return of the prodigal daughter…

I guess February 17th is a special day in my existence. Three years ago yesterday, I returned from Mexico. And one year ago yesterday, I started my awesome job.!! Please take a moment to stroll down memory lane with me 🙂

howdoyousaytacoinspanish

chicago chicago

I cannot believe a whole year has passed since I left Playa del Carmen.!! One year ago on February 17th, 2013, I left Mexico and returned to my home in Chicago. The funny thing is that after almost three years living and working in Mexico, Mexico had become my home. In fact, those first few months back in Chicago, I felt like a foreigner in my own country.! I wasn’t familiar with any of the new tv shows. There was a plethora of new restaurants and bars in the city to make me feel like a social outcast.!! And I am always in the know about what’s cool and hip.!

I also felt out of step with the tenor and feel of America in general. Everyone moved faster, talked faster, and was busy with a million and one obligations. The laid back lifestyle I had enjoyed in Mexico dissolved…

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esos ojos

One of my very early blog posts about my visit to a coffee farm in Chiapas.!! Please enjoy while I’m still dealing with personal issues.

howdoyousaytacoinspanish

esos ojos

In March of 2010, I took my last class for my master’s program. Luckily for me, that last class was also a study abroad trip to Chiapas, Mexico. While we were in Chiapas, we learned about sustainable growth, indigenous rights and the history of Mexico. We met with many groups, toured non-profit organizations and visited some villages. And of course, we ate some great food – moles, tacos, chicken, etc. And we drank some wonderful coffee as there are many coffee farms in Chiapas.!

front

One of the villages that most stands out for me during that trip is Nuevo Yibeljoj in Chiapas, Mexico. The town is in the highlands of Chiapas and in 2010 had a population of 595 residents. The town’s inhabitants are Tzeltal or Tzotzil speaking indigenous peoples. Many of the residents have small coffee farms in what can only be described as their backyards. The town belongs…

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with a rebel yell….

It’s been 20 years since NAFTA was signed this new year 2014.! It’s also been 20 years since the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. I thought it would be a good time to re-post my blog about my study abroad class to see the Zapatistas. I am also including a link to an article in The Japan Times talking about the Zapatistas and where they are now.!

Enjoy.!! See you for Tecate mañana..!!

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/01/02/world/mexicos-zapatista-rebels-mark-20-isolated-years-of-pride-but-remain-poor/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mexicos-zapatista-rebels-mark-20-isolated-years-of-pride-but-remain-poor

howdoyousaytacoinspanish

I am descended from rebels. Historically and genetically. Historically, Croatia has a long history of insurgency. It has resisted the infiltration and occupation of many invaders. The long list includes the Romans, the Venetian Republic, Hungarians, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Ottoman Turks and the German and Italian armies during WWII. Let us, of course, not forget the communists who held Croatia in a vise-like grip for the latter part of the 20th century.

And this is how I am genetically descended from rebels. My father did not believe in communism. He wanted a free democratic Croatia. And so in 1961, he left his village in Hecergovina in the former Yugoslavia with two friends. They walked for three days straight, stopping only to sleep or to hide from the authorities. Finally, they reached Trieste, Italy where they requested asylum. My father spent a year in a refugee camp in Italy awaiting…

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with a rebel yell….

EZLN painted house

EZLN painted house

I am descended from rebels. Historically and genetically. Historically, Croatia has a long history of insurgency. It has resisted the infiltration and occupation of many invaders. The long list includes the Romans, the Venetian Republic, Hungarians, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Ottoman Turks and the German and Italian armies during WWII. Let us, of course, not forget the communists who held Croatia in a vise-like grip for the latter part of the 20th century.

my father (left) and his friends before leaving for Italy

my father (left) and his friends before leaving for Italy

And this is how I am genetically descended from rebels. My father did not believe in communism. He wanted a free democratic Croatia. And so in 1961, he left his village in Hecergovina in the former Yugoslavia with two friends. They walked for three days straight, stopping only to sleep or to hide from the authorities. Finally, they reached Trieste, Italy where they requested asylum. My father spent a year in a refugee camp in Italy awaiting the U.S. to accept his paperwork. His friends went on to France. Finally, in April 1962, the U.S. government granted my father political refugee status. He was free to come to the United States.

