After wandering through the Schools for Chiapas Mayan Food Forest incubator in Part I, and witnessing the resistance by the First Peoples of southern Mexico to powerful corporate and governmental forces intent on destroying their autonomy and culture in Part II, we conclude with a look back to a past marvelous and shameful and towards a future carved on the shell of a snail.
“The diet of the people here before the Spanish conquest was so much more than corn and beans,” explains Paco Vazquez, a coordinator with Prodmedios, a media company based in San Cristóbal that empowers local communities all over Mexico to tell their own stories using a wide variety of media. Raised on the outskirts of what was once the Aztec capital, Paco is a direct descendant of the Nahuatl water architects who constructed the floating gardens and aquaculture the Spanish marveled at and then destroyed. Five centuries have transformed a city once laced by clear running canals into a diesel-choked metropolis; so Paco knows something about lost knowledge.
“Mayan astronomers calculated the Big Bang, it’s their biggest number. They used base 20; so much the Spanish could have learned from. The Mayans also had knowledge of sustainability. The system of encomienda destroyed the food forests. Limited to one finca, the people had no time or energy left to even get to the forest. People here were impoverished by the colonial system, they were not poor before.”
Whether it was enslavement and forced conversion under the Spanish and their Mexican successors, or mid-twentieth century assimilationist development programs aimed at disappearing indigenous peoples into some version of the national culture, great material poverty has always been accompanied by efforts to degrade or destroy indigenous sources of knowledge and self-worth.
“People,” sighs Armando “have forgotten their own riches”.
History is littered with the intentional destruction of human knowledge: from the burning, actually burnings, of Alexandria’s Libraries to the Islamic State’s destruction of 700 year old manuscripts in Timbuktu; from the ritualized immolations of the Talmud in the streets of medieval Paris to the incendiary shells launched by Serb Nationalist artillery that burned the Sarajevo Library from the inside out. Prominent on this sorry list is the Inquisition’s burning of thousands of Mayan codices, including very public bonfires lit by the archbishop himself. If the seven surviving plays from Sophocles remind us of the 116 we don’t have, the four Mayan codices that escaped the flames only make us wonder at the knowledge — astronomical, mathematical, social, and yes, botanical — we’ll never have again.
Mayan peoples laying claim to their own cultures, languages, and streams of knowledge. The outsider trying to get a sense of how revolutionary this is for Chiapas must first come to grips with how long the Ladinos (as the lighter skinned, non-indigenous speakers of Spanish are traditionally called in Chiapas) thought of and therefore treated the state’s Mayan majority as sub-human.
Chiapas poet, novelist, and feminist Rosario Castellanos captured this attitude in her terrifying and timeless The Book of Lamentations. Assigned to San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil village near San Cristóbal, Father Manuel is looking at the sacristan, a man who took care of the little church after the former priest died. The caretaker speaks a language the priest does not understand and has a worldview the padre cannot begin to fathom:
“Every clumsy move Xaw made irritated him. Brute of an Indian, he repeated to himself, Indian beast, miserable Indian. And to think that there’s someone who wants to consider you a person!”
Images from the Chiapas of her 1930’s childhood that Castellanos never forgot: Tzotzil men with chairs tied to their backs, carrying Ladinos–children and full grown adults–through the streets of San Cristóbal. Sometimes the whites would ride them for days to country estates in the mountains, a mode of transportation that continued for at least another generation.
“I’m a Mestizo but I also had to get off the sidewalk,” adds Armando. “Right through the 1970s, the sidewalks were for the rich.”
“How could you tell who was rich?”
“The clothes, and the lighter skin.”
Like many Chiapas natives, Armando’s own life has been framed by the interplay of the natural world with the world of machines, and the call of the land versus opportunities in distant cities. Now 59 years old, he grew up in a house filled with the sounds of weaving. As a little boy Armando would help his grandparents with their 15 looms and wooden vats of dye. He remembers how women adorned their ankle length black skirts with different colored stripes that identified their village. For one group his grandparents would dye and sew on a thick sky blue stripe circling the skirt bottom, while another village had a thinner dark blue one.
Armando’s first love was plants, the family field was only half a kilometer away, but early on he found he had a way with machines. When he was still small Armando put together a little four-wheeled wagon on which he piled the wet ash that was used as an ingredient in the dye making process and then spread on the family field for fertilizer. His carreta was a big improvement over schlepping two heavy bags filled with the sodden stuff tied to either end of a pole balanced on his shoulders and neck!
As a young man, Armando went to Mexico City where he trained as a G.M. mechanic, later returning home to Chiapas to teach the trade to young people. (Other sources add that, like the country doctors of old, Armando has brought numerous vehicles back from the brink of death all across Zapatista country).
Two years ago Armand decided to devote himself full time to the food forest. “I rejected my second love,, he says with an easy laugh.
He doesn’t seem to regret it. You hear his love for the land in his enthusiasm for the plants around him, you see it in the way his hands hold and sift the soil, how he stops in mid-sentence to track a winged formation.
Caracol is Spanish for snail. The Zapatistas chose the animal as the name for their autonomous zones because, in the words of Armando, “The snail is slow but steady.” The snail stands for community as well as persistence–when given the chance snails always prefer to be together. Dining on wet leaves, fungi, and even dirt snails are important links in the natural chain of decomposition. Nourishing both soil and predators with the calcium in the shells that survive them, these mollusks are usually pictured near the bottom of the food chain, far below the eagle or the serpent, two national totems of the U.S. and Mexico.
Like plants, snails live both on the earth and in it. The shell they carry is carved with the golden ratio, the spiral that shapes sunflowers, hurricanes, a curling wave, and our galaxy. Young corn leaves and human fingerprints also bear the same spiral architecture. Almost like the snails are slow moving billboards advertising in a language of cosmic geometry we’re too “developed” to understand.
The Zapatistas have turned away from armed struggle to the harder, slower, but more enduring effort to build a more equitable society, beginning always by examining themselves and their own attitudes. Unlike so many past revolutionary struggles the methods match the goals, in fact, they’re inseparable.
Linger too long in our 24/7 media powered funhouse of ego, exhibitionism, and conspicuous cruelty and it becomes hard to remember, let alone hear, messages of dignity and perseverance. But step outside into the gloaming and feel them underfoot, hear them carried on the breeze. We could do worse than listen.
[Updated 2108-07-18] Just after this reporter left Chiapas, Armando, who has done so much to help get the food forest program off the ground, suffered a massive stroke. Readers wishing to help can go to a GoFundMe page or this Facebook page.