Chiapas state, in Mexico, can be a pretty dangerous place sometimes.
Part Two of the Chiapas story, by popular demand!
“You’ll see your children again,” I whispered, “I’m not worried.”
But the men kept talking, louder and louder, throwing their voices and their scorn over the thin plywood wall that separated us so precariously. On one wall a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe, cloaked in blue robes and thin, white outstretched hands, stared mournfully down at us. Fernando listened wide-eyed to the chatter and every now and again peered over at us and mouthed a few noiseless words, trying to convey some sense of what the latest threats could mean for us. M lay in the corner and shuddered from fear and from the pains that wracked her belly. Until eventually the voices slowed, then dimmed, and then with the light on the other side, disappeared altogether.
None of us slept that night.
And in the morning the man returned to wake us. He knocked gently on the door and swept inside.
“They’re waiting for you,” he said.
“Who is waiting?” we asked.
“El pueblo,” he said. The village.
So we stumbled outside into a morning that was gray and wet. The whishing palms were quiet. The grasses smelled fresh. The dogs had been heeled in and wandered along dirt roads, sniffing for the refuse of the night before. The man led us to a field. I stopped short at the sight.
A giant circle of men stood silently waiting. The diameter must have been a hundred meters wide. Every man in the village seemed to be standing there. It was 7:30 in the morning.
Refuse from the night before was scattered across the ground. Bottles, plastic, cardboard and clothes, and a few women and children were slowly making their way through the village starting the cleanup. But the rest of the crowd was focused soberly on us, and it suddenly dawned on me just how disruptive our visit must have been. Whatever wretchedness the night before had produced, in their minds our ours, in their bellies or ours, it was nothing compared to the force, the sense of solidarity that drew them here in the dawn hours to confront the people who had come uninvited and unimpeded into their midst on such a holy night. Because now there they stood in judgment of us, and our trial was about to take place within the circle of their community, ringed by nothing more than the ground and the men who stood upon it, and the machetes those men carried.
A looming maple tree, hundreds of years old, stood at one end. No one was talking. They stared at us, ushered us into the center of the circle, equidistant from one and from another, and for a very long time they said nothing.
Some of the men had machetes at their sides. They did not look friendly at all, even though some of them were speaking quietly among themselves, and a few of them laughed. Off to one side, in the shadows of trees or leaning next to some small shacks were the women, dressed in bright gowns, shoeless, and holding their babies in tightly wrapped cloth sacks strapped to their backs. And they swayed.
A man of medium height with strapping arms and a fierce scowl stepped forward into the circle and addressed our translator.
“Tell us who you are, and what you want here,” he bellowed out, “You have told us you are journalists. What is it you are doing here?”
The crowd nodded its silent assent at this request. The machete blades gleamed like dead fish in their hands, caught in the silver of the morning sun.
“We come as friends,” Fernando told them. “We come in peace.”
He addressed their fears as he had heard them expressed to him on earlier visits. We were not part of the government, come to take their lands, he told them, nor their water or their wives. This had happened before, we knew, and maybe those hard men of the night before were the ones who had made it happen.
The government had tried to quell these villages in the dark of night. And because of that these villagers had known war. It wasn’t too far from here that the rebel leader, El Sub Commandante Marcos had staged his uprising, and his soldiers were known to live in the nearby forests. But we were not the government, Fernando said in his quiet voice, we were not here scouting for energy. The water was theirs. The land was theirs.
There was a shifting among the crowd and some of them were nodding their heads and smiling. Some laughed. But they wanted to hear it from us. Daniel and Fernando took turns reassuring them of our good intentions. Then it was M’s turn and she apologized and told them she only wanted to take pictures of them “so that the world can understand.”
No one asked me to speak, and I didn’t. I was too foreign, perhaps, too white.
I watched them and bowed my head and felt contrite.
And slowly, the circle began to dissolve and disappear and the women at its edges turned away and began walking back into the wide green palms of the morning, disappearing.
As if the world had opened once more, we were left in that open field with nothing but the sky above our heads, and the massive tree that rooted it to this earth, and all I wanted was to rush to it and lie on the ground beside its great, enduring weight.
Chiapas, Mexico 2003