By Nat Krieger
Editor’s Note: SDFP Contributor Nat Krieger is traveling in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.
No matter where you travel in the world, the people who stand guard at borders nearly all share the look. Their uniforms vary, dark blue or green are especially popular, but they usually have the look. Maybe they learn the look in border guard training, or maybe they get the job because they already have it. Along with the look — hard, distant, with generous or soupçon annoyance — comes the voice, hard, distant, with generous or….
You get the idea. If you use our local border crossings you probably already know about the look, and the voice.
About an hour outside of San Cristóbal, the charming colonial city in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, there’s also a border. It’s a place where the authority and presence of the Mexican state ends and that of the Oventic Autonomous Zapatista Zone begins. Two guards stand at the entrance. The first thing you notice is that the lower half of their faces are covered by black bandanas. You should be alarmed, this isn’t normal border guard attire, but the voices that come from under the bandanas are soft, almost gentle.
You struggle to understand, partly because you’re disoriented, and also because Spanish isn’t the guard’s first language. They use those same soft inflections to speak to each other in Tzotzil, a descendent of Mayan. Then you notice their worn sneakers, and their thin plastic ponchos the rain filled wind keeps whipping around them.
Your shock deepens: not only are they not wearing uniforms, their dark brown eyes, somehow accented by the bandana below, show no hostility—just careful, patient questioning. The Zapatistas call their autonomous communities caracoles, after the snail whose patience and endurance they seek to emulate. Lento pero firme, which can be translated as “slow but sure,” is a slogan you’ll hear often in Zapatista discourse. You realize you’re seeing this approach in action, and you begin to think that maybe the Zapatistas really mean it when they speak of leading from behind.
Their method of decision making: “We’re observing,” a Zapatista once told me, “informing ourselves.”
That’s exactly what these two guards are doing now. Not that these small, thin men are pushovers. You’re not allowed to take their pictures and their questions are every bit as thorough, more thorough, than you’ll encounter at many borders: Your full name, your city, your job, your reason for coming, how long you plan to stay. They inscribe your answers slowly, carefully, in an actual book, by hand.
Then one of them leaves with the book to check with someone else and you wait. You wait with the other guard under the wind-lashed wooden lean-to. You should feel annoyed but you don’t, and you know why: throughout the entire process, right down to letting you share their shelter, these men have treated you like a human being, a fellow human being — that ancient golden rule of decency that must get drilled or maybe beaten out of so many other border guards you’ve encountered.
You wait to find out if they’ll let you in, but even though the fog, rain and downward sloping hill obscures your view of the caracole, you’ve already glimpsed a land living by rules different from any you’ve known.
Read more about Nat Krieger’s travels in Mexico: