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A Portland medic writes from Chiapas

Disclaimer: I'm not a journalist. I heard this stuff from what seemed like reliable sources, but if you want fact-checking, well.... I'd welcome your help.

You can also read it at tattooheart.blogspot.com
Saludos to all my friends scattered to the four directions,

I'm posting this from the Centro de Medios Independientes Chiapas, or Chiapas Indymedia. The intrepid girl reporter at the next terminal is Mayan and she's wearing a skirt of matted black wool that make it look like her whole lower body has a coat of thick black fur. Que viva Indymedia!

I don't know where to start. Did you ever get so full of strong stories that you could barely write? Or conversely, so full that you had to write feverishly to ensure that you would remember everything that's important, that it wouldn't vanish into the mists surrounding the mountains of the southeast? I've spent the last week alternating between those two extremes.

This looked to be an exciting and potentially scary time to go to Chiapas. A few days after I decided to come here, the Zapatistas issued a communique that they were closing all their autonomous government sites, workshops, community centers, schools, andcafes, that they were calling a "red alert" and all the leaders of the movement would move to remote locations in the mountains to discuss the future of zapatismo. The only thing that would remain open, serendipitously enough, was the Zap hospital I had visited last year and was hoping to return to this year.

The declaration of the red alert provoked a lot of debate and comment on the american websites where I read it. Were the communities under renewed menace by the government or paramilitaries? Was there going to be renewed open military conflict instead of what is euphemistically termed "low intensity warfare"? The coincidental timing of my visit ensured I was going to find out.

I. La Entrada

I went to Oaxaca for a few days on the way to San Cristobal, to kick back in my flip-flops and be a tourist. Oaxaca was gearing up for the Guelaguetza, its biggest festival of the year. Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word meaning to participate and cooperate at the same time. It's a gift freely given that demands only reciprocity in return. It's a massive shindig in which representatives of all the indigenous groups come into the city from the hinterlands and share their arts and dances and harvests. Now, however, it's a big tourism draw to exotic Oaxaca and people pay to get the good seats. I pondered staying in Oaxaca for a little longer to see it but to go to such a thing as a paying spectator with nothing to contribute didn't seem right.

Being an herbalist and thus having my own peculiar touristic priorities, I visited the botanical garden of Oaxaca. They had an extensive library and I sat reading about Mexican medicinal plants for a long time, learning such things as that the Nahuatl name for mugwort means "water of the goddess of salt" and that if you mix prickly poppy latex with the milk of a woman who's recently given birth to a girl you will get a topical remedy for eye inflammation. I also had the luck to come across the book Zapotec Science by Alberto Gonzalez and learned a little more about local culture that way. The Zapotecs are a group with very advanced techniques of traditional agriculture, a field that fascinates me. I particularly liked this quote: "For Zapotecs, the food quality of crops is often more important than the quantity harvested. This means that, for many, there is a threshold below which crops become unfit for human consumption. This is frequently articulated in conversation and in their maxims: 'Somos humildes pero delicados' (We are humble (poor) but delicate (picky), I was told by a number of informants. Others noted, 'Even though we only have our little beans, they are legitimate, and we can eat them with pleasure because we know they are clean.' In practical terms, this is manifested by a distinct preference for locally grown maize, beans, sugarcane products, coffee, poultry, beef and other foods over imported items. 'Knowing where it comes from' is critical in assessing foods, and many people purchase imported maize and beans only in cases of extreme privation. This implicitly forms part of a broader civilizational scheme opposed to urban models; indeed, viewed from the countryside, urban folk appear animal-like, since they eat anything, at any hour, without knowing whether it has been irrigated with sewage or drenched in pesticides - an unexpected situation in which city dwellers are classified as 'brutes' or 'barbarians.'"

The same source gave me a little more background on the reason all the foreigners were in Oaxaca this week. "Guelaguetza" is one indigenous word for the Oaxacan custom of "la gozona". I'll translate that in my shaky Spanish as "the big enjoyment." The concept of reciprocity is the root of la gozona, where you help your relatives, your neighbors, friends, or villages nearby with agricultural work, cooking, music, and celebrations. The author in fact learned about Zapotec agriculture and la gozona by working in the field with the campesinos and playing trumpet in local bands. The concept has been replaced by labor contracts and food purchases in industrialized areas. Reciprocity is replaced by cash transaction. The anthros say that we shouldn't romanticize la gozona, that it's a survival arrangement that evolved in a situation of intense scarcity. But no anthropologist has yet managed to explain the strange anti-gozona that pervades first world society, where in a situation of unimaginable abundance, people get more and more stingy, selfish, and greedy, where half the population is on antidepressants and most people are just getting more and more afraid and mistrustful of everyone and everything. The anthros look at la gozona puzzledly from the perspective of a society where things aren't usually done this way, but maybe it's just how more sensible people live.

