Soup is Good
December 2, 2000
"Soup is inherently good," says George, "and helicopters are inherently bad." This is the type of profound political conclusion with which I propose to end this book about Mexico. In Chiapas one week before the presidential inauguration George came down with a virulent bronchial infection which he shared with me. We observed the end of the PRI era and the presidential inauguration day of Vicente Fox Quisada with elaborate hope and snuffling.
As foreigners we are unable to sort out the players and games of this triumphal season; we read biographies, histories and credentials, and hope. Even the resident pundits are unwilling to guess what will happen. Expectations run high among some, bitter among others. Two of our acquaintances seem enthusiastic: one who is involved with education at the federal level, José Manuel Pintada deWit, whose cousin is a notorious PRI operator and incidentally an ass-hole, as José informed us; the other, Mariclaire Acosta, whom we last saw in the United States trying to drum up support for Global Exchange and the Human Rights organization in Mexico, DF. Then, she was gaunt and nervous, under threat and pressure. Today she sat up on the stage while Vicente Fox's cabinet promised to do right by the nation. She looked solemn and fuller of face. Her hair on the television screen looked darker and better coifed. The mere fact that she accepted a post says much.
On the other side, we have those who hold Fox in low esteem, seeing him as yet another neoliberal who will bring poverty among the masses to new extremes while the rich flourish. In this camp, incidentally, is Subcomandante Marcos, who excoriates the now ex-president Zedillo not only for "the nightmare" of six years of low intensity warfare and paramilitary crimes, but also as a neoliberal. Marcos sees Fox's proposals as offending indigenous people with offers of television and western goods in exchange for control over their lives and land. Offensive it is, since, like offering Nintendo to cloistered nuns, it completely misses the character of indigenous life. If constitutional changes regarding indigenous rights are passed, that will be good.
And a third view: I watched the actual inauguration of Fox on a tiny black and white television set in the rear of a convenience store in Oaxaca. Standing against the moldy cement wall in the dim light we saw Fox, the Latin-American Presidents including Castro, other foreign dignitaries, and even Madeleine Albright, looking pensively as if she understood Spanish (Maybe she had a translation plug in her ear?). Some few kids drifted in and bought cokes. Then one man watching beside me asked, "Who is Fox?" The storekeeper pointed him out.
Our informants in Chiapas last week ventured all sorts of educated guesses for the future, admitting they are guesses. Andres Aubrey mounted in the museum of the church of San Nicolas an exhibition which is a handsome tribute to the work of retired bishop Samuel Ruiz, whose sympathetic successor was re-assigned to a distant parish. The message from Aubrey, a Zaptista sympathizer, to Arizmendez, the new bishop, is clear. It says: Here is where our hearts are. Ignore it to the peril of the church's influence.
Aubrey has served as an historian in San Cristóbal for thirty years. We met him in the lobby of the church museum, an old man muffled in a wool coat, seated at a table filled with guide booklets. Tourists circulated among the exhibits. Few addressed him. Here in Chiapas his paper mail is intercepted. He gave up his e-mail altogether. He's waiting. Like others we spoke to, he's hopeful. His articles in La Jornada are well-informed - who are the bad guys, who are the good guys.
Aubrey didn't foretell what came to pass one week later: that Fox made a strong overture in Chiapas by withdrawing the military to barracks, if not out of the state. That the Zapatistas broke their long silence (held since August of 1999) and accepted his gestures of good intention. That Marcos and the Zapatista commanders will travel to Mexico City in February to address the legislature, regarding legislative consideration of the San Andrés Accords.
We went to see Aubrey particularly because of our interest in his article on Los Chorros, the town where a supposed attempt by the outgoing Zedillo government to enter and arrest the town's paramilitaries was foiled by the local paramilitary members who had been tipped off and were waiting. The stand-off, in which the Los Chorros residents confronted the soldiers and blocked the road, was described by many newspapers as an attempt by the government to once more beat up on indigenous people. But these indigenous people are the ones whom the PRI bought, to murder and harass the Zapatistas. They are the very ones who today piously ask, with the army withdrawn, who will defend us against the rebels?
Another informant in Chiapas told us that if the army were out, the Zapatistas are capable of working out a living arrangement with their indigenous PRI neighbors, whose supply of money and arms would dry up. Those whom Pablo Salazar has suggested could be given sheep in exchange for guns, a rural buy-back. How the massacres can be forgiven ‒ I think they can not be. But perhaps put aside.
