San Cristóbal was one of the cities I was really looking forward to visiting prior to our departure. Nestled in the mountains of Chiapas, the city has the familiar colonial charm we’ve become accustomed to in Mexico – cobblestone streets, colorful homes, clean and winding streets perfect for strolling. But what really makes San Cristóbal distinctive is the predominant and immediately obvious indigenous presence. Due to its location in the heart of Mexico’s Mayan population, the city is ripe with the culture and customs of the Maya. The streets are filled with Mayan men and women dressed in ropa tipica, many of whom have traveled long distances from the surrounding villages to buy or sell handicrafts in the city’s bustling mercado. The mercado itself is uniquely colorful and lively, one of our favorites in Mexico, no doubt due to the strong Mayan presence.
We arrived in the city late in the afternoon and immediately made our way to a campsite just outside town. Despite being just one mile from the zócalo, Rancho San Nicolas is quiet and serene. Perhaps due to its size, as large RVs cannot maneuver in here, the campground seemed to attract a more eclectic group of travelers. We soon met Ray from B.C., who has been driving his rig throughout Central America for more than a decade, and Paul and Susie, also from B.C., on a trip and timeline very similar to ours. It was the perfect spot from which to base our exploration of the city. In addition to wandering the streets and frequenting the market, we enjoyed visiting the Medicina Maya Development Center and the coffee museum and cafe.
The main reason for my prior fascination with this beautiful city was the knowledge of its extremely important recent history. San Cristóbal de Las Casas was thrust into the international spotlight on January 1st, 1994, the same day as NAFTA’s initiation, when Zapatista rebels chose it as one of four places to launch their revolution. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) is a left-wing movement comprised of largely indigenous population, with the goal of reversing the wealthy elite’s centuries-old hold on land, resources and power in the region. Though rejecting political classification, they align with wider anti-globalization and anti-neoliberalism movements, fighting for autonomous control over local resources and to improve the living conditions of Mexico’s largely impoverished indigenous populations.
Within days the Mexican army had expelled the revolutionaries and about 150 people, mostly Zapatistas, were killed in the fighting. Despite the defeat and many more casualties at the hands of the Mexican army and paramilitary groups over the years, the Zapatistas have been able to launch a hugely successful internet campaign to disseminate an understanding of their plight and demands. As a result, the group gained international support from various media organizations and NGOs. In 1996, the EZLN and the Mexican government signed the San Andrés Accords, a peace agreement granting autonomy, recognition and rights to indigenous people of Mexico. Unfortunately, the Mexican government has still not fulfilled the promises made in the accords.
Unlike similar guerilla movements throughout Central America (FMLN in El Salvador, Sandinistas in Nicaragua), the Zapatistas have made it clear they are not a political party. They do not seek office throughout the state of Chiapas so as to not perpetuate the political system they see as corrupt by attempting to gain power within its ranks. Rather, they strive to reconceptualize the entire system.
There are many communities in Chiapas that label themselves as autonomous, as well as many others that make it known they are sympathetic to the Zapatista movement. However, our impression after travel throughout the region is that the movement has moved largely underground. Despite what appears to be diminished EZLN influence, military presence in the region is still high (we saw more checkpoints here than anywhere else in Mexico) and there are reports that indigenous communities continued to be harassed.
(For more on NAFTA and its impact on Mexican farmers: http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=3306&q=nafta)