My roommates in the tourist hostel were some French backpackers just beginning their voyage across Mexico and Central America. After this we're going to San Cristobal, they told me, then Guatemala, then we're taking a direct bus across El Salvador and Nicaragua straight to Costa Rica. You're missing out, I said, Nicaragua is awesome, I lived there last year. Nicaragua is too dangerous, they said, because of the war. These people kill me. San Cristobal is in the middle of an occupied revolutionary territory, Guatemala is full of all the ex-members of army death squads who got amnesty and go around killing and raping with impunity, but Nicaragua? Well, there was a war! (Never mind that it was 15 years ago.) Whatever. I have days when art and celebration seem like an affront to the human and earthly condition, where it seems wrong that manmade beauty should exist at all in a time when the planet is hurtling toward destruction and people lose their homes and kids live on the street and play the accordion and sing Cielito Lindo for the coins of the paunchy tourists that stroll the ancient cobblestones and buy all the beautiful things that local people make to share with each other.

I finally got on the night bus for San Cristobal. It was hard to believe that twelve hours later I'd open my eyes and be in that city again. Many times when I am traveling, the idea starts to work its way into my consciousness that the place is going to disappear after I leave, that when I return there will only be clearcuts and stripmalls filled with multinational corporations (in short, that it will look very much like the place where I grew up in Texas, which appears to be the model for development throughout the known world). It has to do with the incredible velocity with which places of beauty are being destroyed on this planet. When I stepped out of the Cristobal Colon bus station and saw that San Cristobal de las Casas continues to exist, I wanted to fall down and kiss the colonial flagstones.

I barrel down the narrow sidewalks of Avenida Insurgentes lugging backpacks heavy with medical equipment, past the government hospital, the cathedral, the plaza de mariachis, the zocalo, the youth-hostel hawkers, the clumps of lost revo-tourists puzzling over their guidebooks, toward Calle Ejercito Nacional and the activist hostel where I plan to stay. San Cris has a dirt-cheap dorm reserved for Mexicans doing community service in the area. When there's space, they take in foreigners doing the same thing. It's called Juntos Trabajando para la Verdad (Working Together for the Truth). But it's full, and I'm tired, and I decide to crash at the place down the block.

Hostel dorms depress me mightily. I hate waking up amongst the brotherhood of international white people of the world on their cheap holidays. You can never tell where anyone is from till they open their mouths (except for the Canadians who all wear little flags), they're all stamped off the same assembly line and look alike. This morning the hostel is full of Spaniards who swap sour-stomach remedies, gossip about the red alert, and speculate about the location of the masked man of their dreams (some say he's in el D.F. all this year, one reports).

I arrive at the community center Syjac, the project of an american expatriate that serves Tlaxcala, a new neighborhood of San Cristobal that's mostly made up of folk who came late to city life. About 90,000 people were displaced after the pre-NAFTA abolishment of the ejido system. Then when war broke out here in 1994, many villages were polarized into Zapatista and non-Zapatista, and even more people were raped and expelled. A lot of them came here. Tlaxcala and the surrounding squatter colonias used to be the flood plain for San Cristobal. It's now paved and populated by people in difficult situations. Tlaxcala is neglected by the government and Syjac takes up a little bit of the slack with a daycare and education program for the mothers of the children, who are mostly indigenous women who never had access to education. Syjac is also a carpentry workshop that teaches classes and provides tools to create jobs in the community.

The city doles out water intermittently to Tlaxcala, mostly between 1 and 3 am in the morning, when people have to fill their water-catch tanks however they can. The exception, of course, is Tlaxcala's gleaming Coca-Cola plant. This beast gets water 24 hours a day, drinking about half San Cristobal's water to pump out Coke and bottled water for the masses, while discharging nobody-knows-what directly into the groundwater (remember, it's the floodplain). Another classic example of modern development - the bottled-water plant polluting the groundwater of its own community.

Tlaxcala is also home to a textile maquiladora which was inaugurated by President Fox and hailed as a great example. It's so efficient, my new friend tells me, that they get all their orders done in 7 months, so they can lay off the workers for the rest of the year. The workers are mostly single mothers displaced from the surrounding indigenous communities. Many were raped during the war and got pregnant, resulting in expulsion from their communities, leading them to come work in the city. This is the development model for Plan Puebla-Panama, the stalled free-trade agreement to make impoverished Southern Mexico and Central America into a super-maquiladora zone. The maquila pays about $100 a month. And believe me, things here are cheap, but not that cheap, especially if you're a single mom cut off from your support system and trying to survive in a society under attack from every side.

I tell the expatriate how frustrating it is to try to get real information about what is happening in Chiapas. All the books seem to be written by frustrated leftists from all over the world creaming themselves over romantic imagery of the masked revolutionary. There's precious little about what zapatismo really is, what concretely is being done here. The expatriate wants to rid me of my last remaining romantic illusions about zapatismo. He answers me by explaining the origins of romanticism. It was a reaction to the enlightenment, he says, and its key idea was that rationality has no place in the world. The origin of romantic love was something of a courtly game, something that took place outside of the business arrangement of marriage, he says. I, with the benefit of my crappy Texas public-school education, dimly remember something about Rousseau, a reaction to urbanization and scientific materialism, a desire for a return to nature. Or maybe I'm getting all these things confused.... In any case, I who am of course a hopeless romantic and only getting more so every day, find it a grim thought to imagine that what seem to be my deepest emotional sentiments are a socially-programmed result of cyclical struggles of the collective psyche of Western civilization.