One week before the inauguration of the new president we drove up to the village of Polhó in the Mexico Solidarity truck. We were supposedly providing foreign witness, so that no further bad things would happen in this place of bad things, during the tense interim weeks before the inaugurations of Fox as president and Salazar as governor, which occurs December 8.
Polhó was once a small community of about 950 people; it is now ten times that in population: refugees from various attacks and massacres have been taken in. The community sits in a dip behind the road; we are in Los Altos, the high country. On the road where we wait for authorization to enter, the gate to the community is marked by a tiny church and a stone bench. On the bench perch three old men, each playing his hand-made wood musical instrument: a mini-guitar, a tiny violin with horsehair strings, a harp with wire strings. The old men hold their instruments on their laps above knees dark brown like burned walnuts. They play a traditional Tzotzil melody, one we hear repeated later with words celebrating sagas of Zapatista resistance. The musical instruments are traditional Chamula handcrafts. These men were cast out, burned out, chased out: the survivors of the 1998 Acteal massacre live here along with survivors of a paramilitary attack in Chenalho, the municipality in which Polhó is located. The ancients on the bench wear traditional belted white tunic over shorts, hand-made huaraches on their feet. Their song welcomes us. Two of the three speak no Spanish, or maybe none do, or maybe my Spanish is unintelligible. At the end of a tune I applaud and call "Otra! Otra!" and am duly rewarded by one grinning old man with what I believe is the same tune. No matter.
Indeed, the best part of the arrival is that we traveled by day, and although we were stopped twice, we were not really harassed. We played the dumb tourist game which nobody believes; our passports were recorded and photos taken; we were permitted to pass.
Behind the old men stands a cement pavilion where women sit and rest in the shade. The women smile too. With our letter of credential from the contact organization of Enlace Civil in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, we pass through the wire and wood gate. The guards have no weapons. The possibility of attack seems to be omnipresent, only days from the installations of Fox and Salazar. Nobody knows what will happen. The truck lurches down the dirt road into the ravine which encompasses Polhó, a "community in resistance".
The Authority who permitted our entry tells us we can sleep the night on the cement floor of one of the schoolrooms. They give us the best hospitality they can. We brought bread and peanut butter, water and canned tuna, tangerines and bananas to feed our group of ten. The 950 original campesinos cannot feed 9,500. Supplies are brought in as money permits, money donated mostly by foreigners.
Polhó is delimited in size by the road, the military encampment, and the neighboring PRI and paramilitary community. The terrain is vertical, beautiful, lodged within mountains where clouds like cotton fray on their summits.
We are formally greeted in a shack built on stilts over space, by the compact wiry man we are told is the EZLN contact here, along with the civil authority of Polhó who speaks no Spanish. The EZLN man has not left this community in two years. His face when he smiles is lively and intelligent, his expression engaging. He's handsome, really. When he pauses in his speech, his face in repose is the saddest I’ve ever seen, a bruise of sorrow surrounds his eyes.
Today, with the announcement that the EZLN leaders will travel to Mexico, I found myself wondering if Marcos, who, except for brief incursions into San Cristóbal, apparently has not left the jungle of Chiapas for fifteen years, perhaps has family still living. Who imagines a hero, a legend, with a mother? But looking at the man in Polhó I thought, if he had a mother, a wife, children, they’re all dead. That's the kind of face he has.
We unloaded our gear into the schoolroom, where soon a young man, one of the promotores, appeared with a worried expression. Class begins at 8:00 A.M. tomorrow - but it's okay, we will be out of his space by then. Cement floor, broken window panes, a chalkboard. One light bulb, the usual moldy peeling paint. Rough-hewn wooden desk-and-bench combinations. A few bedraggled books on a corner shelf. The teacher is perhaps eighteen or twenty, one of the bilingual community members who were trained by Mexico professionals to take up the task of education in the communities which accept no government assistance. He's small and thin. They’re all small and thin. He shows me his exercise of Spanish synonyms. I add the English words.
The dirt paths of Polhó are lined with shacks of wood boards and tin roofs, built along the ridges, perching on wood or cement stilts over ravines. It looks like a nasty wind would take it all down, but it stands. Mud in the two dirt roads dries in the hot sun. Tiny stores - the same wood shacks‒ line the mud trail, supplied with sodas, embroidery thread, some canned foods. As in most of Mexico we visited, the idea of competition doesn't take hold. Everybody equally fails to gain enough to call it "profit": the life style is communal. These sheds with shelves are supplied by the one store original to Polhó, a cement structure fronting the high road we arrived on, the path of ever-present military vehicles.
