Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Karina's world

I met Karina at Casa Na Bolom, a hotel and an archaeological research institute in the highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Once headed by Trudy and Francis Bloom – she was a Swiss anthropologist and photographer, he a Danish archaeologist – Na Bolom has always been committed to serving the indigenous groups of Chiapas, especially the Lacandon, a small community who live in the rainforest near the Mexico-Guatemala border. Lacandonese families can stay at Na Bolom; they can get medical treatment if necessary; and there are also education initiatives for their children.

Karina was one of these children. She was playing in the courtyard – a beautiful courtyard enclosed by bright yellow walls – with her brother and sister. She was about five years old. She had wide face, and her features were very much like those of the other indigenous children and women I met during my travels in Chiapas. Her mother, Maria, sat in the courtyard selling beads.

I met Karina shortly afterward. She readily sat next to me on the wooden bench, a big smile on her face. She wasn’t shy. I did not speak Spanish, so we communicated in gestures.

“Hari,” I said, pointing to myself. She was smart and understood immediately: “Karina,” she said.

We played for a bit. I made a rocket out of the map of San Cristobal and pretended it was headed towards me and I was fleeing unsuccessfully. Karina laughed heartily. She insisted that I repeat it. I did, and within minutes we were like good friends.

That was the last I saw of her. But the next day I traveled from San Cristobal down to the rainforest along the Mexico-Guatemala border – coincidentally, to the little village of Lacanja, where Karina had been born. When I realized this, Karina became an accompaniment to every detail I observed during my travels: the hike through the rainforest, the other Lacandonese I met, the villages I passed by on my drive. I wanted to understand the milieu she was growing up in, how she must be beginning to view the world around her.


A trail in the Lacandon Rainforest (picture mine)

Already, Karina was bilingual: she spoke Spanish fluently, but with a slight accent; I had also heard her speak her mother tongue, Lacandon, with her mother and siblings. Karina had probably spent most of her time growing up in Lacanja. She would have been used to walking with elders through the rainforest, an experience that will instill a wonder for the natural world in her.

Karina would have been told she was Mexican; and that Guatemala was short distance away, on the other side of the Usumacinta River. But the talk of nations and boundaries may not have made much sense. She was first and foremost Lacandonese. And she would realize, as she grew up, that hers was a very small community - and a community that was changing fast. Lacanja may be remote, but roads have brought tourists and economic opportunities in the last few decades.

Karina probably knows already that her people are materially poor. In fact, if you look at pictures of the Lacandon, you would think they were an isolated tribe of hunter-gatherers living in the pristine rainforest. But appearances are always deceptive, and the twists and turns of history always humbling. Very close to the Lacandon rainforest are breathtaking Mayan ruins – in Bonampak, Yaxchilan, and Palenque. The Lacandon may have come from Yucatan, another region where Mayans were once dominant. Karina will come to know, upon visiting these ruins – some of which her people consider sacred – that she is Mayan. Lacandon, in fact, is a Mayan language. Her ancestors built spectacular city states in the first millennium AD, and excelled in astronomy and mathematics.

Once upon a time, then, Karina’s people must have led a different sort of life.

With the coming of the Spanish, however, the Lacandon retreated to the rainforest. In the 1940s they were connected again with the broader world. Due to their isolation, they had, unlike indigenous communities in Mexico, retained many of their Mayan beliefs.

Moss-covered Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan (picture mine)

Karina will quickly realize as she travels the cities of Chiapas that other Mayan groups (Mayan language diversity in Chiapas is impressive: Tzotzil, Tzetzal, Tojolabal, Chol, Chuj and Zoque) are also poor, but have more experience with modernity. She will also learn of the Zapatista movement - more precisely EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional), named after Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) - which surprised everyone by capturing cities on Chiapas on the Jan 1st, 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect the same day. This was not a coincidence: the Zapatistas were and still are against neo-liberal economic policies.

A board I spotted close to Lacanja

The army is still attempting to hunt these rebels. There are many checkpoints on the way to Karina’s village, Lacanja. There are also plenty of signs that the Zapatistas have sympathizers - they are, after all, on the side of the Chiapas' poor Mayan communities, who form a significant portion of the state's population. Perhaps on one of her trips from San Cristobal to Lacanja, Karina will see this board that I saw, and wonder what it is about.

“Muera el sistema capitalista” or “Death to the capitalist system.”

But if Karina travels to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the sprawling capital city of Chiapas (almost eight hours away from Karina’s birthplace: how inexorable distances can be in this small state!), she will notice that the capitalist system is thriving. American stores are everywhere. The modern bus station in Tuxtla – sparkling white and red – is part of a humongous mall that could easily shame some of the ones I’ve been to the US. It is also superbly maintained: for every little blemish on the floor, there emerges, dutifully, out of nowhere, a new janitor.

This, Karina will know instantly, is a place very different from the Chiapanecan hinterland she belongs to.

Karina’s world, then, has been shaped by many forces, spanning both space and time: the dense rainforest of Chiapas and the incessantly mountainous terrain; Mayan city states; the multitude of languages; the Spanish conquest of the 16th century and its lingering effects; the blending of Christian and Mayan faiths; the modern Mexican nation state, which is sometimes like an extension of Spanish subjugation; NAFTA and the Zapatista Rebellion.

Consciously or otherwise, Karina will carry all of these with her.


Pallavi said...

That is so very ingenuously written. Niceness (!). I only wished for one picture of Karina!..may be of the moment when you befriended making paper rocket for her. (smile)

Hari said...

Yes, Pallavi, I too wish I had a picture of Karina; I regret it very much now. But if you want to imagine how she might look or dress, check this picture. That should give you an idea of how Karina might look when she's a little older.

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