I'm here to work alongside a Nebraskan dentist who's visiting to donate a little dental work for the community. She sets up in the daycare center and gets to work. I translate for her and give massages alongside on two sleeping bags spread on the floor. Sometimes the patients lie on a narrow wooden bench, sometimes they lean back in a chair and put their heads in her lap so she can get the right angle. Don't you get tired doing this? all the women ask me when I'm doing massage. Your hands are so warm. No, I say, and tell them my secret, how they taught me in massage school how to play instead of working. Their children tumble all around us on the floor, bloody teeth are jerked from ruined gums, and I give them a few moments of ease. The Nebraskan and I decide we could have a winning combination here - a little bit of pain, a little bit of pleasure. We ought to open a practice and offer combination massage-dental appointments, I say. People'd probably be a lot happier about going to the dentist.

Pau hana. We go relax with some dinner at the expatriate's home. This expatriate is made of powerful stuff. He used to do forensic photography on mass graves in Guatemala. To take breaks and earn a little cash, he'd alternate that with photographing orchids in bio-reserves in Central America. We joke about the tour guides we could each write. I could do the medical-tourism guide for Mexico and Central America, I say, while he could do the orchids-and-mass-graves one. He laughs that I speak Spanish like a Nicaraguan. He tells us innumerable crazy stories from his life. He was a medic in Vietnam, where he delivered a breech baby armed only with vaseline and a radio operator telling him how. He stuffed a guy's guts back into his stomach. He cauterized a hand stump. He photographed the revolution in Nicaragua. The Nebraskan has spent a little more time with him than I have, and she is so over it. He never got out of adolescence, she says. But stories of gutsy behavior during dark times are like mother's milk to me these days, and I encourage his war stories, drink them down. I wonder for the thousandth time if I'll be strong enough to do the things I need to do in this life. These stories give me strength. After many years of doing this work, he passed into a deep depression and couldn't get out of bed. He sought psychiatric help. The psychiatrist only told him, I wish I had the courage to do what you do. And thank god he didn't get the average american doc who would've told him he was nuts and got out the prescription pad. His healing came when he moved onto one of the collective farms of the Catholic Worker. In the end he converted. I slowly realize that's the key difference between him and me, that he believes in the missionary position of selfless service to the poor. I don't believe in that at all, in fact I think it's a trap that masks our other not-so-pretty motives for doing what we do, even though for some of us it can provide the oblivion we crave. Even more, it's an odd idea to me that there's some faceless mass of "poor" out there that are different somehow from "everyone else" when in reality, "the poor" encompass most of the human race. I believe more in working together to change screwed-up things in the world with the perspective that everyone is equal, even though it's hard and messy to put equality into practice and there are a thousand barriers in our way that we've all erected that encourage us to fall into the missionary position.

American shits are bigger, explains the expatriate, who's a carpenter/builder/plumber/mechanic/all-around useful guy to have around. American toilets have a four inch pipe, and there's always a plunger located next to them. Mexican toilets, as well as those of most of the rest of the world, have a three inch pipe. Is this official scientific confirmation that we're the biggest assholes in the world? I ponder as I clog the hostel toilet.

II. Altamirano

Graffiti on the wall in Tlaxcala:
Fuera EU de Afganistán (US out of Afghanistan).

Graffiti on the wall near my hostel:
Sexo Drogas Delincuencia.

The following day the expatriate and his next-door neighbor, a homeopathic doctor, take us on a visit to the hospital in Altamirano. This hospital is unique in the area. It's run by an order of nuns who've managed to navigate a difficult middle course and maintain the trust of the people. When you enter the town of Altamirano, two hours or so down a brand new road from San Cris, you pass the government hospital which is empty. When the war broke out, there were some famous cases of folks from Zapatista areas entering the government hospital with light wounds and never emerging. People don't go to these places anymore. The government builds them now in an attempt to show that they really haven't forgotten Chiapas, but they stand vacant. Before the uprising, there were really no services. Even this road we came in on was built in order to get large numbers of soldiers in easily once things heated up around here.

On the way in, we pass a Zapatista comedor (diner), charmingly embellished with a painting of a woman making tortillas on a comal wearing the ubiquitous mask. We usually stop here for lunch, says the expatriate. But now it's painted over with "Cerrado por Alerta Roja" (Closed for Red Alert) and deserted, so we drive on towards Altamirano, turning off here where the road takes a sudden stomach-churning turn for the worse.

