Among the Living
Fifteen students, two professors, and a Wabash alumnus converged on Mexico
for a 10-day immersion learning experience that lit a fire in their
By Steve Charles
Day 10: Chamula
Theres a hint
of wood smoke and the smell of cooking corn in the cool, dry mountain
air as we step on centuries-old stones toward Chamulas La Iglesia
de San Juan Bautista.
Put your camera,
camcorder, any recording device youve got into your bag or pocket,
Chip Morris, tells us, our guides insistent tone at odds with his
usual calm and relaxed demeanor.
None of us has to
be told twice. Outsiders have been fined or beaten for taking pictures
in this church. A German tourist was killed in this town for
photographing a religious ceremony.
After 10 days in Mexico, these 15 Wabash students have become bold in
fanning out, talking with the locals, trying to absorb as much of the
culture as they can. But this morning the constant banter and Wabash swagger
are subdued; the guys crowd closer together. We move with some apprehension
through the atrium that encloses the ritual space of this communityit
feels as wild and unpredictable as its namesake.
But easing our trepidation and piquing our curiosity are the words of
the people weve met in Chiapas to prepare for this day.
For Juan Carlo Hernandez 04, this is the church home of Maruch Santiz
Gomez, whom he interviewed in San Cristobal. Her book preserving the lore,
beliefs, and folk remedies of her villages elders gained her fame
in the international art world.
For Nick Dawson 04, this is the former church of Xunka Lopez Diaz,
whom he met at the Chiapas Photography Project after buying her book about
her expulsion from this community.
For Carlos Carillo 05, these are the people that agronomist and
self-made medic Sergio Castro has dedicated his life to serving.
Weve read of this place in Rosario Castellanos The Book
of Lamentationsthese are the people who carried Castellanos
ladino family up the surrounding hills on their backs.
Our guide, Chip Morris, wrote the The Living Maya, the definitive book
on these people, and hes moved among them as a friend and a neighbor
for 30 years. The students have steeped in his perceptions for two days
If ever a group of Wabash students was prepared for this powerful cross-cultural
experience, were it. Yet nothing sufficiently prepares you for this
church of St. John the Baptist in a land where every promontory, large
rock, every bend in the road has a name. The hills are alive, and its
not with the sound of music.
The daily work hereweaving, tilling the soil by hand, cutting wood,
feeding and caring for the familyis sacred, the work done by heroes
in the myths and songs of the people.
Some inhabitants will tell you of their soul companion that roams the
hills in the form of an animalcreatures to be respected and attended
with prayer and sacrifice.
In Chamula, ancient Mayan beliefs mingle with Roman Catholicismthe
syncretism weve been observing in various forms since
we arrived in Mexicoto form the costumbres of these descendants
of the Maya. A cross is placed on the eastern wall of every Mayan home
to commemorate the risen Christ and the rising sun; on the patio another
cross faces west to salute the suns passage below the earth.
Paul Stephens 04, a Roman Catholic, wonders aloud what this syncretism
will look like inside the church. Except for the ornamentation above the
arched doorway that gives it the look of an embroidered portal, the church
looks like many missions weve seen throughout Mexico.
But step over the threshold, and La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista
is anything but typical. Bromeliads hang from the rafters, long needles
of pine trees cover the tile floor, interspersed with hundreds of lit
candles affixed to the floor by their own melted wax. There are no pews.
Statues of saints rest in glass cases decorated with pine branches along
the walls, waiting for the feast days when theyll be washed and
their clothes and jewelry will be cleaned by a couple honored with the
The Chamulans have brought the earth inside this building, and its
not the candles, saints, incense and chants that sanctify these elements
of the earth, nor the trees, plants, or their fragrance that sanctify
the trappings of the church. For the Chamulans, its both.
The students take
it all in slowly. Thirty or so parishioners have gathered in one corner
for a baptism, the priest speaking over a child swaddled in an embroidered
blanket. Next to us, two men in traditional garb are speaking in the cadences
and strangle glottal stops of tzotzil, the local language. We weave through
an obstacle course demanding attention and balance and made more difficult
by the thought that knocking over a candle could be mean serious trouble.
Ive never seen so many 19-22 year-old American males move with such
deference and care.
Luis Flores 04 and I pause above an old woman kneeling on the floor,
a younger man and a boy at her side. Shes placed rows of candles
in front of her. A Pepsi and an orange sodaboth officially recognized
offeringsare set in front of them. A live chicken, seemingly drugged
and unaware of its fate, rests beside her.