my father (right side) singing with some friends

my father (right side) singing with some friends

That could have been the end of his rebellion. But it wasn’t. My father continued to believe in a free Croatia. He marched in Croatian national pride parades. He invested in the Croatian community by participating in the church, the community and the Croatian school (the one where I missed all those Saturday morning cartoons..!!). But he also invested in the Croatian people. He sent money back home, he pressed the U.S. to stop doing business with Yugoslavia, he passed out leaflets and he helped the diaspora find jobs and homes. Because of this involvement in the community and the stipulation on his asylum to not be involved in overt acts against the U.S. or Yugoslavia, we had many visits from the FBI. Hence, my abilty to spot a FBI agent…

My father (blue grey suit) outside church

My father (blue grey suit) outside church

Throughout my youth, I was inundanted with ideas of resistance, rebellion and freedom from tyranny. And so my fascination with revolutionaries around the world was born, including the U.S.’s from Britain. But also groups as farflung as the Irish revolutionary army (IRA), the Basque nationalist and separatist group ETA, even the Quebec sovereignty movement in Canada peaked my attention.! If it smacked of rebellion and unrest and the formation of a new country – it had my attention. Not that I condoned violence, it was the romantic rhetoric that made me swoon.

My mom, my rebel dad and me

My mom, my rebel dad and me

So in March 2010, when I signed up for my Chiapas study abroad class, I was pleased to discover we would be meeting with the Zapatista revolutionaries in Mexico.! In fact, I was excited.!! However, almost every single other person in my life expressed interest ranging from complete disinterest as in “Who are they?” and “Who cares” to “Omg – you are going to get yourself killed.!” But I was not nervous, I was thrilled to go. Ok maybe I was a little nervous. But I had technically grown up around ‘rebels’ my whole life. So I figured, I would be fine.

EZLN symbol

EZLN symbol

The day finally came to see the Zapatistas. We took our bus to one of their villages in the Chiapas highlands. We arrived at the village fairly early. A letter had been sent ahead of time announcing our visit. However, the Zapatista villages are considered an autonomous region of Mexico; therefore, when we arrived we had to hand over our passports for approval. It was exactly like entering a foreign country. We were allowed to enter the village, but were only escorted to an administration building. Apparently, there was some confusion with our admittance because two students were carrying passports from Colombia and one from the Ukraine. Initially, the Zapatistas seemed confused by this, but we were able to explain the discrepancy to their satisfaction.

comedor pinguino or the penguin diner

comedor pinguino or the penguin diner in the village

On a side note, while we were waiting to be admitted many of us required the use of bathroom facilities. Since we were not allowed to go into the village technically, we were led behind the small la tienda on the roadside. So remember how I waxed profusely about the amazing bathroom at Ocosingo. Yeah, this bathroom was the exact opposite..!! First, we had to walk through a maze of dirt, refuse, discarded metal and chickens..!! Yes, I said chickens..!! Have I mentioned I’m a city girl who is afraid of birds in general. Let alone chickens. Did I mention me and my classmate held hands.! Then of course, the bathroom was an outhouse on stairs..?! With chickens outside clucking.! Oh well…I digress…

zapatista village administration building

zapatista village administration building

Once our visit was approved, our passports were returned to us. We were then taken to a building that appeared to be a schoolhouse or meeting room. Three Zapatista rebels, two men and a woman, sat at the head of the room and told us their story. Basically, the Zapatistas are a revolutionary leftist group located in Chiapas. The group is made up mostly of rural indigenous Maya, though their leader and main spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, is not Maya. The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian reformer and leading figure of the Mexican Revolution.

painted revolutionaries

painted revolutionaries and a classmate

The Zapatistas have led a war or rebellion against the Mexican state since 1994 when NAFTA was signed. They were concerned that NAFTA would bring about a larger gap between the rich and the poor. However, since their 1994 uprising was squashed by the Mexican army, they have refrained from using weapons. The Zapatistas, or EZLN, now have adopted a different strategy that attempts to gain both Mexican and international support. They have started an internet campaign to explain their intentions and bring about more awareness to their plight. As well as, invite outside groups such as my study abroad class to hear their history and their requests. This change in tactics has garnered greater support from a variety of NGOs and other organizations. It has also created increased attention among the media.