On the drive, the expatriate fills in more of the hidden history of Chiapas. It's always been a land of refugees, he says. A large colony of exiled Jewish anarchists arrived in the 20s and 30s. In the 80s, refugees from Guatemala streamed over the border and entered the population. This has always been a region that has been an in-between space, re-drawing borders and accepting miscreants and exiles from all sides. Chiapas in fact used to be part of the original Central American republic that stretched from here to Costa Rica when it declared independence from Spain (the capitol was Antigua, Guatemala), but eventually split off and cast its lot with Mexico instead. There have always been inter-ethnic conflicts, and one of the principal triumphs of zapatismo is that they have achieved a dialogue and united work among the disparate ethnic groups that exist here. (There are 11 groups in the state of Chiapas: Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, Mam, Lacandona, Kakchiquel, Tojolabal, Mocho, Chuj, Kanjobal and Jacalteca.) In the expatriate's studied opinion, their next step should be to unite with the ethnic groups in the rest of Mexico, to broaden the political force of zapatismo beyond this isolated region. They want indigenous reserves of land, he says, and he thinks it would be a disaster, a ghetto. I'm not so sure. Autonomy can be both a blessing and a curse - frequently both at the same time. In Nicaragua, where the two main indigenous regions were declared autonomous, the government used it as carte blanche to abandon the region entirely, and in such a forgotten part of the world as Miskitia, there is now not a single hospital. How many hospitals would be here if there weren't such Zapafervor in the world for the past ten years? one has to wonder. And of course as an herbalist, I'm the first to argue that people need to know how to take care of themselves with what grows all around them. But even I am not crazy enough to argue that we don't need hospitals. Hospitals very different from the american corporate model that currently prevails, yes. But at heart, still the same animal.

This is a land of many weird conflicts simmering between the surface. After the surge in popularity of evangelical Christianity, there was a "moonshine war." I figured this would be the evangelicals trying to shut down moonshiners, which is what happened in Nicaragua. (Evangelicals aren't supposed to drink or dance. Of course, most of them still do. A Nicaraguan friend and I had a get-rich-quick idea that we were going to earn big money opening a clandestine bar for evangelicals.) But in Chiapas, things took a wackier turn: the evangelicals tried to take over the moonshine trade from the caciques who'd had a monopoly on it before. Things got violent. I am very happy to hear from our guide, however, that most conventional missionaries have given this area up for lost after finding the people irredeemably pagan. The missionaries came, built the churches, preached the word, all the usuals, but the inevitable syncretism began to show its face. The churches couldn't be held in line, traces of indigenous religion mixed in with the official dogma, and finally the missionaries abandoned their flocks to allow them to drift where they might.

Here where we're driving now, our tour guide narrates, was some of the worst of the fighting in 1994. That lasted a few weeks, then there was a cease fire. There followed some disappearances and tortures in the prisons, but the Mexican government immediately got such bad press and universal international condemnation for it, due to the Zaps' excellent working of the media, that they stopped that right away too. But don't community leaders continue to be assassinated? I ask. Yes, he says, but who is doing it is anybody's guess. I don't think it's the military. And many of the self-styled community leaders around here are wretchedly corrupt, have been exploiting their own neighbors and keeping them in wage slavery for decades, and they have many reasons to have enemies. He continues: I have less of a problem with someone in a government far away, here or in another country, making some decision that they don't see the consequences of, than people who can do these horrible things to those around them. Richard's view is that evil doesn't result from laws, countries, or capital. Evil didn't result innately from the constitutional amendment allowing the privatization of the ejidos, or the passage of NAFTA, or President Bush, or the Mexican military. Everyone is human, and evil results when we do nothing to stop it from happening all around us. It could be true. I'm not completely convinced, even though it's a very powerful argument that even this very well-spoken man couldn't articulate completely, but I think I got it. I'm just not entirely sure of the relative humanity of the people at the top pulling the strings - I think they might be sociopaths and that most of us lack the stomach to consider what might be necessary to get rid of them.

We arrive in Altamirano and pull into the old hospital. The new hospital was just completed after 5 years of work. A Dutch NGO donated millions for the construction with the only stipulation being that a Dutch architect who lives in San Cris build it. They still use the old hospital for quarters for the doctors and the translators. A nun serves us coffee around a big table and we look out a picture window at the landscape. What's the news in these parts? the expatriate and the doctor ask the nun. Well-- she offers, there's the rain. It's been raining like crazy out here, and due to all the clearcuts we've had a lot of landslides, so no one can harvest their crops.

One result of the new road built for the military is it's accelerated the taking of wood from the Chiapan forest. The effect of what government regulations do exist are that they end up penalizing ordinary people for cutting firewood while issuing permits for wealthy Mexicans to haul out massive quantities of logs destined for the world market. The landslide and clearcut problem was intense while I was living in Nicaragua too. The climate of the town I lived in was completely altered within a generation from cold and foggy to hot and muggy, and in more isolated areas the rainy season always meant that severe landslides would close the roads and cut off people from the rest of the country for weeks at a time. A disaster geologist (yes, it's a real specialty) visiting Nicaragua called it "the ultimate laboratory of social vulnerability." These type of so-called natural disasters, which in the States are cleaned up fast by giant emergency response teams, linger for decades in places like Nicaragua and Chiapas, and almost always occasion unnecessary deaths when they strike.

We keep looking out the picture window. See that house there with the red tiled roof? says the nun. That's how you can see which of our neighbors have sold their vote to the PRI. In Mexico City they'll give you fifty bucks, and here they'll give you a pretty red roof. It's nice that everything's all out in the open like that. In Nicaragua things were cheaper. Somoza used to give people a bag of soda and a nacatamal to show up to his demonstrations, they told me.

You'll see after you spend a little time here, says the nun, that people here are rather closed with outsiders. They'll go so far as to act like they don't speak Spanish even when they do. It takes time to gain people's trust.

And see that fence back there? says the expatriate. That's the one that the nuns would open in the middle of the night and sneak the Zapatista fighters into the hospital.

So how did the Zapatistas gain the people's trust? asks the dentist. The doctor translates. The nun answers, they're good listeners. They come into a community and they never dictate to people how things are or should be, they just listen.

In fact, as I learn later, the original idea of the Caracoles, or zapatista autonomous government centers, was that anyone could come at any time and ask any question that they wanted, no matter what it might be. Translators are always available in any of the polyglot of local languages.

We tour the spacious grounds of the new hospital. It is beautifully designed. Cobalt blue glass tiles limn the paths through little gardens of orchids and hibiscus that intersperse the different wings. ("This place is a five-star hotel," grumbles a nun. "We just wanted a hospital.") We walk through obstetrics, urgent care, men's and women's wards, pediatrics and a pediatric ICU. Toņo, the homeopathic doc who came with us, jokes with all the patients, asking if they want a shot of pox (the local Chiapanecan moonshine). We come to the isolation ward: the other place where chiapanecos wear masks.

Tuberculosis is prevalent in Chiapas for the same reasons it's prevalent in other impoverished areas. The strain of TB that is here is very weak, says the expatriate, and if people got enough to eat, they wouldn't be able to pass it on to other people. That's how TB is: if the host is in good health, it stays latent and the person is basically well, but when they become malnourished or immune-compromised it becomes active and transmissible. That's one of the many reasons TB is a disease of poverty. But the hospital has had more success than most with their treatment plan, because they pay people to come back for the second and third phases of treatment. And what do they do about the nutrition aspect? I wonder. Well... nothing. That's what I liked about my friend's little community health organization in Nicaragua. He had realized that access to real food was one of the most important keys to health, and for that reason his community health workers received as part of their training seeds, tools, and instructions for starting community gardens and community chicken coops. Because how much good does it do to tell someone feeding a family of twelve on a dollar a day that they have to eat well to maintain their health and prevent their family from catching their disease? Ideay?! (What the...?!) as they would say in Nicaragua.

The doctors on staff here are all foreigners, mostly provided by a medical NGO, who are sent for rotations of a year, can't stand the isolated conditions, and leave even sooner. The hospital has addressed the 12 languages of its clientele in a novel way. Teenage girls from outlying communities come in and live in Altamirano and serve as translators. Each family gets assigned their own translator who works with them until their case is resolved. In exchange, the girls live at the hospital and attend the prepa, the local high school, of which there still are none out in their own villages. Upon graduation, if they so desire, the religious order helps them to pursue a career. Many have become nurses and gone back to their own communities afterwards. This is really good to hear, as similar places where I've been have a constant brain drain of the few indigenous people who ever manage to get access to formal education.

We eat lunch with the doctors. Toņo, our accompanying doc, questions me about my medical education. American medicine is all defensive, he says, what fun is that? Here you can really learn from your mistakes, because you can kill someone with impunity. I laugh, he's such a joker, but he says, I know it sounds absurd to you but I'm not kidding.

On the drive back, my history lesson continues. The expatriate tells me how much he admires the nun who is in charge of San Carlos hospital, how she's managed to save so many lives on every side in the midst of such a tense conflict. Her days are numbered. The new bishop of Chiapas, who's a lot more conservative than the old one, ordered a complete changeover of all the religious personnel who were associated with Don Samuel Ruiz. Ruiz had been the bishop of Chiapas for the last 40 years and was installed in the era of Vatican II, when the church officially adopted liberation-theology language about standing with the poor. His parents were Sonorans who crossed the border illegally and lived in California. He started his tenure by riding around Chiapas on a donkey for one year and visiting all the parts of his new post. Everyone asked him the same thing: are we going to go to hell because we don't speak Spanish? When he got off the donkey and issued his first official decrees, they were that all church personnel from then on in Chiapas had to learn at least one indigenous language. Ruiz himself speaks several languages including Tzotzil. He made a lot of enemies this way but also was a mighty force for peace over his very long term of service. In an interview given after he finally lost his job, he stated: it's very simple. Either the church is the church of the poor, or it's not the church of Jesus Christ. He also said, "Chiapas is no longer in Chiapas. It has left its geography behind, and now is found all over the world."

The dentist is thinking about coming to work at Altamirano for the long term. She tells me she kinda wants to be here when the american economy falls apart. She thinks it'll be better here. I tell her people in Portland have a funny idea of what things will look like when the oil runs out. They think we're going to go back to some kind of permacultural garden of Eden. What's permaculture? the Nebraskan asks me. (This is hours after I got her to tell me how Vatican II rearranged the known world for a lot of people. To each her own specialty.) After living in Nicaragua, I think it's going to look a lot like the riverbank where I used to live. Everytime the government tried to plant a tree to try to bring back its devastated environment, desperate people living in squatter shacks immediately cut it down for firewood. Portland maybe won't look like that, she opines, but now that you mention it, I'm absolutely sure that Nebraska will!

In unguarded moments, a long string of american activist friends have confessed to me lately that they've given up on real social change and are just kind of figuring out how to live their lives and make things a little nicer in their backyard. If they're that desanimado (disheartened, disspirited) now, when things are easy in America, are they really going to have my back when the shit hits the fan? And you can see that this mentality is learned helplessness, when you see what people have been able to do with their world in places where they have a lot less choice how they spend their days, in places where the shit's been continuously hitting the fan for five hundred years. ("Learned helplessness" is the term coined to describe a classic psychological experiment where dogs placed in a cage with the door open were shocked whenever they tried to leave the cage. Even though eventually the shock treatment was discontinued, the dogs stopped trying to leave the cage altogether.)

III. Cinco de Marzo

Cinco de Marzo, or March Fifth, is not the name of a new Portland band but the name of a squatter colony on the edge of San Cristobal. It's named after the date, ten years ago, when people invaded the lands. Mexico has a law written into its constitution that people who live on land for ten years have legal right to that land. One significance of the tenth anniversary of the EZLN uprising is that many communities of displaced people now have passed that milestone of land rights. The problem is that nobody has ever been able to carry out that process, so the government has no idea how to give them the title. If they could still issue ejido titles, they could do that immediately, but now that ejidos are officially discouraged, there is no agreed-upon legal process to issue group titles. There are two legal owners of the land that Cinco de Marzo is built on. One, a rich american artist, told them they could have her land. The other, a Mexican doctor from the capital, filed a complaint but was unable to evict them. The town council has already decided that title will remain in a group form and that no one will be able to sell their individual parcels when they get them. If a family leaves, their plot will go to another incoming squatter family.

And we're here to do some dentistry! I hold the lamp, clean the tools, and translate. A couple of our patients teach us to say "pain" or "hurt" in Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The first time I came to Latin America in a medical guise, I was assigned the job of translator for a doctor who knew no Spanish except "Buenos dias" and "Duele." "Duele," or "hurts," being the shorthand for "Does it hurt when I do this to you?" which I quickly and somewhat sadly realized is the essential phrase of the physician. At the time, I thought: typical monolingual american, goes to Latin America every year to practice medical outreach and has never bothered to learn the language! And here I am, in the exact same situation with Tzotzil and Tzeltal. And if you don't learn how to say "duele" in the local language, you practice what is sarcastically termed veterinary medicine, where you try to divine from the patient's expression and flinching whether it hurts when you do that to them.

Everything goes remarkably well at first, we blaze through the list of patients, cleaning, filling, pulling. Then comes a young healthy girl with a wisdom tooth that's gotta go. The little room becomes a battlefield. The Nebraskan wrestles with this tooth for two hours, bloodying every tool in the room, and the roots still won't come out after she's broken off the top. Well, she says, finally giving up, the good news is you have really healthy bones. She asks for ice to put on the patient's jaw while we wait to transport her into town to a sympathetic dentist with an x-ray machine. There is no ice in Cinco de Marzo though - only paletas, or homemade popsicles, which the brave patient sits cradling against her face. We get her into town and the dentist armed with x-rays and the right tools wacks her tooth out in minutes, to the immense relief of everyone present in the Cinco de Marzo operating theater. And the five dollars we earned by charging each patient fifty cents are just enough to get the patient some antibiotics and bus fare back to the colonia. Dentists and doctors, of course, can work here for cheap due to subsidized public education, the expatriate reminds me. They're not stuck in the debt prison that so many of my medical (and non-medical) friends end up with in exchange for their education.

I supposed I might be the one to break the story aboutwhat the Zap red alert was all about. But it was calmly printed right there in La Jornada that night, that the internal consultation was over, the red alert was lifted, and all the centers of good government would be reopened. It just says there will be new civil bases of support and security committees. It has to do with questions about where all the aid money has gone, says the expatriate, and wanting to open up the whole process and make it more transparent.

IV. For a world where there's room for all of our worlds

My avowed purpose in San Cristobal was to forge some new ties with people here working with natural medicine. My first stop was the Museum of Mayan Medicine. It is startling, but there are many similarities between traditional Mayan medicine and Chinese medicine, including use of tongue and pulse diagnosis, acupuncture, and similar ways of describing energy and the effects of the forces of nature on the body. I spoke briefly with Don Antonio, one of coordinators of the museum. His organization of Mayan healers and midwives had been active in standing up against biopiracy in Chiapas, foreign-funded projects that come in with the idea of patenting native medicinal plants and making pharmaceutical medicines out of them. The most egregious example of this was Costa Rica, a country ordinarily known for resistance to privatizaion. Costa Rica out-and-out sold the rights to all its indigenous medicinal plants to a single pharmaceutical company. Since then, councils of indigenous peoples of the Americas have gotten involved in the issue and are trying to prevent similar incidents. Don Antonio's Chiapas group, and the council of Chiapaneco traditional healers to which it belongs, protested and finally blocked a project that had gotten started here with Mayan medicinal plants. In essence, their argument was, there isn't any way for you to gain consent to use our plants that way. No matter who you got to sign the papers, there isn't anyone, any person or group or village with the right to sign over our medicine.