Near the front altar and the statue of the churchs patron saint,
Professor Dan Rogers is asking questions of an elderly Chamulan when a
younger man interrupts.
These are superstitions, he says, speaking in Spanish instead
of tzotzil so that Rogers can understand him. He is a convert to evangelical
Christianityone of the 15,000 or 35,000 (depending on which side
you speak with) expelled from the town since 1967. Rogers is getting nervous
about the direction of the conversationand the fact that hes
in the middle of it.
The evangelical continues the debate. Behind him the old woman wrings
the chickens neck and places the dead bird in front of the candles
on the floor, offering up a prayer and sacrifice to the boys soul
Superstitions, the young man repeats.
The old man stares quizzically, as if he has no knowledge of the word,
no category for its meaning.
In the center of the sanctuary, J.R. Ford 02, a senior football
player from Whiting, Indiana has accidentally knocked over one of the
candles. Hes struggling to set it upright but the wax wont
stick, and he looks around to see a boy charged with protecting the church
watching him intently.
So Ford walks over to the boy, apologizes in his best Spanish, and asks
for help. The two walk back to the candle and set it upright, the boy
accepting Fords thanks with a smile.
Outside, the students are talking with vendors and buying field corn sprinkled
with hot pepper. Dawson and Rogers are asking a woman where they can buy
a Mayan cross (a symbol whose presence pre-dates the arrival of Spanish
She steps away from her booth and returns moments later with a cross from
her home. She has sold it to Rogers from off of her wall.
Aaron Drake returns with a bundle of little girls clothesapparently his
Spanish could use some work. Others return with stories of those they
met, the rituals they observed.
Is it Catholicism? Professor Rick Warner asks as we walked
toward the bus past a man pulling a cart up the hill.
I was surprised. Its not the Mass as I know it, says
Paul Stephens, ticking off a list of contrasting practices. But hes
impressed with how the peoples faith seems to be woven into the
their lives and into creation in a way he hasnt seen back home.
Who are we to judge them?
THE HISTORY of the Indigenous People of Mexico was no ordinary
course. The Colleges first combined effort of the history and modern
languages departments, it was also the first history course taught in
Spanish. On the first day of class, Dan Rogers strode into Detchon 209
holding a smoke-belching replica of an ancient Aztec chalice.
My first trip to Mexico City, a man dressed in Aztec costume stepped
up to me with a chalice like this and performed a blessing ritual,
Rogers said as he passed around a sample of the copal incense and
the room filled with the pungent aroma. Professor Warner and I thought
wed begin our journey together in the same way.
The classcomprising several Hispanics anxious to explore their Mexican
heritage, one grandson of a former governor of a state in Mexico, several
Hoosier-born students with some travel experience and two small town boys
whod never been out of the Midwestwasnt sure how to
Thats when they heard an admonition that would become a mantra for
the tripif youre going to learn anything about another
culture, youve got to take a risk.
Ramon Gonzales 03 stood and received the blessing, the chalice was
set aside, though still boiling with incense smoke. Less than 15 minutes
in and the class was literally immersed in the culture of the Mexico!
Immersion learning is one focus of the Colleges strategic plan initiative
to enhance and internationalize the Wabash curriculum. The courses include
in-class study and preparation for an immersion learning experience in
the culture, region, or subject being studied. Most of the trips occur
during the Colleges spring break in March.
Warner and Rogers had two goals in mind for the trip: give students an
intense personal, intellectual and emotional immersion in the culture
of modern day Mexico; and introduce them to indigenous people and experts
studying them so that students could gather research for their final project.
This way they wont be slogging through another term paper,
Rogers says. Theyll be writing about something theyve
actually seen, worked to understand, and something they care about.
Students met with anthropologists, an economist, a linguist, an historian,
an agronomist, artists, and a missionary. Each encounter a chance for
students to discover in themselves the same sort of passion for learning
and understanding Rogers and Warner found in their studies here.
Theres nothing for a teacher like watching that moment when
a student suddenly comes alive with understanding, Warner says.
And one of our hopes, and one of the reasons were meeting
with so many experts in so many different fields, is that students might
return for internships.
But the trip at hand was an 11-day immersion tripnot sightseeing,
but not much time for hardcore field work either.
