Monday, February 25, 2013

Carnaval the Mayan Way: #1

Carnaval, the Mayan Way, as observed in the outerlying pueblos around San Cristóbal, Chiapas, Mexico was a fantastic mix of colour, behaviors and cultural activities to celebrate both the Catholic and indigenous pre-lent beliefs – a real intermingling of both. Nowhere else that we have been has “cultural sensitivity” and understanding been more necessary. Here we were truly the guest, invited though we weren’t, and as such, subject to the rules and regulations of the local peoples. This meant NO PHOTOS, and breaking this rule and getting caught could lead to dire consequences. So my photos are in my memories and the question remains, will I be able to paint a picture for you to visualize or should I "borrow" a photo or two to paint the picture for you?

In the Chiapas area of Mexico, the Catholic holidays and saints are interwoven with the Mayan traditions and culture. They are a very devout people, and the holidays, such as Carnaval, Fat Tuesday and Lent itself, are but snapshots of this devotion to both cultures.

We happened into these celebrations when we realized that our planned and much anticipated journey to visit PC friends in San Cristóbal was during Carnaval time. Wow, we will have visited Carnaval in three different countries in 3 years: Las Tablas, Panama; Barranquilla, Colombia; and now Chiapas area, Mexico. That means we only have one left, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Our arrival in San Cristóbal was exciting yet we saw nothing that would indicate the current celebrations of Carnival. Oh there were lots of people walking and milling with lots of vendors in ethnic dress, but none of the gaity and party-like atmosphere that was witnessed during the previous 2 years. 
Of course we did arrive in the morning, not evening, and it was Saturday, a working day for many. Still, we liked the feel of where we were almost immediately. A town of much history, nestled amidst the rising green mountains, warm but not too hot, and friendly people, we found ourselves grinning ”from ear to ear” as we meandered the streets. It reminded us so much of Antigua, Guatemala, but then it is of the same era and built by the same people – the Spanish.

Our first day and later that afternoon we were off to a good start when we accompanied Ann on a shopping trip to a paper Mayan and mestizo women/men’s cooperative – Taller Leñaterus. Here the workers, once servants, washerwomen, wandering vendors and unemployed, produce handmade paper, artistic books, silkscreen and wood block prints, gansy graphs (embroidery patterns), natural dyes, and magic spells. Although they were closing when we arrived, they gladly and graciously gave us a tour and explained how they did things. Very interesting and yet I was transported back to our Tech week in Panamá where we taught paper making but on a much smaller scale. If only the entrepreneurial-minded of those kids could see where a simple thing such as paper making could take you.

The Sunday before Lent and off we went in a taxi with newly found friends, Allison, Bonnie, Jeff and of course, Ann. We were headed for Tenejapa, a pueblo in the mountains about 45 minutes from San Cristóbal. With a stop along the way at Romerillo Cemetary, we took the time to wander through the unique graves, all beneath the shadows of the many green and blue wooden crosses, intertwined with trees, standing atop of the hill. The simple grave sites were unique in that they are maintained in a mound shape with a plank(s) of wood or an old wooden door on top of the mound and the marker crosses in colors that indicate the age of the deceased. The story told visitors is that the “door” provides a means for the deceased to communicate with their families. In reality, however, it is to keep the dirt from blowing away. Me? I like the first story better as it adds a bit of mystic to the place.

Pageantry, costumes, music, defined roles: All confronted us as we wandered through Tenejapa. A couple of the activities actually insulted my sensibilities, but then I am but a guest, and uninvited at that.

The town is divided into the lower and the upper barrios and each has their own groups that are a part of the Carnaval festivities. The local outfits are filled with color both from the brilliantly colored ribbons that adorn their hats and the red and white woven costumes. The women also wear an indigo colored woven skirt. The men wear their brilliantly colored cuffed, woven white shorts under a tunic of black lambs wool, or simple white woven over-tunic. The shirt, like that of Guatemala, is a large round pleat-folded to size and held up with a woven belt wrapped round the mid-section, Even the very young girls dress similarly.
"Borrowed"photos from someone braver than me:

No photos –this is their celebration, their customs, and they don’t want people taking photos and then making money off of them with the pueblo not receiving any of the proceeds. I can understand this but then too, I have a suggestion for them. Set up a booth that people such as ourselves could go to and buy a pass for photos for a set fee. This fee then would be shared by the various groups in town and help offset their costs of the celebration. But then, who am I but a lowly tourist and one not privy to the inner workings of the pueblo, at that?

The ceremonies that we watched had many different aspects, and all seemed to include drinking. I am sure that as the day progressed there would be many a gent laid out in the park. Also a bull played a significant part in the processions. The representation was quite original and I would gather that it was an honor of some sort to be chosen to play the part during the festivities.

One group of participants wore masks representing a Latino or dressed a women and paraded through the streets portraying drunkenness and sexual acts. These portrayals were quite graphic and the crowds thought them very funny. I guess they are really no different than the he/shes with their baby dolls (with a large dildo attached under the skirts) who were purportedly looking for the baby's "daddy" in the parades of Carnaval in Barranquilla.

It was later suggested that we head over to Pocolum as their celebrations had already gotten underway and were, as we found out later, photo friendly. While waiting for all participants to gather to continue on our journey of discovery, we were randomly introduced to the artist of the mural found in the zocolo of Tenejapa. 

The man who introduced us to him was from Italy and was working with some local NGO to document local art and ????? The artist gave us a small interpretation of his piece – it is dedicated to the women of the community and on closer examination, yes all the things that the women do are represented either by stylizing, symbolism or reality. Very interesting. Also were told that he has a bigger mural in the Theatre down by the mall. Hmmmmm will we be going to the mall? [went later but were unable to gain entry into the theatre]

Off to Pocolum: Here we were definitely deeper into the countryside and the festivities reflected this. If I were to categorize it, I would say that it was more "cowboyish" but not in the general Texan sense of the word. Cowboy boots, big belt buckles and pickup truck contorting with the traditional, both holding the ever present bottled water.

Also, we were allowed free range with our cameras here, why I don't know but still, I tried to remain as inconspicuous and non-intrusive as possible. In that way, we could continue to take photos.
The dress was very similar to that of Tenejapa but the festivities were different. (At least that we witnessed). Swaying, chanting and drunken revelry ...

 he is carrying a stuffed fox

and the ever present bull 
 the colors and a mask


 these tops are more colorful than in Tenejapa

 the instruments were all handmade and rough but the sound was as it should be for their music

here you can see the shorts under the lambs wool tunic
The mid-day sun was hot and the crowds pushing and shoving and I was my usual self - attracting the drunks. Danny ran interference for me and wound up feeling somewhat intimidated by one of the drunks. I am sure, under normal circumstances, he was a very nice young man, but under the influence, menacing. With this and the fact that it was becoming more and more obvious that the drinking was settling in to be the norm rather than the exception, it was decided that it was time for us to go. It was a wonderful experience, one that could only be found in the mountains of Chiapas. 

Of all the photos then this day, I would have to say that these two are my favorites: As we waited in the car, these two young boys just sat and watched us, asking for nothing but yet, pleading with their eyes. Their smiles were beyond belief and no time ever did we feel at all threatened.

All this and we have only been here for one day. What could still be in store for us as we explore San Cristóbal and surrounding areas during this wondrous time of Carnaval and all that it represents?