"I went to the US with the Red Indigena (Indigenous People's Network)," don Antonio tells me. "I went to the reservations in Arizona, I went to Minnesota where they were trying to steal the wild rice. I thought there were no poor people in america! But then I saw people living without light, without water -- just like we live in Chiapas! And then I understood - it's just the same thing we're resisting here!" And are you still organizing across the borders? Oh yes, he tells me. Without the government! Things work better that way!

Later I help translate a document for a nutritionist who's working to prevent infant malnutrition and promote breastfeeding in indigenous communities. She works for a local organization called Campesino Health and Ecology (Salud y Ecologia para el Campesino). I go to meet the director. How did you first start to make the link between ecology and health? I ask him. Originally this organization started in the 80s working with the Guatemalan refugees who were coming by the thousands to Chiapas. The refugees were people from high mountain conifer zones who had arrived in an ecological reserve, the Lacandon jungle. They didn't have traditional techniques to get along in this ecosystem. Eventually the decision was made to promote the cultivation of corn in the refugee camps. This was an complete catastrophe, not only for the deforestation caused by slash-and-burn agriculture, but because the humidity of the region caused most of the crop to rot after harvest.

And were there conflicts between the refugees and the indigenous people who were already living in the area? I wonder. No, rather the people here welcomed the refugees with open arms and took them into their villages, the director says, and I've forgotten that of course almost everyone who was being threatened and killed by or fleeing from the Guatemalan military was Mayan. Some of the languages are even found on both sides of the border, like Mam and Kakchiquel, because this border is only a fiction, another invisible line drawn one day in the sand that has been breaking up families and killing people ever since. It's only an accident of history that Chiapas isn't still part of Guatemala, or its own independent Central American nation. Not that there aren't interethnic conflicts, nor to say that everyone who speaks the same language automatically gets along, but it undoubtedly must have made a traumatic transition easier.

The refugees have now been absorbed into the population, and although the group continues to work with them and their children, they have broadened their scope. They now use microcredit to encourage organic and sustainable agriculture among indigenous groups around Chiapas. They use cover crops and other simple techniques. It's still difficult because slash-and-burn involves a lot less work, and that's what people prefer. In many places conservation only occurs because of poverty (when people are too poor to use pesticides or buy patented seeds). There isn't any interregional trade in Mexico, the director laments, to promote trade of local crops, which is what could really save traditional agriculture - our government is only interested in transnational trade.

Due to the continuing displacement and conflict in Chiapas, more cities are being formed in more and more remote areas of the jungle, leading not only to clearcuts but making it very hard for a government with limited resources to provide things like healthcare and education. And this is where the Zapatista communities have taken the lead. It was part of an organized civil disobedience on their part, he tells me, that people in those communities started refusing all government services and replacing them with their own. And we've seen that they now have much better health in their communities as a result. They have learned effective community organizing and been able to reduce domestic violence and alcoholism. On the other hand, health in divided communities has gotten worse.

Salud y Ecologia has had some creative responses to difficult situations. In the refugee camps, they formed women's groups, so that people could be reconnected, so that very young pregnant girls could learn from older women, so that all continuity wouldn't be lost in a society in total crisis. Now they are training community health workers, but they are trying to find some middle ground between just teaching people direct healthcare techniques and direct tools for change like community gardens, and the completely social public health model. They base all their training on the idea that healthcare is a basic human right, and that their own ill-health is not only their own problem and their own responsibility, but rather due to structural violence.

This man's another revolutionary, another person who's been doing hard work for a very long time without giving up. San Cristobal is like that. You can't step out of the house without tripping over another person who knocks you down with inspirational force. It's like a refuge at the edge of the world for all sorts of people who still have hope.

V. Spitting out the story

"Are you aware that vast numbers of your fellow men suffer or perish from need of the things that you have to excess, and that you required the explicit and unanimous consent of the whole human race for you to appropriate from the common subsistence anything besides that required for your own?

"It is manifestly contrary to the laws of nature that a handful of men should gorge themselves with superfluities while the starving multitude goes in want of necessities."
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1755

I sit at the kitchen table of the hostel late at night, words flooding out of me, trying to get it all down in the little book, to not miss anything. The annoying son of the hostel owner finds me here at midnight, writing frantically. I met him last year and he tried to lay some lines on me about how he was a poet. I forgot how time moves circularly here - everything always comes around twice in San Cristobal. It's like being stuck in the eddy of a whirlpool. I want to put off the inevitable moment when he starts to hit on me, so I stall him, trying to put his one redeeming quality to good use. How would you describe San Cristobal to someone who had never seen it? I ask him. Start with the rain, he suggests. And it's true, there's a very Portland-esque rain falling here tonight, soft and steady, but with a warm tropical undercurrent that parallels the hope I always feel when I am in this part of the world. I'm a lousy writer, I tell him, I don't have any idea how to describe this place to someone who has never seen it and never will, I get too caught up in the storyline, I gotta learn to draw pictures... Are you writing your boyfriend? he asks me, fishing. I sigh. Of course I would like to meet a Chiapaneco who appears at midnight, fixes me a tea of mysterious roots, talks to me about writing, then tries to kiss me in the direct way that's typical around these parts. I just don't want it to be you....

