In the Footsteps of Zapatistas in Chiapas

by Linea Jantz

A documentary maker ventures into the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico where she meets local freedom fighters and learns the story of women entrepreneurs from the Mayan community.

We throttled up a donkey trail turned mountain road, unwilling participants in a high-stakes game of chicken with other colectivos and the odd motorcycle. Our driver’s patron saint swung haphazardly from the rearview mirror, unfazed–not so his pale, wide-eyed passengers. Perhaps it was with a sense of humor that when we screeched from the jungle with a flourish, the driver first brought us to Church.

La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista glowed white, hub of a starburst rainbow of prayer flags fluttering like the pulse of the wooden door pressed beneath my palms. The massive door was warm with sunshine, thrumming with ancient energy. Bracing my feet, I pushed the heavy door open. Inside the light muted, dimmed. 

Circles of the faithful seated on the ground ignored the tourists’ awkward milling, our reverent lurking; pale hands guiltily caressing cameras we had been forbidden to use. Embarrassing as it was, tourists had tried to take unauthorized photos before. If they were lucky, they would only be fined or have their camera broken. If they were unlucky, they could spend a day in jail.

The air weighed heavy in our lungs. It smelled of highland forest, incense, and flame. A fragrant carpet of pine boughs hushed the echo of our feet. Hundreds of slender candles flickered from cooling pools of wax on the floor, punctuated by the occasional splatter of dried blood from a sacrificed chicken. A healer spit moonshine over a candle and breathed a great gout of flame into the air. 

In this church, the saints had no hands and the icons bore mirrors. You confessed your sins to the only judge to whom you could not lie–your reflection. 

As no one said when we arrived: Welcome.

Image by Carlos Alcazar

Our team was in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, to film a video for an international organization interested in investing micro-loans in female-led local groups that were doing important work in their community (as opposed to coming in as outsiders with their own ideas of how to “help”). Many of the places we visited were strongholds of the Zapatistas; freedom fighters who had battled the Mexican government for increased respect for local indigenous peoples and eventually political autonomy. We visited their headquarters soon after we arrived and received permission from the leading council to do our work.

As our trip continued, we interviewed female founders of health clinics, women from weaving collectives, Mayan women leveraging their ancestors’ knowledge of herbs and healing to save lives–and create great beauty products– and women in the hospitality industry teaching each other to read and write Spanish, changing power dynamics in both their families and communities. It was an inspiring trip.

On this particular summer day, we were mainly sightseeing, visiting a Zapatista barrio near a beautiful river in the jungle. Most of the group changed into bathing suits and swam with local children in the vibrant blue waters, jumping from overhanging branches into serene natural pools in the rock. 

This looked lovely, of course, but I was curious to explore the area more. Our contact agreed to ask the elders if it was okay for me to hike into the jungle. I waited at the side of the sparkling waters.

When our contact returned, she had three men in tow. Some of the elders had agreed to accompany me to see more of the area. (I say “elder” as a term of respect; they were maybe in their forties.) 

As the men were Mayan, all four of us spoke Spanish as our second language. Our contact rejoined the group and I followed the elders downstream along a narrow trail, excited for an adventure.

We had walked maybe one or two hundred meters when the men stopped and gestured toward a bench overlooking the river. “Here you go,” one said, “Now you can sit and enjoy the river.”

They thought I just didn’t want to swim?

I joked with them, laughing. “I didn’t fly all this way to sit on a bench! I would like to see the jungle, por favor.”

The men spoke among themselves in their language. Then the most proficient in Spanish turned to me again. 

“How do you feel about risk?” he asked carefully.

I could feel that I was about to be tested. “I am not afraid of risk,” I said. Then qualified, “I mean, as long as it is the normal kind of risk and not ‘getting shot at and dying’ type of risk.”

They laughed, then talked more among themselves. Finally they nodded and motioned for me to follow them farther down the river.

Image by Davichitoo

We stopped at the top of a crashing waterfall that stretched at least 50 meters to the opposite bank. The water foamed and roared on the boulders below before eventually resuming its calm azure winding through the dense greenery.

“Can you walk across this?” the spokesman asked, with a bit of a laughing glint in his eyes. “There is a narrow–” he searched for the word, “–shelf along the edge under the water. If you stay on this it will not be too deep. The water will be…strong.” 

It was clear that the elders expected me to demur and agree to go back to the bench or the swimming hole.

“I can do it,” I said, with more confidence than I was feeling. “But not in these,” I added, motioning to my flip flops. I slipped out of my sandals, bare feet humming at contact with the rich loam on the bank.

The men waited quietly as I looped my fingers through the bands of my dollar store flip flops and dipped my first step into the pleasantly cold water. The current immediately yanked me toward the edge. The slippery rock undulated in small bumps and ridges. The shelf was a bit less than a foot wide, so I chose my footing carefully. I kept my pace steady, bracing against the capricious shoves of the current.

I paused mid-way to look down at the gorgeous view of the river winding through the rainforest. The height of the waterfall was a bit intimidating, so I dragged my eyes back to the water roiling over my narrow “shelf” and kept walking.

When I finally stepped onto the opposite bank and looked back at the elders, as though this was a run of the mill occurrence for me, the men cheered in congratulations. In a line, they crossed along the shelf as well and began chatting in a friendly manner. It appeared I had passed.

“Well, then,” said the spokesman, smiling, “If you can do that, you can handle whatever else we will find. Let’s go explore the jungle.”

The spokesman’s name was Manuel. The other two were Juan and Jacinto. *Note: as I cannot ask their permission, these are not their real names– but this is how we will call them.

My guides pointed out different plants and insects, explaining their uses. We traded Mayan names for English words. For example, when we came to the foot of another waterfall, Manuel asked me how it was called in English.

“Waterfall,” I told them. I mimed the motion of water with my hand, “Water–agua.” Then I dropped my hand quickly toward the ground, “Fall–caer.” 

I mimed the motions again. “Water–fall!”

They were delighted. They repeated the new word to themselves over and over with the hand gestures, “Water–FALL!”

“Water–FALL!”

The elders were so pleased every time I used one of the words they taught me in conversation. We joked and teased each other back and forth in Spanish. 

The undergrowth was dense. Sometimes Jacinto had to slash a way through with an intimidating machete. My flip flops rubbed between my toes, but I was having the time of my life. 

Eventually we reached a narrow section of the river and sloshed through a less exciting crossing than the first. Here we reunited with the narrow trail and followed it back up the river toward where my group was swimming.

“Do you want to take a picture of the river?” Manuel asked, “To show your friends back home how beautiful it was?”

The men watched me for my answer. 

I had not taken a photo the entire time out of respect. Now that I had permission, standing by the azure waters sparkling in the sun after a wonderful adventure in the rainforest with my Zapatista guides, I hesitated.

“I want to soak this all in through my eyes, instead of my camera,” I said finally, “so I can hold it in my memory forever, not just in a photo.”

The men exchanged glances. Eventually, they nodded. 

To this day, I’m still not sure if that was another test.

Over a decade later, the beauty of all I saw that day still haunts my memory; alive, close, in vibrant colors. Picture or no, the jungle will not let me forget.

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