Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indigenous women of San Cristobal: In search for a place in the globalized world and the local society.

The following is the result of various conversatiobs with indigenous men and women struggling for their subsistence in San Cristobal de las Casas

To be Indigenous and female in the American continent (also known as Cemanahuac Tewatzinsuyo) equals to be vulnerable to all the prejudices of society, the historical ones and contemporary, to not be seen and to be the victim of choice. The presence of indigenous women in San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas Mexico is connected to many peoples lifestyle factors and some contemporary issues. Traditionally the city was the place to go and sell their products, attend religious festivities and take care of legal matters. nowadays this is only partially true.

Many of the women living in the town are displaced due to the violence in their communities, the political tensions, religious differences and because as women they were unable to make a living back in their communities; The reason most common for this being displacement of their whole families, their husbands, and migration of them and their male sons to Mexico city or the US, this also makes it harder for them to survive in a traditional manner. This forced relocation, creates Indian ghettos, just like the ones created by the BIA in the US. these sprout in the outskirts of the city of San Cristobal and lack the most basic services and urban planning. The women that inhabit these improvised neighborhoods have to find a way to earn a living that is different from the one they had in their communities of origin.

The indigenous women of San Cristobal are in a constant struggle for their subsistence and the one of their families. They sell candy and food, weavings, entertain, prostitute themselves, baby sit, clean houses, wash clothes, pour drinks, pose for pictures, etc. among this hectic situation they also try to find a place where they can claim belonging, however the rest of the society is not willing to recognize them as people that matter. People often chase them away from public spaces; these people are not inspectors or police officers, they are citizens concerned with the "good" appearances of the town. This gives room to a now common trend among indigenous women in San Cristobal that is spreading all over Mexico, the guerrilla marketing of their products. This consists of carrying whatever you trying to sell, cigarettes, fruit, weavings, etc. and pick a corner, then try to sell as much of it as you can for a period no longer than 40 minutes, hopefully before an inspector shows up or a concerned citizen removes you.

The city is pretty "relaxed" in allowing people to sell their goods in front of the main cathedral with one condition, set up is only allowed after 9:30pm, when only the party goers are out. The women are also discriminated by the hippies, ladinos and foreigner craft sellers and street performers that abound in the town and who fight for them for the public spaces where these various groups attempt to earn a living. Its is ironic how the concerned citizens are demanding and abusive towards the indigenous people, yet they turn docile and willing to serve those who are foreign, light skinned, or with European physical traits. Its stunning to witness this transformation.

The question that many pose is, where are the men? they can't all be victims of violence or migration. The answer is complex. Many point out to the shortcomings of men or try to portray them as alcoholics or lazy. No matter how true some of these assumptions may be at times, it is also truth is that is harder to market yourself as a dark, non Spanish-speaking indigenous male to a foreign tourist clientele, which is what dominates the work industry in the town. The tourists want to see the friendly sirvienta (servant), not the face of their gardener or construction worker back at home selling them crafts of pouring their coffee. Just like in any other part of the world, many men, old and young that try to be supportive succumb to the pressures of providing for a family and bail out or simply cannot make ends meet. added to this there's a hard reality added to the mix, right now Mexico has the lowest development rate in the whole continent.

San Cristobal relies on the labor of the indigenous people for its survival, they produce the majority of the products in the markets, being meat the only industry that is fully controlled by foreigners and wealthy Mexican ranchers. These are careful to hire nice mestizos that are not revolt prone like the Indians. The agriculture of the region still produces, yet this is too far from being something that really provides a significant income for the people that work the fields. The cause for this is the absence of proper remuneration for the products of their labor. The production of the peasants is usually purchased at a low price and resells at a much higher one. There are Fair-trade efforts, however these are still a minority in the commodities market. The effort of gaining a fair payment for their products is one of historical proportions in Mexico, and one has to consider that Chiapas is one of the states that was never stage of any part of the 1910's revolution that attempted to achieve justice for those who work the land.

The people that visit Chiapas get to see a romanticized or clean version of the town, this manifestation of gentrification is the same one that shows trendy neighborhoods in other parts of the world. They find the stereotypical margaritas, flowery shawls, cuisine that is passed as authentic in order to match their knowledge of Mexican dishes back at home. people get a culture in a package at cool places, these do not cater to the indigenous they are not allowed unless they work there. every night, when the performance of the day is over, the indigenous women go back to the outskirts of the city, to spend the night in make shift houses that are not seen by the people that visit the town.

