Mexico then?”

“No; the first time I came was …” Options here: I look carefully at the person we are speaking with “…before you/your parents were born. 1960. I was just a kid, a chamaco.”

“My goodness, well, yes. Before both of my parents.” Pause to take that in. “Mexico has changed a lot since then, don’t you think?”

“Yes. We have, too, maybe even more.”

Pause. And from there the conversation slides into substance.


But this ritual got us to thinking about some of the changes we have seen, and in fact how visible so many of them are, even just driving down the road.


One is that there has been a vast improvement in the Mexican economy, not only among the landed and factoried oligarchs and the burgeoning middle class, but in the villages, among farming people, what Europeans would call the peasantry. When I visited fifty years ago, and Linda and I first visited 35 years ago, most poor people in the countryside walked where they were going. And most women, almost all the kids, and some of the men, walked barefoot. Burdens went on their back, with a tumpline around their forehead to sustain the weight, or on their donkey’s back, or if they were wealthier, on their horse’s back. Some animals pulled carts, often with village-made wooden wheels with iron rims forged by the local blacksmith. In those bygone trips we noted some bicycles, a few beat up motorcycles, a handful of 3-wheeled vehicles, and precious few cars. Pickup trucks, most of them two decades older than the point at which they’d have been junked or turned into chicken coops in the United States, rattled over the rutted rural roads at a brisk walking pace, belching lead-laced black smoke from their rusted tailpipes. No sane foreigner drove after dark because of the potholes and the animals on the road. Terrorism or narcotraficantes weren’t a concern.

There is still poverty, of course, but animals are rarely used now for transportation, at least within sight of the paved roads. In the last three weeks and nearly 3,000 kilometers we have seen fewer than a half dozen laden donkeys and horses, and only a couple of animal-drawn carts. The people we used to see walking, now ride bikes. Former bike riders now have scooters or small motorcycles. People who used to have two powered wheels, now ride on four, if not in cars or pickup trucks, then on open all-terrain-vehicles. Almost everybody we see wears shoes. Indigenous highland Chiapas—that’s the state that borders Guatemala—is an exception. Highland Chapanecos walk. Perhaps a tenth of the people we saw from the highway in Chiapas were barefoot; men, women, and children carried large loads on pack frames with tumplines, mostly bundles of firewood, down from the forest, along the paved highway to the village. One thing has not changed: on rural roads almost everyone over the age of six, men and women, still carries a machete. It is rural Mexico’s universal tool, as much a part of one’s daily attire as a shirt or a pair of pants.

The roads, too, are improving with meteoric speed, as Mexico builds wide-shouldered two-lane toll roads that slice through mountain terrain and cut hours off of any trip between major cities. We took the old road this morning from San Cristóbal to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of the state of Chiapas with a half million inhabitants: only 78 kilometers, but 2½ hours, eight zillion curves, and a drop in altitude of nearly 1,600 meters (±5,000 feet). We could have taken the new toll road, only 48 kilometers, at most an hour, but we’d have missed a lot of knuckle-biting scenery. In Tuxtla, when our hearts had slowed to normal, we opted for the toll road to Arriaga, opened just three years ago, dropping another 500 meters to the Soconusco coastal plain, even though the 120 kilometers cost us 130 pesos. For some of the descent we paralleled the old road. Almost no one was on it. When the toll roads first opened, most truckers and middle class travelers stuck to the old roads, ostensibly, as many of them explained to us, to avoid tolls that average 1 peso per kilometer (about 13 cents per mile). Now time, ease of travel, and the savings in lowered gasoline consumption, seem to have offset the cost of tolls for just about everybody.

Cattle ranches have taken over much of the Yucatán, western lowland Chiapas and the Soconusco Pacific coastal fringe. Forests have shrunk. Mounted vaqueros (from which our word “buckaroo”) still ride fences to tighten up sagging barbed wire, but nowadays there are fences. In our trip so far we have only seen one instance of cowboys herding cattle and that was to maneuver a few dozen cows across the Frontera Highway from one field to another. Today, sheep are fenced too. Shepherd has become an archaic profession. Again, highland Chiapas is an exception: between Comitán and San Cristóbal, we saw dozens of small flocks of 10-20 sheep, each being tended by a shepherdess in indigenous village dress. Not one of the older shepherdesses carried a drop spindle; half of the younger shepherdesses were talking on cell phones, many of them on smart phones.

And that’s a very big part of the changes we’ve seen. Both the changes in indigenous dress, and in what the indigenous women pull out of their pockets.

Long before Europeans took possession of what is now Mexico, the vast territory was home to many, many different groups of people, with different languages, religions, styles of dress, food, architecture, and social structure. The Mexica (pronounced Meshika, we know them as Aztecs), were relative latecomers, and they were on the way to imposing their gods and their Nahuátl language on the central highland cultures when the advance of their empire was rudely interrupted by the Spaniards. After 1520 or so the lingua franca (now there’s an ironic term!) of Mesoamerica was Castilian, but the vast majority of the population continued to speak their own languages: Nahuátl, Mixtec, Zapotec, Purhépecha, the Mayan-derived Chol, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and dozens of others. Over a million people today speak Náhuatl; three quarters of a million speak Yucatec Maya. Another twelve of these languages have upwards of 100,000 active speakers today, and some of them have that many monolingual speakers. The Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas recognizes another 45 languages that are still actively spoken, and many more that have now shrunk to near extinction.