classmates outside a painted building

classmates outside a painted building

Among the Zapatista requests are indigenous control over their resources, especially their land. Since 1994, they have been creating autonomous municipalities in Chiapas. In fact, San Juan Chamula discussed in an earlier post is one of these autonomous municipalities. They have their own police force and the Mexican army is not allowed to enter. Also, on our drive to Agua Azul and Palenque, we had to pay fees to enter to both the Mexican government and the Zapatistas as part of this autonomous agreement. The Zapatistas also believe in a bottom-up approach to politics rather than a top-down. That is why they believe the Mexican government and NAFTA are flawed. Power should come from the people according to EZLN.

my professor outside a painted building

my professor outside a painted building

At the end of their speeches, there was a question and answer session. I even got to ask a question about women’s rights among the Zapatistas.! The Zapatistas actually have a Women’s Revolutionary Law which declares women to be equals among men.! The meeting was definitely a top ten moment in my life. After the Q and A, we were allowed to tour the village and take photos. The buildings were amazing with many painted in bright and colorful hues. There was also a small shop that sold clothes and I picked up a beautiful purple embroidered blouse or huipil.

Me, my professor, our liason and zapatista rebels

our liason, me, my professor and zapatista rebels

Upon leaving, the Zapatistas asked us to tell their story to the outside world. That was their only request of us. That visit was an amazing experience.! One I will not soon forget. The genuine struggle of the people brought to mind many revolutionary stories I have heard throughout my life and my schooling. The basic rights of a people to govern themselves and their land. Is it too much to ask for? Or is it too much not to ask for? Only the heart of a rebel knows the answer for certain. But it appears the Zapatistas and my father came to the same conclusion that it was too much not to ask for their freedom. Only time will tell whether a rebel heart beats within me….

have a coke and a chamula..?

old iron gate at san sebastian

old iron gate at san sebastian

As you all know, I started drinking coffee when I was fairly young. And while my mother did doctor it up a bit, I was still drinking coffee. But it didn’t stop there, I also drank quite a lot of coca cola in my youth. Eventually, I migrated over to diet coke. The logical part of my brain knows I should really stop drinking carbonated sodas. But the illogical part of my brain just won’t let go. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in Chiapas, coca cola is considered a magic cure-all..?!

coca cola billboard in san juan chamula courtesy of  trans-americas.com

coca cola billboard in san juan chamula courtesy of trans-americas.com

It first came to my attention when we were visiting Nuevo Yibeljoj. During the meeting, the residents conducted a small ceremony. There was chanting, candles and everyone drank a small glass of coca cola.! It was then that I learned, the Tzotzil Mayans believe coca cola has spiritual powers.! Boy, I wish I had known this information before so I could have used it on everyone and anyone who insisted I stop drinking diet coke.! But I digress….

praying inside san juan chamula church courtesy of mam.org.mx

praying inside san juan chamula church courtesy of mam.org.mx

Tzotzil Mayans believe that drinking coca cola promotes burping. And burping is good because it expells evil spirits. Prior to the introduction of carbonated beverages, the Mayans had to drink two to three times the amount of water to achieve the same cathartic benefits. Hence, the reason coca cola is considered a magical anodyne – you don’t need to drink as much. And nowhere is this ritual more evident than in San Juan Chamula.

iglesia de san juan chamula courtesy of wikipedia.org

iglesia de san juan chamula courtesy of wikipedia.org

San Juan Chamula is located in the Chiapas highlands and it is inhabited by the Tzotzil Maya. While there are several Tzotzil Maya communities in Chiapas, the Tzotzil Maya of Chamula stand out because they are fiercely independent. The town has it’s own police force as no outside police or military force are allowed inside the town. This independence may be attributed to the fact that Chamula serves as the center for religious and commercial activity among all Tzotzil Mayans. The church in San Juan Chamula is the main base for this religious activity. And this religious activity is interesting to say the least.!

inside san juan chamula church courtesy of tripwow.tripadvisor.com

inside san juan chamula church courtesy of tripwow.tripadvisor.com

The Tzotzil Maya have their own unique form of Catholicism. It is a blend of Spanish Catholicism and pre-conquest Mayan traditions. The first thing I noticed when I entered the church in Chamula is that there are no pews. Worshippers sit or kneel on the floor where they light candles and stick them to the floor with the wax. They also chant and drink cups of coca cola and posh, an alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane. There is no altar inside the church either. However, along the inside walls of the church are dressed-up wooden statues of saints. Most are enclosed in boxes and wear mirrors to ward off evil.