The original Polhó residents, who donated their land to take in refugees, grow and sell coffee as their cash crop, so they can buy supplies. In a manner of speaking. It's very poor. Who actually leaves and returns is a mystery not explained to me; my guess is it's the original store owner who has some sort of agreement with the military to come and go, or perhaps everything is brought out to the community‒ I imagine an endless round of Coca-Cola trucks.
In a tour of the entire community, away from the dirt roads, we hiked the trails up and down. In some places the women were drying coffee beans spread on plastic sheeting on the ground. We were treated to cuts of sugar cane to chew. Many of the women called out "Buenos días", their only words of Spanish. The compactness of a community expanded to accept an extra 9,000 people is extraordinary - we know that within the various shacks live eight or ten people. A few small garden plots, bananas, a corn field‒ not enough food. A few of the elders with baked brown skin wear the traditional tunic and shorts, the women wear the traditional embroidered blouses, some the traditional wool wrap-around skirts. The children wear rags. Nobody wears underwear, a luxury item. Not everyone wears shoes, neither plastic jellies nor rubber boots. Few men have leather boots.
The men wear their hair cropped, the women long braids. Not many of the common-to-Mexico brightly colored ribbons are interwoven with bows like butterflies perched on their hair. Not in this place.
Well, what do they have - fertile land, not enough to feed so many. They are clearing a hillside across the outer road, an act of faith. They plan for coffee shaded by oranges and mangos. We can see high above us men wielding their machetes, working in a line along the slope to lay out the parcel. They bend into the hill to go up. They jog getting down.
Children with swollen bellies. Children racing playing laughing. Children giggling at the sight of strangers, children peeking through windows. Children awaiting the gift of an inch of banana, sliced by the foreign observer stationed here. There's a cement clinic, plus a trailer labeled Cruz Roja Mexicana. Since the community accepts no government assistance, the Red Cross unit bears also a European insignia. Except for the sale in San Cristóbal of embroidered blouses and purses, money comes from foreign donations. So some of us buy purses.
At night we push aside the classroom benches and put down our sleeping bags. All night the community loudspeakers blare music from a few scratched records. This noise lets outsiders know the community is alert and awake against attack. At least our group is awake! It's cold in the mountains and the bathroom area is far away. I scrunch under my bag until 5:00 when dawn arrives, and the music stops.
It's another day. The broadcast system once again plays, this time a speaker manually held aloft by one man while another holds a microphone. The message is in Tzotzil. Eventually children start to arrive for their classes. We descend to the bathroom and basketball yards to watch the teachers lead the five year olds onto the empty cement court to march in line. The words ring out in Spanish and Tzotzil: "Let's go!" "Stop!" "Hands up!" (all hands go up in mimic of the teacher) "Hands down!" Down go the little hands. "A circle" (some little guys have to be captured) "Sit"! Tap with sticks: "one two three," they count. Bilingual education is the rule.
When the class returns to its room - maybe twenty-five kids in level one, of the six levels - the teachers bring buckets to the outside faucets near the bathrooms. They mix into the water corn meal and milk powder. We've been told that the traditional corn meal paste we see mixed in water out in the communities as a food staple contains some enzyme which protects against bacteria. Nevertheless diarrhea is the number one health threat to children, followed by the parasites whose infestations are revealed in the swollen bellies.
Each child receives a drink. School continues. Out on the basketball cement two little boys ignore education. Basketball is the chief recreation and outlet for older youths who cannot go anywhere. In this lush prison basin there is electricity but no phone service. Some few television sets in the shops receive one station in wavy lines. Some teenagers still speak no Spanish, perhaps learned it and forgot. Their mothers may speak only Tzotzil. The fathers very likely speak Spanish; but the community leader relied on the EZLN leader to translate.
We bumped our way back to San Cristobal and then the group set off the next day without us to visit one more community, Morelia, where George and I have been. George was too ill to go off for another night's encampment. But perhaps these jaunts will no longer be necessary. Maybe the shooting has stopped. My plan is to pass my sleeping bag along to my grandson. That's when you know there's peace.
In our Oaxaca apartment the resident lizard had taken a stance between the drape and wall; only his shadow is visible from within the room. Omens and portents ‒, Governor Murat of Oaxaca has signed an amnesty for the Oaxaca guerrillas. Another omen. Chicken entrails boiled into soup; we've been ill and we need soup.