A sunflower’s weary head

Some experiences stay with us for a long time. Last night in our writing group at Larimer County Community Corrections, a writing experiment opened with a reading from Claudia Rankine’s brilliant book, Citizen.

A moving excerpt presents Rankine’s haunting lines recalling the impossibility of the events around Hurricane Katrina. From there, we were to write about a time that we had no words for something that we were faced with.

My time in Chiapas came to mind and I wrote, again, on the survival I witnessed when meeting indigenous women there. This image first appeared in my book, Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree.

In honor of hope in impossible places, I include this excerpt from the chapter “Scattering Words on the Wind.”

Chiapas borders Oaxaca, and is the birthplace of the pan-indigenous movement opened by the Zapatistas in 1994. Mexico cherishes the indigenous, when their scarlet-hued folklore and original handicrafts serve as a magnet for tourists. In reality, many marginalized indigenous live on lands that hold some of the richest resources in timber, minerals and water, which gives them official “obstacle” status. The indigenous movement seeks to reclaim an undisputed space for Mexico’s original people, one not still stained in tones of conquest. I respected the insistence and creativity of the movement: indigenous people used traditional methods of education and communal consent to create systems and supports for their remote communities, where the government was unwilling to provide or destroyed through neglect. Many communities were tricked or violently forced off their ancestral lands rich in resources, much like the history of the indigenous in the U.S. The response from the indigenous communities, once subsided the initial uprising and “declaration of war” in 1994, has not been violent. Communities set up new homes, new schools and started again.

In Chiapas I slept on the ground in a Mayan encampment of displaced families at Nuevo Yibeljoj.  On that first night inside indigenous territories, a veil of mosquitoes drifted across my eyes and cheeks, and I felt the earth lumped under my sleeping bag. Under the tulipan tree that served as the community center, an old man sat on a rock, the rhythm of his guitar escorted the slow passage of a gibbous moon. The thin light thrown by a votive placed in prayer before the Virgen de Guadalupe on an altar outside my sleeping quarters danced with the beams on the ceiling. In this remote encampment of families who escaped violence in their villages, the stirring of the guitar strings, the mosquitoes and the candlelight kept me from sleep. Now I was the visitor in a world far more foreign than any I had known, and I wanted to see beyond what I read in the books and saw from my safe quarters.

I walked to the latrine a hundred paces away in the mud created by the chill Sierra Madre rains, through a glittering curtain of fireflies. The moon hid behind clouds that hung low around mountains whose reassuring mineral presence was magnetizing, even in the dark. Far from the noise of modern technology, you can hear a mountain hum. In this indigenous Mexico that bore no resemblance to anything I had experienced before, however remote, I had to pay close attention to keep my balance. Nothing was recognizable, and much was not as it appeared. The fireflies became pinpoint stars, and as I waved my hand through the sky in front of my eyes, the constellations rearranged.

From Nuevo Yibeljoj I travelled to La Realidad, a Zapatista town run by the autonomous authority. With a letter of consent from a solidary agency, I knocked on a secret door in San Cristobal de las Casas, where they processed me, paired me with companions for travel, and oriented us on our role as observers. We were to document the incursion of the military in indigenous zones. We were given a “passport” that would allow us entry into the Zapatista community, but were to hide it in our shoe, or some other place safe from possible discovery along the way at checkpoints. It wasn’t illegal to travel into Zapatista territory, but authorities might attempt to dissuade us, aware that observers were there essentially to watch the government, and usually had links to press. From the back of a cargo truck for over eight hours on an improvised road of mud that seemed at times like quicksand, I witnessed some of the most beautiful and remote countryside I have seen in Mexico, ducking to avoid tree limbs that overhung the road, and craning to catch a glimpse of waterfall racing down the side of a velvet green mountain. We stopped frequently to push ourselves free of the muck, amid frothy, foaming mounds of jungle and bird calls that hinted at resplendent feathers.

By day I bathed in a cold whirlpool ringed by ferns, swept, carried firewood for cooking and worked in the heat of the sun. I wrote under trees whose branches embraced raucous toucans and cascading wild orchids. Children drew turkeys and monkeys and masked men in my notebook. The young learned Spanish, but I didn’t speak the Tzeltal language of their parents. We communicated as anyone does who has encountered a friendly foreigner—signs and smiles and the few words of Spanish they knew. “Banana.” “Coffee.” “River.” “Snake.”

I chose to visit these communities because of the volunteer work I had done involving the indigenous struggle, and because it presented a new challenge to find my way in an unfamiliar context. At the end of a month, I had not found my way. I found other ways, which involved solidarity and the willingness to pull a bud of hope, magician-like, out of thin air—ways which I filed away for future reference, not knowing then that one day I would become dependent on that belief in the extraordinary power of people working together, of hope springing from the most unlikely of places.

These communities decided to uproot themselves from the ooze of government oppression and paramilitary violence in their home-villages, march far with few belongings, and carve a new life in the jungle in search of the luxury of safety and self-determination. It was brave and dignified work, this beginning again. Even with blood so fresh in their past, they sang melodious stories as they worked so the children would not forget.

Jose Santis and his family had heard the screams of massacre. Sounds that I could not imagine exploded in his ears. The scent of blood ran through his village in waves, briny as the sea. He held his tiny daughter’s delicate hand and drew her close, whispering words that made the girl smile, then laugh, then whisper back.

“We were once kings,” he said.

“And I was once a child,” she returned.

Working the earth with their hands and feet and spirits, they tended to their corn in torrents of rain and sang hope into their days. From what I could discern through my tiny keyhole, the specific gravity of this hope outweighed their despair.

The tiny discomforts I chose to endure, sleeping on the ground and bearing calluses on my palms as I worked, were meager attempts to feel the earthen life through the small of my back—not only through my eyes. I was though, only an observer. I would return to my cats, to serve them tender bits from a can. I would be home to Russell, where the roof over my head wasn’t mine, but it was sturdy and I was welcome.  Struck by their song and resolve in the face of a storm of great loss, I fought against focusing on the rainbow. Marginality may breed a certain tenacity that is as startling as it is magnificent, but I would not stay long enough in Chiapas to subsist on a ration of last year’s wormy beans and coffee after a poor harvest. I would not bury a child because the herb poultices failed, and the doctor lived a twelve-hour walk away. I would not need to continually fight against the disappearance of a tenuous hope into the deep shadows, or worry that the water supply hold out through the dry season. Once home in my own dark what would I see?

In Chiapas I witnessed as a community faced their dark and pulled hope from it, lacing their daily lives with a luminous trust in themselves and in the future, in spite of having so few choices… or precisely because of it. I learned that the elusive heartbeat of the indigenous world extends far beyond what outsiders can appreciate from the swirl of their art’s form and color in the local markets. In situ, this doggedness of spirit might only be possible in a people intimate with nature’s ability to renew. In people who celebrate rain and rejoice when a sunflower’s weary seeded head falls to the earth. In people who feel the very movement of the earth.

I slipped a smooth, freckled stone from La Realidad into my pocket, a reminder of durability and beauty produced by centuries of erosion.

A group of women sang—they traveled around Mexico and produced a CD. A savvy use of technology marks the new indigenous movement. They called themselves “Las Abejas”—the Bees. They learned songs in Spanish to present their stories to the public. If you didn’t know, the songs sounded tender and cheerful. But translated from Tzeltal, they told of guns and power and the loss of lives so dear that only song could manage the retelling without tears.

Kohlabal. Thank you” I said.

“Tell people about us.” I believe this is what they said. I am not certain, but they pointed at me and made a sign like scattering words on the wind.


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