It gives them a taste of the place, a chance to test and improve
their language skills, and the beginning of understanding, Warner
In pursuit of such insights, weve climbed the Pyramids of the Sun
in Teotihuacan, examined the ruins and carvings at Tula, gathered information
for projects at the National Museum of Anthropology, seen the syncretism
of Roman Catholic and ancient Aztec beliefs at the basilica of The Virgin
of Guadalupe, and scrambled to get a rare glimpse of the tomb of Pacal
And, it must be added, tried to cram in a spring breaks worth of
partying in our first two days in Mexico Cityallowed on two
conditions: take care of each other, and no matter how bad you feel the
next morning, you show up and keep learning.
The students have been good to their wordsome painfully so. There
are at least two Wallies with an intimate knowledge of what it would have
been like to be an Aztec climbing a 500-foot-high pyramid with a hangover.
And several more wholl be more selective in choosing their next
bottle of aguadiente.
But theyve embraced the culture with zeal and the language with
persistence. Its a 21st Century incarnation of the Wabash road trip,
a 24-hour moveable feast of teachable moments:
Ben Manker 02 and Hernandez debate capitalism in the Mexico City
airport, Warner and Rogers weigh in, and soon the conversation is tracing
the evolution of the Mexican economy and lasts until security asks to
search our luggage.
We finish dinner on the day of our scramble to the tomb of Pacal the Great
and suddenly half the students and Rogers are gone. I find them outside
at a full-scale replica they found of Pacals tomb. Our guide, Jack
Nelson, spends the next half-hour explaining the meaning of the sarcophagus
For those less skilled in Spanish, the experts themselves are a challenge.
Dawson called translating author and historian Jan de Voss talk
like being a cornerback instead of a wide receiver: youre
always anticipating whats coming next, and if youre tired
its easy to fall a step behind. Youve really got to stay focused.
Even the walls of students quarters at Na Bolom (tzotzil
for the House of the Jaguar) are a museum, lined with photographs and
artifacts of Chiapas indigenous people as taken and collected by
museum/lodges founders, the archaeologist Frans Blom and his wife,
photographer Gertrude Blom.
But in a sense, it all comes down to this day. A chance to see the living
remnant of the people who built the cities whose ruins weve explored;
to see in practice the beliefs weve read about; to hear a language
many Mexicans dont even know exists. These are the hometowns of
some of the indigenous people we saw begging on the streets of San Cristobal
and Mexico City. Three villagesChamula, San Andres Larrainzar, Zinacantanon
this final day in Mexico.
The belly of the beast, Warner calls it. Theyll
see poverty as theyve never seen it, and theyll see beauty
and traditions as theyve never seen them. I cant wait to see
how theyll respond.
Day 10: San Andreas Larrainzar
Weavings from the
village of San Andreas Larrainzar are the most intricate and, to my eye,
the most beautiful weve seen. But on this day, the village is a
stark contrast to that as the students gather in front of the church.
Were late arriving, the market is nearly closed down and smells
like the bottom of a trash can. Theres no way to be inconspicuous
when you walk into an Indian village with 14 Wabash students. Were
the only hulking Anglos in the place.
In front of the church is a scene right out of the book: the villages
civic elders in ceremonial garbs are lined up, several of the religious
elders talking with them.
But the church is closed to us, we discover, and our guides have some
work to do. A tourist in one of Jacks previous groups had been caught
taking a picture of the churchs bell tower and was jailed and fined
$600. The tourist was freed, but the elders are still offended. We need
a gift. So Jack Nelson and Morris collect pesos from each of us and return
with several cases of refrescos for the elders.
Soon, our gift is set aside, and a ceremony wed read about in Juan
the Chamula, of the courses text, unfolds before our eyes. A religious
elder moves down the line of civic leaders, placing his hand on the forehead
of each and giving him a bottle of liquor. The nuances of the ceremony
are different than wed read in the book, but Morris fills in the
The students have developed a deep respect for Morris, bolstered now as
we move inside the church and a group of San Andreas women whove
been praying file by Chip, greeting him like one of the family. He lived
here in 1972 when he first began studying the Maya of Chiapas. Now hes
laughing and asking questions in tzotzil. Were mesmerized.
Wabash students are primed to be drawn to the integrity of the man, the
way he moves so easily between these cultures but always keeps his own
Chip gets off a bus in a native village and people come running
up to greet him as a friend, Warner says. Thats not
the usual experience you have as a North American in these places. Hes
able to speak their language and, I think as much as possible, help us
understand a little bit about those cultures.
