Birds of Paradise: Part Four

After a brief interrogation by Mexican soldiers, we agreed to stop driving the owners’ truck to do the Buy. Not in possession of a Mexican driver’s license, my now-husband had unintentionally broken a few laws. The bigger problem, I suspected, was the long-term presence of a young American couple in this part of the country. Pockets of revolutionaries still gathered deep in uninhabited forest land close to the border of Guatemala. Their leader, Comandante Marcos, was respected and romanticized by many for whom the historic image of Che Guevara is a compelling figure. It seemed to me that the militia wouldn’t tolerate any Zapatista sympathizers on their watch, and they watched us closely as we headed down the road.

A few days later we traveled to San Cristobal de las Casas. Nicknamed San Cris, this semi-modern city is a fascinating blend of culture and tourism. Locally made goods were abundant and high quality. Barefoot children gave us drawings of animals and churches, and we paid for their artwork. We walked all day, exploring the city’s colorful markets and stories and chatting with locals. It grew very cold at night, and we rented a room with a fireplace, shivered, and finally slept in smoky darkness.

It was a huge relief to speak openly, outside of the ranch’s gate, about our experience thus far. There was no privacy on the ranch.

One morning we climbed on a crowded colectivo, a small public van, and handed a few pesos forward to be pocketed by the driver. Two hours later we were deposited in the town square of a neighboring town, a humble yet colorful gathering spot for the citizens of San Juan Chamula.

Knowing our presence immediately drew attention, we walked quietly, pausing to take into the unique scene taking place before and beyond and around us. Petite indigenous men and women entered the church that rose up in blue and white over the square, some on their knees. I entered the church with my head tucked low, and remained silent.

Hundreds of candles lit the altar and the floor. Ablaze with light, men and women were tucked into corners, and the air was thick with mumbled prayer and tears and cries. Smoke from burning incense made me dizzy. Traditional Catholic saints stood sternly along the walls, wooden and painted. There were no pews in the church, leaving the vast floor area to be blanketed in boughs of fragrant pine needles, fresh eggs, coins and half-drunk bottles of Coke and whiskey. Chamula families knelt before the sacrificial items, chanting, paying me no mind.

I didn’t linger, but I have never again observed such a strange and holy blend of religious and cultural imagery, voice, and ritual.

The eggs represented fertility. The smoke whispered of unanswered prayer. The money promised to appease the ones who had fallen, or risen, before us.

An uninterpreted relationship between man and his or her God is truly something to witness.

Back on the ranch, we returned to work and to learn whatever we could during this time that inevitably would end before we knew it. Spending time in a tiny village where local leaders prevent even Mexican police from entering their space is no small thing when they share the same land. I had much to think about during my days in southern Mexico, surrounded by humility and struck by history – – the unfairness of the reality in which so many lived, and continue to live, subject to modern policies and decisions made by anyone other than themselves.

Please read Birds of Paradise: Part One. And Part Two. And Part Three. Tell me if I should keep going before my story becomes a distant memory.

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