San Cristóbal de las Casas is a name that travels far. Up here in the chilly mountains of south-eastern Mexico, its indigenous cultures are still flourishing and you hear a lot of Tzotzil and Tzeltal along with Spanish, sitting out in the sunshine in front of the cathedral. Soft, clipped tones like the clatter of a typewriter from women in thick woolen skirts and beautifully patterned shawls, village specific. Babies tied round backs in a swathe of bright cotton.

This place  was where the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took to the political stage on January 1st, 1994 with a declaration of war on the Mexican state. Their story since then has been an example to oppressed and neglected people around the world of how a well-organised and strong community can take on the all-consuming tide of neoliberalism and globalisation. They continue to show how to manage place in an autonomous way, outside of traditional power structures and hierarchies. I’d come into contact with prints of these defiant, half-masked faces in many a free and idealistic place in Europe, on stickers and t-shirts, graffiti and concert posters. It’s been inspiring to investigate more – to hear some of the speeches of Sub-Comandante Marcos, rejecting our current politics of deception. To watch footage of campesino women holding off the Mexican army from  their land.  Women are vital to the Zapatista cause, as armed fighters and peaceful protestors, defenders of family and crops. I was reading in a punk rock  ‘zine in the US that Zapatista communities are a beacon of gender equality around the world, and the messages of hope and power on all the EZLN souvenirs around San Cristóbal seems to confirm this.

 

 

This town is also full of art and independent education, as you might expect from a proudly separate region. The profusion of cultural centres and open workshops reminded me a little of being in the Basque country . It’s no surprise foreigners and the alternatively-minded have flocked to live here around jungle courtyards and on the colourful streets. Up intriguing Real de Guadalupe street step girls with half-shaven heads, ankle socks pulled down over walking boots in that European way which reminds me of being back in Lavapiés. Every traveller’s whim is represented in restaurant, cafe, bookshop and art: great Italian-run eateries, a Lebanese place, inviting courtyards of tertulias and local coffee, with little cinema rooms and pizza and local crafts positioned around the edge. Despite the good intentions, it must be an economy away from the surrounding countryside: this particular part of town, anyway.

One of my favourite shops is home to the output of a collective known as Taller Leñateros, Woodcutter’s Workshop. They’re a group of locals who make paper and card things by recycling, and using traditional Mayan techniques and dyes. Some of their designs are great, like this Mayan on a bike:

 

 

Taking a colectivo taxi to the nearby village of San Juan Chamula was an arresting lesson in a distinctive local spirituality. Going into the white-and-green church at the centre of things, you enter a world of hidden meaning.

There were no pews or benches in this church: layers of fresh pine-needles covered the tiled floor. Hundreds of candles shimmered around the edges and in the back chamber, in incense-filled air. People kneeled, brushed aside clearings and stuck beds of candles to the floor, of different colours and sizes. There they prayed, or thought, in tight little threesomes or families. Some of the candles were mere match-sticks, one or two-inches off the ground (I later learned that the size and the colour had significance). Inexplicably, friends poured little shots of Coca-Cola or Fanta for the prostrated to drink in turn.

Best of all, in this warm and welcoming space, was the music. Some festival was going on, and a gathering of young people stood in a semi-circle, swaying or throwing their shoulders to the mournful lilt of a couple of accordions. A lone drum rang, people shook plain maracas. The accordions slowly rolled over the same motif, like a lost fragment of some sea-shanty. It was almost too much to bear, this sad and humble dance of pressed bodies, seeming for a moment like the very march of daily life, until the music stopped, and the solemn crowd broke into smiles.

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