The Mexico you didn’t see (this Adventure World Travel Summit)

Despite what the Mexican Federal government would have us believe, especially since taking presidency of the G20 summit, racism and repression against the indigenous people of Mexico remains strong, in fact it could be called a way of life.

Tessa Montaña
14 May 2012

For most visitors to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a sleepy colonial town in the highlands of Chiapas in Southern Mexico it is easy to understand why Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon fondly proclaimed it to be “the most magical of Mexico’s magical villages”. Brilliantly clear mountain skies, quaint and colourful ancient adobe brick buildings and culture fierce in the upholding of tradition, a legacy still breathed today by the traditional Maya people who live on and once ruled this fertile land.

Fittingly, the government of Calderon have gone on to stage one of the world’s greatest magic tricks in San Cristobal. But alas, this is no fantastical David Copperfield moment. Something far more sinister lies behind the words of the President; a vanishing act that absconded an entire indigenous ethnic group as part of a $470 million pesos clean up operation. Or as the government tell it, ‘preparation’ for the hosting of the ATTA’s World Adventure Tourism Summit in October 2011.

Months of work went into making San Cristobal look presentable to the 650 foreign tourism agencies who were to attend the week long summit. This included the restoration of historical sites, repaving of the streets and plaza as well as the repainting of colonial buildings in the centre of the town. Whilst hundreds of officials and politicians donned their glad rags for the week’s festivities, the military and police were out in force to ensure that the streets were cleaned of indigenous people.

Tessa Montaña. Santo Domingo

Thousands of people, mainly Tzotzil and Tzetzal Indians - one of the largest groups of Mexico’s pre-Spanish descendants - work the surrounding farmlands and come to San Cristobal on a daily basis to sell their goods. These people make a subsistence living and San Cristobal is the end of the road for what little goods they have to sell, whether it be fruit, vegetables or traditional arts and crafts.

The market in the north of the city is a must do on the list of any tourist in San Cristobal. Set under the shade of the Ex Convent, Santo Domingo, the pathways which criss-cross the grounds are lined with market vendors who pay a handsome sum in taxes to the municipal government for the right to sell. The region is well known for its traditional tapestry and weaving as well as leather and amber jewellery work.  All this can be found on display as well as a scattering of Zapatista dolls, t-shirts and key chains - a reminder of the anti government movement which is still strong here in Chiapas.

Tessa Montaña. Santo Domingo

On the first day of the summit I walk to the market. It is a ghost town. Where is everybody?  The people are vanished, the stalls have been dismantled and the grounds of Santo Domingo have taken on a rather grey, gloomy and lonely look. It is as if the market never existed. I hurriedly leave, feeling confused and wander down to the central plaza to see what I can find and here lies the icing on the government’s very pretty cake. An exhibition centre constructed in the central plaza where 11 different indigenous peoples of Mexico have been carefully selected and put on show in an environment where they are able to ‘market their services properly’.

Ask any visitor to San Cristobal and they will tell you that it is the sight of a man from neighbouring village, Oxchuc, walking proudly down the street in his traditional fluorescent, abstractly designed huipile (tunic), which makes San Cristobal magical. It is muddling through your grocery shopping in a mixture of Spanish and ancient Mayan dialect with a family vending on the street which you will write home about. It is not the colonial architecture or the spotlessly clean, pavements, which of course no one could regret, which will however make it onto your postcard. Without the indigenous, San Cristobal is indistinguishable to the weary traveller from any other colonial town found up and down the Americas. Aspiring to the same aesthetics of a film set, sanitised for the gringos. Not a living, breathing and working town.

Tessa Montaña. Santo Domingo

When the Summit is over and the hoards of foreigners or “geuros” as they are affectionately called have left I head back to Santo Domingo. The market is back. This is truly a tourism treasure. Here I see colour, I see warmth, I see the personality and character of the city, but most importantly I see history come to life.

Tessa Montaña. Santo Domingo

I ask a vendor where they have been and why? “I stayed at home in my house” one lady tells me. “I didn’t want to get into trouble with the police.” Another tells me how her son attempted to vend his chewing gums and cigarettes on the street (as he does every day) during the week of the summit. But as he sat to take a rest he was found by police, hassled and forced home. Like many children from the surrounding villages, he doesn’t go to school because by working the streets he can earn more money than both his parents in one day. He too stayed at home for the week.

Something is strange here, I think to myself. The indigenous of Chiapas are not well known for their complacency. This is the heartland of Mexico’s anti government, anti globalisation movement, the home of the Zapatistas. II try and get to the bottom of why people left without putting up a fight.

“When we went to get our social security payment we were told that we were not permitted to vend that week but that we could be compensated for our losses”. “A bribe?”, I ask. “No,” I’m told and stared at uncomfortably. “Compensation”.

The hosting of the summit in San Cristobal has come at a price of $470 million pesos, justified by the Tourism Board of Mexico on the grounds that “adventure tourism is a $90 billion industry”. However, ask the Assistant Director Rodolfo Lopez Negrete what slice of this pie is generated in Mexico and there are no reliable figures available.

Nearly 18 years ago, the Zapatistas declared a war on the Mexican government for being so out of touch with Mexico’s people as to render it completely illegitimate. Until now, never has so much money and attention been poured into a solitary event in Chiapas, the poorest and most forgotten state of Mexico where 76.7% of people live below the poverty line.

With this in mind, one can’t help but wonder if the money could have been better spent.

Tessa Montaña. Santo Domingo

All photographs taken by author.

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