San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico

The Home Sweet Home of Mexican Social Conscience

Indigenous Business
Mayan sellers and buyers in the city's municipal market.
Emiliano Zapata
A sign from one of the Zapatista establishments in San Cristóbal pays homage to Emiliano Zapata, a historic revolutionary who became a Mexican idol.
Under the weight of Catholicism
Natives at one of the many churches in the magical pueblo.
Long live Zapata!
Sign of one of the Zapatista establishments in San Cristóbal.
plush robes
Indigenous in typical costume of San Juan Chamula, a neighboring town known for the autonomist fusion it created of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism.
Grease & Hats
Shoe shiners shine the shoes and boots of the inhabitants of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
people from cristobalense
Passersby walk along a street behind the cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
a mobile faith
Devotee carries a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe during times of pilgrimage in her honor.
a traveling storefront
Mayan saleswoman loaded with her colorful merchandise.
Family Sales
Mayan women craft sellers.
Group of Mayan women aware of the approach of the police that does not allow street vendors in San Cristobal.
"Here, the Pueblo orders"
A sign on a road in Chiapas announces the entry into Zapatista and rebel territory.
In the yellow heart of San Cristobal
Passersby from San Cristobal de Las Casas cross in front of the city's centuries-old cathedral.
Passersby walk along a street behind the cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Mayan, mestizo and Hispanic, Zapatista and tourist, country and cosmopolitan, San Cristobal has no hands to measure. In it, Mexican and expatriate backpacker visitors and political activists share a common ideological demand.

It is by far one of the main hallmarks of the town and there was no way to escape it. “Señores, don't you even want a pulseritas?"

Wherever we went, small squads of Mayan saleswomen followed us or appeared out of nowhere determined to earn a few more pesos.

"Miren, we have all colors!” and stretched out their short arms, overloaded with hammocks, ribbons, bags and so many other pieces of handicraft with bright patterns in the same style. Sometimes, even with infants in arms.

Mayan women craft sellers.

These short women, with long black hair braided like the fabrics they produce, golden skins and slightly almond-shaped eyes arrived very early, on foot or in the old folkloric buses that served the route between the most distant villages and the city.

They were Tzotzil or Tzeltal Mayans, the predominant sub-ethnic groups in those highlands (above 2000 meters in altitude) of the Mexican province of Chiapas, where together they have more than eight hundred thousand elements.

Entire families of natives give life to the municipal market where, in addition to handicrafts, they sell a little of everything, both to the haggling inhabitants of the region and to curious outsiders who search the stalls in search of souvenirs.

In addition, the favorite places of the Mayan street vendors are the always busy front of the Cathedral of San Cristobal and the Zócalo, in this case, a verdant park that they roam with an eye on the local police that prohibits them from selling outside the market.

Group of Mayan women aware of the approach of the police that does not allow street vendors in San Cristobal.

The Arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Persisting Indigenous Oppression

Half a millennium has passed since the Spanish invaders settled in these parts, after the conqueror Diego de Mazariegos defeated several Mayan subgroups and installed a fort that allowed it to resist counterattacks.

Even if not as disrespectful as then, we quickly find that the indigenous people are not properly loved by a large part of the white and even mestizo population of the city.

plush robes

Indigenous in typical costume of San Juan Chamula, a neighboring town known for the autonomist fusion it created of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism.

Although most speak Spanish as a second language, we rarely see them in dialogue with their residents.

people from cristobalense

Passersby walk along a street behind the cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

On the contrary, we even hear conversations like these where they continue to belittle them as human beings.

Similar to what happened in so many other parts of the Americas, with colonization, came pillage and exploitation.

In the Chiapas region, Spanish citizens amassed fortunes, mainly from the production of wheat. Cultivated land was all confiscated from the natives.

In return, they would be taxed, forced labor, taxed, and newly brought in from the Old World.

This oppression continued for centuries, despite the resistance it came to encounter.

San Cristobal resident walks in front of an arched doorway in the city.

Bartolomeu de Las Casas, a Strong Defender of the Mayan Indigenous People

Dominican monks arrived in the region in 1545 and made San Cristobal their operational base. The name of the city was extended in honor of one of them, Bartolomé de Las Casas, now appointed Bishop of Chiapas.

De Las Casas became the most notorious Spanish defender of the indigenous peoples of the colonial era. In recent times, a bishop named Samuel Ruiz has followed in Las Casas' footsteps.

It deserved the repudiation and hostility of the ruling and financial elite of Chiapas.

Ruiz eventually retired safe and sound in 1999 after many years in office. He died in 2011.

The social-political interventions that won him several awards from international institutions for peace, including the UNESCO, there were several.

Today, San Cristobal is part of this organization's Creative Cities Network. Ciudad Creativa de la Artesanía y Arte Popular was decreed.

a mobile faith

Devotee carries a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe during times of pilgrimage in her honor.

There were frequent mediations of the conflict between the Mexican Federal Government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

The Emergency of the Zapatista Army

Two decades of resentment and activism later, in 1994, the EZLN began operating from the Lacándon jungle, in the province's lowlands, the day the NAFTA Treaty (North American Free Trade Agreement) entered into force.