Morris, like Sergio Castro, has devoted his life to these peopleworking
in a place of political struggle, extreme poverty, and heartbreaking circumstances.
These men are determined to make a difference, Rogers says.
They are men that embody our notion of living humanely in a difficult
world. Having them with our students, having our students see how they
do this, was an incredibly moving and unforgettable part of the trip.
IF ENCOUNTERS with men like Chip and Sergio were our most moving moments,
seeing the tomb of Pacal the Great was the moment we moved most.
The tomb is one of the most celebrated of ancient Mayan sites. Few people
get a chance to see it, and its rarely open to a group as large
But thanks to behind-the-scenes work by David and Nancy Orr and Jack Nelson,
and no dearth of pesos, we had our chance. The catchwe had only
30 minutes to get to the pyramid, climb it, enter the tomb, descend the
stairs to the sarcophagus, and get out.
We were in a part of Mexico where you wait and wait, but when its
time to move, you better run like hell, Warner remembers. Suddenly
we were cleared to see this place, and we rushd to the temple, climbed
about 200 feet at a 45 degree angle, then descended these stairs that
are like ice.
Slicker than snail snot, Rogers adds.
Among the climbers was J.R. Ford, whod struggled earlier in the
trip with his fear of heights. With the clock ticking and park about to
close, there wasnt time for J.R. to work his way down the steps
slowly. And somehow, with the good of the group on the line, he overcame
his fear and kept on the move.
Now thats an experience Ill never forget, seeing four
or five Wabash guys coming at you at a run on those slippery stairslike
being the opposing quarterback and seeing the Little Giant defensive line
coming at you.
We did it quickly, everyone helped those who needed help, and we
did it as a team, Warner says. It was one of the great Wabash
moments of the trip, this camaraderie we felt at doing this.
the brightly colored pennants in the square, the fields of flowers as
we drive in, or the time of daya beautiful early afternoon in the
Chiapas Highlands. Perhaps its because weve been told that
the people well meet in Zinacantan are more open to talking with
us, even having their pictures taken, as long as we ask first. Theyve
embraced the Spanish language more readily than the Chamulans, some say
to the peril of their tradition.
Or maybe its the la vida tiene sabor Coca-Cola
sign at the entrance that makes us feel more at home!
For whatever reason, the students loosen up here. John Russell 02,
whose previous claim to fame was buying the most ridiculous hat in Mexico,
sees kids playing basketball at the outdoor community center courts and
walks over to join in. He stands there trying to get their attention.
Youd think a 6-foot-tall white guy in the middle of this indigenous
town would be hard to ignore. Maybe he should have brought the hat.
I follow the others into a side chapel of the church. Christmas lights
flash and chase each other like the sheep we saw on the hillside as we
drove in. An electronic music box is playing a familiar commercial Christmas
song. Chip, who once again has been joined by a couple of local friends,
explains the melding of Zinacantan tradition with the modern world and
where the beliefs converge. He points out the modern electronic contributions
people in the village have made to the chapels decorations.
And as you can hear, he grins as the electronic box plays
the appropriate tune. Santa Claus IS coming to town.
Its appropriate that our final stop with Chip Morris is a weavers
home. The business enterprise and safe house for widows and divorced women
just off the main square is a part of Sna Jolobil, the Mayan weavers
cooperative that Morris helped organize in 1983. Sna Jolobil preserved
traditional Mayan weaving, leading to the crafts renaissance in
the Mayan villages. We enter a room with beds for four women, very few
belongings, cramped quarters that open to a large courtyard. Joe Orozco
02 is asking questions of a women weaving on a backstrap loom. Soon
the space is filled with bargaining for goods and chatter among friends.
Down the street, Russell has got game. And Carlos Carillo, Dennis Bowers
03, Hernandez, Manker, and Dawson and have joined him. Its
five-on-five, Wabash versus Zinacantan, the Hoosiers against the Highlanders
playing Indianas game in a Mexican village more than 500 years old.
Wabash clearly has the height advantage, but the Zinacantecos are quick
and the court is slippery. The Wallies shoes cant find traction.
Juan Carlo falls on his butt and the kids from Zinacantan are kicking
ours. Its a good day to be indigenous.
The bus driver yells that were running late and need to get back.
The court clears. It seems too abrupt an ending to such a cultural exchange.