Ironically there's a mystified image of Maya people, yet individuals fail to recognize the people in front of them as such or of value. The real people are too far away from the Hollywood imagery and new age books and workshops. While a tourist buys an expensive amber medallion with a pseudo Mayan calendar sign on it, the last midwives in the area are selling underpaid weavings, cleaning houses and dying of old age, their knowledge in their heads, the one that the tourist glamourizes about, is lost forever. The harsh truth that few want to acknowledge is that the indigenous population has been robbed of their cultural meanings and icons, these belong now to anthropologists in ivy league universities and to spiritual gurus that are not Mayan or indigenous. added to this bio piracy has taken its toll on indigenous women in San Cristobal, oftentimes a much willing curandera living in the city, shares hers and her culture's knowledge only to have it literally stolen by an educational institution of pharmaceutical company. In Mexico the immaterial cultural patrimony is not protected, leaving indigenous groups to fend for themselves.

There's a misunderstanding about why people visit San Cristobal and that have a more socially aware perception of things. That of supporting the Zapatista movement. However, the Zapatista causes and dreams that these people look for are in the streets ,surviving and in the communities outside of San Cristobal. These well intentioned people flood the restaurants and cultural centers that do not cater to the indigenous population and that are fool of Pseudo Zapatista memorabilia trying to make money out of the movement. The real centers and human rights institutions that support the Zapatistas and other communities that work for the improvement of their living conditions and the exercise of their human rights are under constant harassment from the governmental security agencies under the nations current application of the plan Merida.

There's a stone in the shoe of the well to do people in the city, and even if they do not like it, the indigenous women are the public face of San Cristobal. The tourist industry uses and grinds them just like the Maquiladora system does to women in other parts. They are the majority of the people hired in the businesses, often for way too small of a salary, they are objects of many abuses, and when they decide to quit in case that they are not fired. There are plenty more young women willing to endure unjust labor conditions. The town relaxes its grip on the women when is convenient for its image, when the high tourist season starts and the Indian image is in demand, they are allowed to cautiously step into a more public arena, this phenomena has been disturbed by the current instability due to the global economic crisis and swine flu scare that have chased visitors away.

In San Cristobal one might not see sweatshops, yet they are there, one might not find any racist literature, yet racism its is very well known and acted upon, china-made weavings sell in the store fronts and are advertised as the products of authentic Maya people. The town is full of excess and contradictions. To the ruling social groups discontent, there's dignity, awareness, education and a growing trend in native women to not look down on themselves. They organize and educate each other on and about fighting the triple oppression given to them by history; that of being women, indigenous and poor. This bout between being indigenous and proud versus Mexico's historical abuse creates a world of possibility. Notions of equality and justice are sprouting all over the city. The Zapatista women philosophies with their women's revolutionary law have spread all over Mexico and many other parts of the world that become aware of the struggle of indigenous women of Chiapas.

Currently various associations and international NGOs are supporting the struggle of these women to regain the use of their cultural symbols, spaces and communication forms; which they do not have and deserve access to. the opportunity to encounter themselves in spaces as equal subjects which also gives them the characteristics of community and of an identity of a specific group of people (Chamulas, Zinacantecos, Choles, Tzetzales,etc.), and that also differentiates them from other groups. A culture of inclusion and tolerance is the main catalyst to achieve this.

Liberation for Indigenous women in San Cristobal means fair opportunities to exercise their right to subsistence, economic equality, access to the "public" spaces, responsible use and preservation of the earth and its resources, cultural sovereignty, en the respect and exercise of their human rights. for those hoping for a quick solution a simple fact has to be 'brought up. It has taken 517 years for conditions to be like this for indigenous people in the continent, it is only just to believe that it will take a while to come back from there as a society.

Sustainable development has three major factors at its core, environments, economics, and sociopolitics. This attempts to meet the human needs, while at the same time restoring and preserving the earth and its resources in order to maintain it and meet those human needs in the present as well as in the future. It is resumed in finding a balance between human needs and the limits of the earth. acknowledgment of the rights of others to exists is part of this development. Once again, sustainability for indigenous women of Chiapas means working for human, land rights and economic justice. This in an equitable social environment where they are subjects, not objects of the public policies, which currently are not developed to reflect of include their realities. In a restorative justice approach, there needs to be serious growth in women's standard of living, education, community and equal opportunities. This will give as a result a fulfilling experience of living as indigenous women and human beings. Lastly, there has to be a global educational effort. This to create awareness, and make the impact of current efforts like the ones by the Zapatista women and various NGO's last. This will ensue the validation and continuation of the work and its relevance. The liberation of Indigenous women in San Cristobal de las Casas is the liberation of all women.; The respect of women equals respect for the earth and can be interpreted as sustainable development, achieving this will result in a just and equal society for all.