Even without the military interventions of the past, it preserves its structure.

A few days earlier, as we traveled up the luxuriant mountain along the winding road that links Tuxtla Gutiérrez – the present-day capital of Chiapas – to San Cristóbal, small tolls imposed on the vehicles followed with simple ropes stretched by villagers, sometimes children, of both sides of the road.

"This is local taxes!" Edgardo Coello explains to us, the driver and guide who had been showing those places to outsiders for a long time. The government's money does not reach them and they charge the fees they think are due to passersby.

Long live Zapata!

Sign of one of the Zapatista establishments in San Cristóbal.

I don't mind dropping a few pesos from time to time, but when I think they're too followed and opportunistic, then I just don't stop.

It never happened to me to take anyone with me, but I've been told stories of one or another rocambolesque incident with the porters, on account of not reacting in time!"

A few kilometers onwards and upwards, at night, the official authorities stop us with machine guns in tow. They investigate the jeep and passengers judiciously. "And why are you spending the night already?" wants to know one of the federal military who intrigues the late hour for the habits of local guides.

Edgardo foists some logistical explanation on him and gets permission for us to proceed. Shortly after, we reached the entrance to a poorly lit village.

With the reinforcement of the jeep's headlights, we detected a rudimentary and aged wooden sign that advertises: “It is usted in Zapatista territory in rebellion. Here el Pueblo commands and el gobierno obeys."

A sign on a road in Chiapas announces the entry into Zapatista and rebel territory.

And the Zapatismo that still reigns in Chiapas

In few places in Mexico this proclamation made as much sense as in Chiapas. In the southernmost state of the country, the Zapatistas proved to be almost entirely native.

This was not the case of the emblematic and holographic Subcomandante Marcos, who a little over a year ago published a letter in which he confessed to actually being Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano.

Inspired by the figure of the national-revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, Zapatism synthesized traditional Mayan practices with libertarian elements of socialism, anarchism and Marxism against neo-liberal and pro-globalization savagery.

Emiliano Zapata

A sign from one of the Zapatista establishments in San Cristóbal pays homage to Emiliano Zapata, a historic revolutionary who became a Mexican idol.

Armed with its ideology, machine guns and the density of the Lácandon jungle, the EZLN sought to return to the indigenous peoples control of their land and raw materials, with all their strength and despite the low chances of success.

Subcomandante Marcos – Insurgente Galeano, by the way – was shot down in May 2014 in an ambush carried out by paramilitaries. With his death, the EZLN gained indigenous leadership and reinforced the worldwide notoriety it had already achieved.

Conventional Tourism in San Cristóbal de Las Casas

In San Cristóbal, in particular, he relaunched the phenomenon of Zapaturism.

Next Magic Town – that's what the Mexicans call it – it's the stunning colonial architecture that starts to stand out.

We are impressed by the beauty of the city's cathedral, in particular its Baroque and XNUMXth-century façade, which the sun fades over the horizon and turns yellow throughout the afternoon, when dozens of residents use the cross in front of them as a meeting point.

Passersby from San Cristobal de Las Casas cross in front of the city's centuries-old cathedral.

Another equally baroque and even more elaborate church that enchants us is the Temple of São Domingo, all decorated in filigree of stucco.

We climb the countless steps that lead to the top of the hills of San Cristóbal and de Our Lady of Guadeloupe and we admire the colorful Hispanic houses on the ground floor and full of interior patios that make up the city.

A street full of shops that leads to the top of the Church of Nª Srª de Guadalupe.

We also explore the Na Bolom house-museum, which studies and supports the indigenous cultures of Chiapas.

Thousands of outsiders, like us, are fascinated by these most obvious attractions every year.

And the phenomenon of Zapaturism in Chiapas

However, after the years of heated conflict (1994-1997) that greatly hampered the arrival of visitors, today, the old capital of the province attracts a good number of Zapatismo supporters and international activists.

They settle in cheap inns to debate and conspire in bars, restaurants and craft centers or combinations of all, baptized as “Revolution” and with other names like that.

These places are assumed now without fear. Ernesto Ledesma, psychologist and owner of the Tierra Adentro restaurant – one of the most emblematic – who works with two Zapatista cooperatives, the “Women by Dignity" and the "Calzado Factory 1 of January” explains that Zapatista tourists fall into two categories.

Grease & Hats

Shoe shiners shine the shoes and boots of the inhabitants of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

“Some are interested in taking pictures with Zapatistas and following their itinerary through renowned historical and natural attractions.

Or, wherever it may be, through Zapatour, the route that, in 2001, took the Zapatistas through twelve Mexican states to place the indigenous question at the center of the national political debate.

The others, we shouldn't even call them tourists. They share a real social and political interest. They are interested in learning and collaborating with the cause. San Cristóbal de Las Casas benefited greatly from the notoriety gained by Zapatismo.

Even more so with the proliferation of these two classes of visitors. Chiapas, has always been forgotten by the government.

Without really knowing how, the Deputy Commander Marcos it was the best public relations we could have had.”

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