While each language group, and often each village in pre-Spanish Mesoamerica, identified its members with distinctive modes of dress for both men and women, the Spanish conquerors actively encouraged this diversity, and in some parts of America even mandated that village women adopt a style of dress that would let the Spaniards know instantly where people came from and belonged. Pre-conquest styles would not do; women’s dress in colonial society had to meet 16th-century European standards of modesty: voluminous skirts over petticoats, blouses that covered everything that moral Spaniards didn’t care to look at in public, shawls, and aprons. In most areas women wore distinctive hair coverings, hats that all by themselves were enough to pinpoint the wearer’s origin. Men, depending on altitude (i.e., climate and ecology), wore distinctive Spanish-style trousers, sashes, loose blouses, and sandals. “Native” dress, from south of the great Mexican desert to Patagonia, echoes 16th-century European fashion.

When I first came to Mexico, and even 35 years ago, in much of rural Mexico most women and some men continued to dress daily in traditional clothing. Now, in most of the country, Señor Levi’s blue denim is the near universal wear from the waist down, and mass-produced international style tee shirts, sweat shirts, flower-print blouses and dresses, gingham aprons, cover the upper torso. Baseball caps are ubiquitous. Mexicans, now preponderantly urban, are still proud of their native dress: museums collect them, fancy hotels exhibit them, “native” markets offer them to tourists, and locals put them on a few times a year for fairs, saints days and other communal holidays, just like the 21st-century European “peasants” do. Highland indigenous Chiapas is one of a few pockets of exception.

As soon as Linda and I left the cattle ranch country of the Frontera Highway and climbed into the Chiapas western highlands, almost all the women in the roadside villages wore traditional clothing. None of the men or little boys did, but the women, from toddler to grandmamma, wore their village colors. This was the case pretty much until we dropped down to the Pacific lowlands.

The heart and soul of highland Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas, at the center of a small valley at ±2,200 meters high (nearly 7,000 feet). Of the city’s 130,000 inhabitants, 40% are native speakers of Teltzal or Tzotzil, which means that 20% of the people one sees on the street are in native dress. The central part of the city, more than a kilometer square, has retained an antique, presumably colonial air. The houses are of one or two stories, the stuccoed street-facing walls painted in a palette of gentle pastels, and even the façades that do not predate the 20th century have on the whole respected that style.

Away form the two main streets and the plaza next to the Cathedral, all the surfaces seem to have begun to ware and crack and fade, revealing walls mostly of adobe bricks. San Cristóbal is gridded, in the Spanish colonial fashion, and the blocks are enormous. Street frontage was always at a premium, and is almost always utilized by businesses of one sort or another. But every third or fourth doorway leads to a garden or a patio shaded by columns, from whose arches passageways lead to still more remote private nooks and patios.


And yet … San Cristóbal is like Marrakech, a city so charming and “authentic” that it draws hoards of tourists. Modern transportation has rendered San Cristóbal’s “remoteness,” like that of Cuzco and Kathmandu and Kilimanjaro, easily accessible. Tourists don’t come to see the monuments —San Cristóbal’s architecture, both civil and religious, is second rate, and there are no spectacular archaeological sites nearby — but to experience the town, see the people, taste the exoticism of the place. And to buy two products for which highland Chiapas is famous: hand-woven textiles, produced, and sometimes mass-produced, in profusion by indigenous weavers and knitters and crochetiers. And jewelry made of amber, which is mined a few hours away higher in the Chiapas mountains.


So, up and down San Cristóbal’s narrow streets throng traditional Indians, local non-Indians or entirely westernized Indians, Mexican and foreign tourists, bot

h well-heeled and back-packing, foreign residents, who came for a visit and stayed, missionaries, NGO workers whose projects are sponsored by the United Nations, the World Bank, US AID, church groups, the European Union, the Chinese, and who knows who else, and employees of Google World Maps. The arms of many traditional highland chiapanecas are weighted with stacks of colorful textiles which they hold up to the face of every passing non-local in hopes of attracting a buyer. But other women in traditional blouses (called huipiles) are on their way to or from market, or just taking their kids to school.

Unlike any other town in the Chiapas highlands, San Cristóbal projects both international sophistication and traditional ethnic ways of life. On the Calle Real de Guadalupe there are restaurants offering Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and Thai food. On the side streets there are panaderías and a French bakery. Traditional and Western blend, if not seamlessly, then comfortably. There are two small supermarkets downtown. There is a large traditional market up the hill past the Santo Domingo Church, with a couple of hectares of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, clothing, live chickens and turkeys, fireworks, baskets and gourd bowls, nail clippers and machetes. Almost all of the sellers and perhaps half of the buyers are in traditional dress, and Teltzal and Tzotzil are the predominant languges of business. Directly across C

alle González  Blanco is a mode
rn supermarket, with wire carts and international brands and check out lines, and there the sellers dress western and again, half the shoppers are in traditional clothes.


At night, the cafés play jazz and rock and traditional music and boleros and karaoke.


Mexico has designated San Cristóbal a ciudad mágica, and with good reason.


David & Linda














It is the Marrakech of Mexico.