outside san juan chamula church with my professor

outside san juan chamula church with my professor

The other unusual thing I noticed was the strong smell. It is a mixture of burning copal resin incense and the pine boughs which cover most of the floor along with the empty coca cola bottles. Besides praying, healing rituals are also performed inside the church. Medicine men or curanderos diagnose maladies including medical, psychological and ‘evil-eye’ afflictions. Remedies include flower petals, feathers, eggs, bones and sometimes live chickens are sacrificed in the church. Thankfully, there were no chicken sacrifices when we visited.

courtesy of visitmexico.com

courtesy of visitmexico.com

I also took very few photos, as the Tzotzil Maya of Chamula are not very keen to have their photographs taken. Also, taking pictures was prohibited inside the church. I wish I had been able to take more photos because the Tzotzil Maya stood out even in terms of their traditional dress. The men wore black or white wool tunics or chujes that are belted around the waist. While the women wore embroidered blouses or huipils made of cotton or satin, shawls and long black linen skirts. The women’s skirts were amazing.! I had never seen anything like it.! I kept wanting to reach out and pet them, but of course, I refrained.

san sebastian cemetary

san sebastian church ruins and cemetary

We also visited the town cemetary and the ruins of the old church of San Sebastian. Even though the church is no longer in use, the residents of Chamula are still buried in the cemetary. Black crosses designate the elderly, white crosses are used for children and blue crosses are relegated for everyone else. It was a very haunting place because of the church ruins but also a very peaceful one.

memorial at san sebastian

memorial at san sebastian

Before we left San Juan Chamula, we also stopped at the zĂłcalo. The zĂłcalo is the main square or plaza in town. Lucky for us, there was an artisan’s street market going on in the plaza when we visited. The Mayans of Chamula are known for their amazing handmade and embroidered blouses, bags, blankets and scarves, among other items. You can also find Zapatista related items which I will discuss next week (spoiler alert!). They also bring their handiwork to the markets in San Cristobal. I walked away with a magnificent blanket and I bought some as souvenirs for my family.!

san juan chamula zocalo

san juan chamula zĂłcalo

I have to say it was an amazing visit.! The church, the cemetary, the plaza and the coca cola.! Just when you think you have seen everything and heard everything along comes a new concept to make you go “wow!”. Coca cola as a magical elixir is one of those ideas that makes you take notice.! It also makes you stop to think about the religious rituals that are involved in your own daily existence and how those might be viewed by outsiders. I also wonder if the Coca Cola Company ever anticipated that their beverage would become part of a spiritual ritual.! But what I do know is the next time I pop open a diet coke, I will relish all of it’s spiritual powers 🙂

weaving a life…

central highlands in Chiapas, Mexico

central highlands in Chiapas, Mexico

The last two weeks I have been taking you on a tour of my initial visit to Chiapas, Mexico. We have visited Nuevo Yibeljoj, Union Majomut, Agua Azul, Palenque and Ocosingo. The reason for this tour is I wanted to contexulize my experiences during this phenomenal study abroad trip. I also wanted to share this amazing journey in the hopes that you would understand the strong connection I feel to this extraordinary country.! Sometimes, the decisions and experiences we choose weave a completely different life for us.!

church in Zinacantán

church in Zinacantán

We have a few more places to visit in Chiapas. But today, I want to talk about Zinacantán. San Lorenzo Zinacantán is a village in the southern part of the central highlands in Chiapas, Mexico. As with the residents of Nuevo Yibeljoj, most of the population are Tzotzil Maya, an indigenous people with linguistic and cultural ties to other highland Maya peoples. Zinacantán translates to “land of bats” and comes from the Nahuatl language. In Tzotzil, “land of bats” is spoken as “Sots’leb” which is what the residents call Zinacantán.

one of my classmates in Zinacantán

one of my classmates in Zinacantán

Our class took a bus up the central highlands to reach Zinacantán from our home base in San Cristobal. The scenery was breathtaking – blue skies, clouds and hills dotted our excursion. When we arrived, the beautiful church with streamers greeted our arrival. However, so did three very excited teenage girls.!! They were there to meet us and take us to three separate artisanal homes. The group quickly divided itself into three parts and each group followed a very energetic girl through the town’s streets. Mostly uphill, I might add.! hahaha….

