Among the Living Maya

By Steve Charles
  March 24, 2002

Experimental Econ/Spanish Class Prompts Student Engagement
• Among the Living Maya
Why Immersion Learning?
The Orr Connection
Blessed to Be Here
The Man Who Wrote The Book
Padre e Hijo

Day 10: Chamula

There’s 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 Chamula’s La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista.

"Put your camera, camcorder, any recording device you’ve got into your bag or pocket," Chip Morris, tells us, our guide’s 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 community—it feels as wild and unpredictable as its namesake.

But easing our trepidation and piquing our curiosity are the words of the people we’ve 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 village’s 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.

We’ve read of this place in Rosario Castellanos’ The Book of Lamentations—these 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 he’s moved among them as a friend and a neighbor for 30 years. The students have steeped in his perceptions for two days now.

If ever a group of Wabash students was prepared for this powerful cross-cultural experience, we’re 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 it’s not with "the sound of music."

The daily work here—weaving, tilling the soil by hand, cutting wood, feeding and caring for the family—is 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 animal—creatures to be respected and attended with prayer and sacrifice.

In Chamula, ancient Mayan beliefs mingle with Roman Catholicism—the "syncretism" we’ve been observing in various forms since we arrived in Mexico—to 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 sun’s 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 we’ve 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 they’ll be washed and their clothes and jewelry will be cleaned by a couple honored with the task.

The Chamulans have brought the earth inside this building, and it’s 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, it’s 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. I’ve 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. She’s placed rows of candles in front of her. A Pepsi and an orange soda—both officially recognized offerings—are 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 church’s 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 Christianity—one 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 conversation—and the fact that he’s in the middle of it.

The evangelical continues the debate. Behind him the old woman wrings the chicken’s neck and places the dead bird in front of the candles on the floor, offering up a prayer and sacrifice to the boy’s soul companion.

"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. He’s struggling to set it upright but the wax won’t 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 Ford’s 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 missionaries here).

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’ clothes—apparently 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. It’s not the Mass as I know it," says Paul Stephens, ticking off a list of contrasting practices. But he’s impressed with how the people’s faith seems to be woven into the their lives and into creation in a way he hasn’t seen back home. "Who are we to judge them?"

"The History of the Indigenous People of Mexico" was no ordinary course. The College’s 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 we’d begin our journey together in the same way."

The class—comprising 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 who’d never been out of the Midwest—wasn’t sure how to respond..

That’s when they heard an admonition that would become a mantra for the trip—"if you’re going to learn anything about another culture, you’ve 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 College’s 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 College’s 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 won’t be slogging through another term paper," Rogers says. "They’ll be writing about something they’ve 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.

"There’s 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 we’re 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 trip—not 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 says.

In pursuit of such insights, we’ve 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 the Great.

And, it must be added, tried to cram in a spring break’s worth of partying in our first two days in Mexico City——allowed 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 word—some 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 who’ll be more selective in choosing their next bottle of aguadiente.

But they’ve embraced the culture with zeal and the language with persistence. It’s 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 Pacal’s tomb. Our guide, Jack Nelson, spends the next half-hour explaining the meaning of the sarcophagus’ symbols.

For those less skilled in Spanish, the experts themselves are a challenge.

Dawson called translating author and historian Jan de Vos’s talk "like being a cornerback instead of a wide receiver: you’re always anticipating what’s coming next, and if you’re tired it’s easy to fall a step behind. You’ve 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/lodge’s 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 we’ve explored; to see in practice the beliefs we’ve read about; to hear a language many Mexicans don’t 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 villages—Chamula, San Andres Larrainzar, Zinacantan—on this final day in Mexico.

"The belly of the beast," Warner calls it. "They’ll see poverty as they’ve never seen it, and they’ll see beauty and traditions as they’ve never seen them. I can’t wait to see how they’ll 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 we’ve seen. But on this day, the village is a stark contrast to that as the students gather in front of the church. We’re late arriving, the market is nearly closed down and smells like the bottom of a trash can. There’s no way to be inconspicuous when you walk into an Indian village with 14 Wabash students. We’re the only hulking Anglos in the place.

In front of the church is a scene right out of the book: the village’s 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 Jack’s previous groups had been caught taking a picture of the church’s 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 we’d read about in Juan the Chamula, of the course’s 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 we’d read in the book, but Morris fills in the blanks.

The students have developed a deep respect for Morris, bolstered now as we move inside the church and a group of San Andreas women who’ve 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 he’s laughing and asking questions in tzotzil. We’re 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 identity.

"Chip gets off a bus in a native village and people come running up to greet him as a friend," Warner says. "That’s not the usual experience you have as a North American in these places. He’s 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 people—working 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 it’s rarely open to a group as large as ours.

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 catch—we 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 it’s 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, who’d struggled earlier in the trip with his fear of heights. With the clock ticking and park about to close, there wasn’t 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 that’s an experience I’ll never forget, seeing four or five Wabash guys coming at you at a run on those slippery stairs—like 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."

DAY 10—Zinacantan

Perhaps it’s the brightly colored pennants in the square, the fields of flowers as we drive in, or the time of day—a beautiful early afternoon in the Chiapas Highlands. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been told that the people we’ll meet in Zinacantan are more open to talking with us, even having their pictures taken, as long as we ask first. They’ve embraced the Spanish language more readily than the Chamulans, some say to the peril of their tradition.

Or maybe it’s 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. You’d 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 chapel’s decorations.

"And as you can hear," he grins as the electronic box plays the appropriate tune. "Santa Claus IS coming to town."

It’s appropriate that our final stop with Chip Morris is a weaver’s 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 craft’s 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. It’s five-on-five, Wabash versus Zinacantan, the Hoosiers against the Highlanders playing Indiana’s 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 can’t find traction. Juan Carlo falls on his butt and the kids from Zinacantan are kicking ours. It’s a good day to be indigenous.

The bus driver yells that we’re 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. Ford—the Chamula candle tipper himself—pauses, 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 I’m 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? (There’s even a mosque in San Cristobal, rare in a town this size—its 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 road—a 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.

There’s been much of that these 10 days.

I’m 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 experience—in the cool, rushing waters at Agua Azul. Most of the guys had worked their way underneath the falls—a place Dawson said sounded like the loudest rain you’d ever heard pounding on a tin roof. They’d 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 "City Lights."

"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 Blake’s 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 they’ll 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 Cristobal—the child of an expelled Chamulan family who calls his life hawking woven goods on the street and the religious strife he’s witnessing "just a game."

Dennis Bowers, who as a kid dreamed of climbing the Aztec ruins, standing at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.

They’ve 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 they’ll return here, or take what they’ve 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 I’m 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 later—Juan 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 I’ve been at Wabash teaching Spanish at this level," Rogers says, "These are far and away the best papers I’ve ever seen."