An Indigenous cultural awakening radiates with intensity in San Cristóbal

In Ciudad Real de los Altos a scenario like few others has been created, in which creativity, art and literature flourish in cafes, galleries and bars where Tsotsil and Tseltal writers, plastic artists, filmmakers or academics gather

By: Hermann Bellinghausen, Envoy

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Photo: Darwin Cruz

To commemorate International Maternal Language Day (February 21) and in tribute to indigenous peoples, in 2022 Darwin Cruz made the oil painting Lajkña Ch’ol (left), a symbol of the campesino community that continues to work the land and resists changes in contemporary societies, the artist shared on his Instagram account.

The awakening, or rather, the indigenous awakenings that have been experienced in Mexico during recent decades created cultural scenarios of their own, but few like that of the arrogant Ciudad Real in the Highlands of Chiapas. Outside the national spotlight, the cultural activity of authors, collectives and promoters may go unnoticed, but here it is breathed intensely.

In cafes, restaurants, galleries and bars writers, plastic artists, filmmakers or academics gather, of Tsotsil and Tseltal origin, mainly. It is not irrelevant. San Cristobal de Las Casas used to be one of the most openly racist places in the country. Disdain for the Indians was inherent in the dominant population, kaxclán or “white.” Maya women and men were invisible, poor, cannon fodder. They had to give the sidewalk to the coletos. They were worth “less than a chicken,” according to the finqueros (estate owners).

In a little more than 30 years that changed radically. Not that the discrimination has dissipated, but it is now shameful and quiet. What’s indigenous, and feminine indigenous, are fashionable, if you will. No wonder. In itself, the tourist attraction of Ciudad Real was, despite everything, the indigenous crafts and the atmosphere of the campesinos and merchants who came from the mountain villages.

The Zapatista imprint was felt in the local Maya culture almost immediately at the end of the twentieth century, as a sequel to the uprising and political activism of the rebels. For the same reason, it also became a destination for thinkers, writers, filmmakers from all over the world, but that is not what is talked about here.

Today there is a young but rich bilingual literary corpus in Tseltal, Tsotsil, Chol and Zoque. It would be lengthy to list the poets and storytellers who have published and given readings in these years. Much poetry and stories, far from ethnographic folklore, are accompanied by the theoretical reflection of authors such as Mikel Ruiz, Delmar Penka or Xuno López Intzin. Translators and cultural promoters such as Xun Betan, the Chamula poet Enriqueta Lunez, the Chol poet Juana Peñate and the teacher Armando Sánchez are here. Book publishing is difficult and of restricted circulation, but incomparably more widespread than before.

Photography, painting, cinema and gastronomy

From the admirable traditional craftsmanship have emerged photographers such as Maruch Santiz, painters and plastic creators such as Juan Chawuk, Saúl Kak, Pet’ul Gómez, Antún K’ojtom, Darwin Cruz, Säsäknichim Martínez, to mention just a few.

In the modest yet lavish Zapatista autonomous stores one finds the eloquent naïve oil paintingsof the Zapatista Caracol of Morelia. Now there is a caracol in San Cristóbal: Jacinto Canek, a place of meeting and reflection for indigenous people from the region’s communities and the municipality of San Cristóbal itself.

Training and production support programs such as ProMedios, ImagenArte, Tragameluz, Sinestesia, Ambulante have left their mark and given rise to a new documentary film and a new photography. We have recent films, such as those of Xun Sero, María Sojob, Juan Javier Pérez and others that already parade through film libraries, festivals and platforms.

There are key antecedents such as the cooperative Sna jtzi’bajom (since 1982), the Taller Leñateros, the school for writers in the Los Amorosos bar in the 90s, the Chiapas Photography Project. Today we find important spaces, such as the Muy gallery, dedicated to promoting the creation, exhibition and promotion of Maya and Zoque artists, where one finds canvases, engravings, sculptures and installations of important aesthetic value.

A new Chiapas Maya cuisine flourishes in successful gallery restaurants such as Taniperla, where good pizzas and tasty stews are added to a jungle cuisine based on banana, Creole corn, flowers, chiles and leaves of the Lancandón. Even the debatable pox today has tourist stores, as well as coffee and honey from cooperatives and autonomous municipalities, which also promote cultural spaces.

Although in other parts of the country there is a similar indigenous cultural profusion, such as Oaxaca and Mexico City, in San Cristóbal it is more unexpected and visible. Although public institutions in the sector play some role, they are not as successful as independent indigenous enterprises, projects and cooperatives.

Nor is the scientific and cultural effect of the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the State Center for Indigenous Languages, Art and Literature, the Union of Mayan Writers-Zoques, the cultural collective Abriendo Caminos José Antonio Reyes Matamoros or Cideci-Universidad de la Tierra,  as well as public universities (Autonomous University of Chiapas, University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas, Intercultural). All with work frequently directed to resources, ethnology, linguistics and biology in indigenous territories, with a growing presence of students and researchers from indigenous peoples, almost always bilingual.

In the midst of a simultaneous social decomposition that affects the state’s communities, the product of corruption, paramilitarism, criminal violence, massive migration northward and aggressive urbanization, the now dangerous Jovel Valley also appears as a novel melting pot for the arts, research and dissemination of those who until recently were seen only as peasants, street vendors, artisans and beggars. The indigenous cultural change that San Cristóbal de Las Casas radiates is profound.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Monday, January 23, 2023, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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