But just before he steps on the bus, J.R. Fordthe Chamula candle
tipper himselfpauses, turns, and trots back to the Zinacantecos,
shaking hands with each one and thanking them for the game. Wherever you
go, there you are, they say. And a gentleman knows that a dose of Hoosier
Hysteria always goes down better with the appropriate Hoosier Hospitality.
THE BUS RIDE HOME is our last look at the Mayan villages. We pass cornfields
clinging to hillsides dotted with thatched and tin roofed huts and Im
wondering how long before our science department sends students to Chiapas,
a place with the greatest biodiversity in Central America and the source
of many of today pharmaceuticals.
How soon before the religion department sends students to this microcosm
of the clash between different beliefs, modern life and tradition? (Theres
even a mosque in San Cristobal, rare in a town this sizeits members
mostly Chamulan converts.)
Chiapas is an area so rich for study that Harvard has established a center
here. And smack dab in the middle of it all are the hospitality and connections
for learning offered by Wabash trustee David Orr.
AN ELDERLY barefooted Mayan woman in bright Zinacantan weave herds her
sheep across the roada perfect photo for the story. But I put the
camera down and wave, half expecting her to turn away. She smiles kindly,
waves back, and I accept the gift as grace.
Theres been much of that these 10 days.
Im reminded of our return from Palenque in a bus that Dennis Bowers
called straight out of the 60s. It was about 8 p.m., some
sort of mariachi music was on the radio as we rode back from a different
sort of immersion experiencein the cool, rushing waters at Agua
Azul. Most of the guys had worked their way underneath the fallsa
place Dawson said sounded like the loudest rain youd ever heard
pounding on a tin roof. Theyd played all afternoon in the water.
So most of them slept on the way home. But Russell was talking with Rogers,
Warner, and Jack Nelson. Like all good road trip conversations, like the
jag sessions of Wabash lore, this one drifted easily, found its own way.
Warner, an accomplished chef as well as professor of history, called San
Francisco the best restaurant city in the world and rattled off a list
of his favorite bistros; Rogers recalled bookstores there, including the
Ferlinghetti introduced me to the word concupiscence.
Rogers smiled. Ferlinghetti introduced me to a lot of words.
Russell chimed in with a poem from William Blakes Songs of Experience.
Tyger, tyger,burning bright, in the forest of the night
Rogers responded with another from Songs of Innocence.
Little lamb who made thee, dost thou know who made thee
THOSE LINES RETURN TO ME as our bus meanders back from Zinacantan to San
Cristobal on this final afternoon in Chiapas. I think about our students
and the people we met and what theyll take from these encounters.
Hernandez, the grandson of a Mexican governor, listening to local economist
discuss innovative ways of improving the Mayans quality of life
while preserving their culture.
Dawson, an All-District
V tight end and Honor Scholar so impressed by an old indigenous woman
at the Pyramid of the Sun who climbed the ruin barefooted.
This temple was built by my ancestors, she said. I take
off my shoes off because this is holy ground.
Ben Manker, who plans to join the Peace Corps, befriending an 11-year-old
boy named Juan David selling bracelets in San Cristobalthe child
of an expelled Chamulan family who calls his life hawking woven goods
on the street and the religious strife hes witnessing just
Dennis Bowers, who as a kid dreamed of climbing the Aztec ruins, standing
at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Theyve come a long way from that first day in Mexico City, when
they were wide-eyed tourists jammed onto the Metro, to this last day,
where they stepped off the bus and, no longer tourists, worked their way
into a basketball game with local teenagers.
Maybe one of those boys in Zinacantan is telling his mom tonight about
beating the giant Americans.
Maybe several of our students have found something here that lights a
fire in their hearts and minds, the way Rogers and Warner hoped they might.
Maybe theyll return here, or take what theyve learned from
men like Sergio Castro and Chip Morris and try to make a difference elsewhere
in the world.
Innocence and experience have converged in all sorts of ways these 11
spring days in Mexico. Powerful memories, lingering questions. And the
one Im hearing most frequently on this last day in Chiapas is, When
can we come back?
Postscript: Two students from the course returned to Chiapas three months
laterJuan Carlo Hernandez as an intern in economics at FORO (Forum
for Sustainable Development) and Jesse Beccera 05 to the Spanish
language school and as an intern at Na Bolom. A third student, Aaron
Latham 04, interned in Chiapas under the direction of Wabash economics
professor Gustavo Barboza.
And the students projects?
In the four years that Ive been at Wabash teaching Spanish
at this level, Rogers says, These are far and away the best
papers Ive ever seen.
are your thoughts?
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