artesanias alcatraz

artesanias alcatraz

My group landed at Artesanias Alcatraz. We met an amazing weaver who lived and worked out of her home. Unfortunately, I cannot recall her name. I wish I could remember it because she was a very interesting woman. She worked with other women in her village through Artesanias Alcatraz. Every week, the women would go into San Cristobal to sell their handiwork to tourists and stores. They managed to make a decent living, but far from what you and I would consider ‘normal’. The scarves the women made typically cost about 100 pesos which is currently not even $10 USD. I would have expected that they could have sold their scarves for more since they were unique pieces. But after bartering, $10 would usually end up being the negotiated price.

the weaver

the weaver

At the weaver’s home, we had two people with us who spoke Spanish and one person who understood Mayan. So we communicated with the weaver through translators. She had two daughters who we saw at the house. She was married, but her husband was working. I loved the fact that she asked questions about us.! Not because I think we were important. But because it was nice to be engaged in a reciprocal question and answer conversation with her. I remember her being confused about me because while she knew about the United States, she had never heard of Croatia. It was fascinating watching her absorbing the information about a new country. Similarly, to me finding out about all the different Mayans living in Mexico.!

modeling some of the beautiful handiwork

my classmates modeling some of the beautiful handiwork

After the question and answer session, we learned a little about weaving. We also looked at the finished scarves, dresses and hats. A few of us also tried on some of the traditional outfits.! The pieces were absolutely gorgeous.! I ended up purchasing a lovely purple scarf that could also be used as a mini blanket. I loved it.! The weaver, as busy as she was, also provided lunch for us. We sat around on the floor and some boxes eating tacos filled with ground meat and salsas. It was delicious.! It ended up being a great afternoon.!

a scarf

a scarf

When it was time to leave, we took a leisurly stroll downhill (yay!!) to meet the rest of our group by the church. This is when I noticed that I had lost the scarf I had been carrying around throughout my trip to Chiapas. It was a prettly little pink and brown piece I had picked up when I had been in Dublin the year before. In fact, I had initially been planning on moving to Dublin after my graduation. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, my trip to Chiapas would alter all those plans. But I should have known. Because while I was standing by the church feeling upset about my lost Dublin scarf, I noticed that I was still carrying the scarf I had purchased from the weaver. In that moment, my own life had weaved a different path.

fungus and mushrooms – it’s whats for breakfast

coffee at "el hongo"

coffee at “el hongo”

One of the most memorable meals I had in Chiapas, Mexico was in Ocosingo, Chiapas. After my study abroad class, a few of us ventured on to Agua Azul waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. Last week, I shared those photos and stories with you.! On our way, we stopped for breakfast at this wonderful roadside diner or comedor.

Ocosingo comedor "el hongo"

Ocosingo comedor “el hongo”

It was literally just on the side of the road in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere to me..!! The name of the comedor was El Hongo or the mushroom. Hahaha.. What a great name.! Though I have also heard it translated as fungus which is even funnier.! Usually, naming your restaurant after a mushroom or fungus is not considered inviting or appetizing.!

breakfast at "el hongo"

breakfast at “el hongo”

And I have to admit I was initally skeptical. But, I followed everyone else’s lead when ordering and was more than pleasantly surprised when my food arrived. The coffee was brought to me in an adorable mug. The fragrance itself woke me up and got me excited about the day. When the meal arrived, I couldn’t wait to dig in. I had ordered quesadillas with melted cheese and, of course, mushrooms..!! There was avocado on the side and fresh orange juice. There was also a slice of melon, but I ate it before I thought to take the photo above 🙂 It was one of the best meals I have had far from ‘civilization’.

garden at Ocosingo "el hongo"

garden at Ocosingo “el hongo”

After the delicious meal, I naturally had to go to the restroom. Trepidatiously, I made my way to the back where the restroom was located. Once again, I was surprised to find this lovely garden on the way to el baño. And the bathroom turned out to be just fine too (though I don’t have a photo to show you)..!! After so many strange and scary restrooms at rest stops in the States, I was grateful to find such well kept facilities. Eventually, we had to get our belongings together and be on our way to the waterfalls and ruins which turned out to be breathtaking.! But this little slice of breakfast on a road in Chiapas was no less spectacular.!