I walk with the dentist one night down the andador to the big church of the Virgen del Carmen. The church is all lit up and strewn with fragrant pine needles and the plaza is full of vendors selling fat green olives. I can't believe they grow here but we check and they do, Chiapas is really an incredible, fertile land, everything grows here, from coffee to wheat to olives, by virtue of being tropical high-altitude mountains, I suppose.

The offering of olives is for tomorrow's festival of San Cristobalito. Saint Christopher is not a real saint, the Nebraskan tells me. I'm a lousy Catholic and know nothing about this. He's one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church, and as the patron saint of travelers his image is found all over the world. There are hundreds of cities named after him, of which San Cristobal de las Casas is only perhaps the most infamous. But the Church investigated him and found he is more of a legend than an actual documented saint. That hasn't stopped anyone from venerating him and celebrating his feast day, least of all the chiapanecos. I don't have to get all goofy with the ironic present-day parallels, but it strikes me funny when she tells me this and I giggle as we walk out of Barrio Tlaxcala.

I've spent these days reading Infections and Inequalities by Paul Farmer. The book is full of stinging observations resulting from medical culture shock. "Is it mere polemic to argue that in terms of social causation the coronary artery disease of millions of overfed northerners is linked to the tuberculosis of malnourished Haitian women?" And just to close the circle for me, he quotes Rousseau, whose words above could've just as easily been written in Tzotzil by a Chiapaneca midwife resisting the theft of her healing plants as by a French romantic in 1755.

In one of her books, Pema Chodron writes about starting to do a certain type of meditation practice. She started to feel angry at everything, even specks of dust. Her teacher told her it was because the practice was demanding that she be absolutely sane and she wasn't used to that state of mind. And that's how I feel when I'm here, that there is something demanding for me to be sane, to wake up, to cast off the madness that is hangs like a shroud over most people at home, a madness caused by having more privilege than any person was ever meant to have, a privilege that always comes off the backs of people that most of us never see and would rather never know about, while all over the rest of the world people are going mad from having nothing, and the planet is going up in flames lit by our disparate insanities.

I wish I was also a better writer so I could explain the hope I feel whenever I manage to throw off this madness and arrive at some other place, a wild emotion that many people I know have lost and that I feel lucky to have found again. I always think I ought to be able to just hand this wild joy and hope to my disconsolate friends, that by virtue of the sheer uncontrollable and irresistible power with which I feel it, it should flow without barriers or borders between us. Maybe it's an untamed thing that can't really be given, but can only seen in shared glimpses. I can't tell anymore if this story, these things I saw and felt and heard and touched over the last few days, will make sense to anyone but myself. I can only hope if you made it this far that you managed to catch a glimpse through my eyes.

img 20.Jul.2005 19:30



wonderful 20.Jul.2005 23:47


thank you so much for the report. So many of us were wondering what has happened.

viva la mexican(marinas) 21.Jul.2005 13:09

de la vallas y cistes

viava te veo (it sucks when gringos with little o no real spanish instustion try writing in spanish)pedo wadar su forza y enerhea........vivo marcos!

verifying stuff 21.Jul.2005 18:54


"... but if you want fact-checking, well.... I'd welcome your help."

I'm well acquainted with the writer of the article, who I do believe indeed to be in Mexico. I doubt she is inclined to exaggerate or make up stories, I believe every word in the article.

Oh, and she's totally hot and on fire.

thank you for featuring me, friends 21.Jul.2005 20:50

the girl next door

It means a lot to a writer looking to find her voice.

I visited Oventic, el Corazon centrico de los zapatistas, today and everything is very chill there. Busloads of zapatourists arriving by the hour.

They've opened 3 new botanical clinics in the last year alone! Oh yeah.

I'll try to cough up more details of interest soon in my last couple days in this part of the world.

contact 21.Jul.2005 22:37


Any way we can get in touch with you regarding this? Especially for those of us who have lots of questions that shouldn't clutter up the board here.

to contact me 22.Jul.2005 08:52

The girl next door

You can write to  chelita@riseup.net, or you could post questions on my blog at tattooheart.blogspot.com.

Chelita means little white girl in Nicaraguan, and little beer in Mexican, and little eye booger somewhere else that I can't remember where.

Portland Medics for Chiapas 23.Jul.2005 08:32

zv zapatavive@no-log.org

How funny, another Portland medic was writing from that very same place not so long ago:


Maybe we can do the next general medic meeting down there over coffee from ISMAM or Mut Vitz...