I shut my door, let out a deafening exhale, and checked the only thing that had been on my mind since leaving the cheerful yet barren room in DoÃ±a Rosita’s hostel in the vibrant city of San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico. I opened my suitcase, afraid to look. Then, I unwrapped what was once a delicate luminary of red clay, painted by careful hands in an all-American palate, to find sixteen jagged shards.
I boarded the plane from Mexico City to Chiapas on June 20, 2009, knowing nothing about what I would encounter. I was going to learn about the Zapatista political movement in Mexico as a member of the Chiapas Project through my high school. I assumed I would spend 10-days analyzing, taking notes and pictures, examining a culture entirely different from the one I grew up in. I was intoxicated with the smell and the colors of this new place, but still saw everything as if a plexi-glass sheet sat between me and the heat, uneven roads, wooden doors, and the extraordinary poverty surrounding me.
I stepped into the first catacole (meaning “shell” in Spanish, this a center of the Zapatista resistance and the autonomous government ruling it, found in each municipality) and clutched my notebook in one hand, eagerly scribbling notes. I drank in the words of the dignified and passionate men and women explaining their plight. I followed local customs, shaking hands with each individual I met with an ebullient, “mucho gusto.”
Despite my enthusiasm, my awe for the independence and remarkable sense of humor that each individual seemed to possess, the violent horrors many of them had witnessed, and despite the fact that I felt honored to be in the presence of men and women with the distinct ability to face abuse without fear, I was peering into a world I didn’t fully understand. It was not until I spoke with our bus driver, Julio Garza, that I grasped what it means to appreciate an experience abroad. In what was truly poetry, Julio, the quiet man who hardly spoke and kept his eyes shaded beneath reflective shades, removed his glasses and told me his story. He passionately described to me his need to support one of the few causes he believed to be truly just. Not merely a way of life or a means of survival, this movement is the heart and very center of people lost in a flurry of corrupt elections and violent paramilitary attacks. Without faith in the electoral process or the government, each moment of hopelessness is erased by the belief in the salvation that is Zapatismo.
It didn’t really matter whether I understood the intricacies of a governmental system so different from my own. Writing down statistics and dates, trying to capture the faces and structures surrounding me was inconsequential. Experiencing the cultural gap, but more importantly the human similarities, between Chiapans and myself depended on my ability to drop my pen and sentimental detachment and emotionally connect with each person I met. Only by allowing myself into a realm of intimacy could I begin to apprehend the importance of the justice-driven political movement in action all around me.
The luminary I unwrapped from my suitcase was painted by Emilia, a woman I became close with over the last few days I spent in Chiapas. When we exchanged these candle-holders as an act of friendship and remembrance, I swallowed my fear and abandoned my frantic attempts to record every moment. I bathed in the emotionally exhausting task of opening myself up.
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