The following passages are reflections from those on the trip that cover our adventures of the past couple days. The students are currently packing and are looking forward to waking up tomorrow morning at 4am to head home!
Thursday, March 10
One of my favorite and most insightful visits was to Lunatik—a woman’s weaving cooperative in Comitán. Lunatik was founded by 4 women in 1994 that had the vision of educating women and children about their rights and the goal of becoming economically independent from the government and the violent men in their lives.
Their goals in tow, the women organized two primary activities. Their main motive was social advancement. They hold workshops for women and children to educate them about the social problems around the issues of gender, violence, and human rights, among other concerns. These workshops are meant to educate, empower, and present possible solutions. One woman said “It is an avenue for expression and awakening”.
To become independent and fund the workshops, the women needed a source of income. To this end, they began weaving and embroidering shirts and other textiles. Over the years, this has become an integral, but not a complete source of income. The women sell mainly to friends and family. At one point, they had a store in San Cristóbal which has a much more robust tourist market than Comitán. This store was not profitable and was closed.
As a business student, I am very interested in the finances behind such a venture. The women didn’t have any form of accounting for their costs. A few months ago they received a 3000 peso loan (approximately $300), which they used to purchase materials for their textiles. They were not sure how many textiles they could make out of the materials purchased, how much material any one piece of clothing used, or even the time it took them to make a given piece. This was incredibly interesting, but troubling to my paradigm which emphasizes tracking costs and revenues at all parts of the value chain. At the same time, though, it reflects their culture and the primary purpose of their cooperative: social advancement. The women went on to explain that they received an order of 1,000 shirts but declined because it would have “turned them into a factory”. I was awestruck. I did a rough profit/loss on the project and they would have made approximately $10,000, though it would have taken them some time to complete the order. Lunatik could accomplish so much for their social causes with that money. At the same time, it provided a wonderful juxtaposition between the pure capitalism that I am preached in school and the social entrepreneurship practiced in Chiapas. Whereas capitalism seeks to profit, get ahead, gain market share: a “perro eat perro” world. Lunatik, one woman explained, did not exist to get ahead financially. Their goal was to take care of their families, to advance their social causes, and “to survive”.
The women of Lunatik walked us through a Maya ritual of thanks and fertility. It was a unique experience for us as well as modern Mayans who are relearning their indigenous cultures. We performed this ritual in the partially excavated Mayan archaeological site of Tenam Puente. The ritual site consisted of a circle of red, white, and yellow flowers. Inside the circle were four candles – red, yellow, white, and dark – marking the cardinal points. East was represented with a red candle which means the sun and new beginnings. The dark candle embodied west which is night, death, and also rest. North had a white candle which was connected with the ancestors. South was represented by a yellow candle which shows the fertility of corn. In the center of the circle was a blue and green candle representing the sky and earth respectively. These are important colors in the Mayan tradition and are often combined when painting crosses and temples to show the connectedness of the three planes. With the two candles there was also incense burning in a clay pot, bananas and citrus fruit, yellow and blue corn, and white seeds. Before beginning the ritual, we had to line up in a single file to be purified by incense to ask permission to perform the ritual. After that we formed a circle around the flower circle. Then we attempted to light all the candles, it was okay if they went out but we could not blow them out. We bowed to the four cardinal points and to the center in gratitude for the gifts of life, fertility, health, rest, and the connectedness of all life. Then we read about the significance of the day in the Mayan calendar. We heard about the characteristics of the day and the horoscope of a person who was born on this day. Afterwards we took a fertility offering by taking some of the corn, seeds, and fruit. Once the ritual was over we took some of the flowers and placed them on the top of one of the temple ruins.
Ella Douglas and Caroline McCandless
It’s not uncommon in Tojol-ab’al culture for a departure in conversation to last thirty minutes. “I’m going now. Well, you go then. I’ll see you soon, I’m leaving. Hope to see you soon, go now”. And so on. Dr. Louanna Furbee, emeriti anthropology professor from the University of Missouri, spoke with us about her project in revitalizing the ancient Tojol-ab’al Maya language of southern Chiapas. Dr. Furbee and her husband, Dr. Bob Benfer, work with six other partners in Comitán, Chiapas at the Tojol-ab’al Language Documentation Center. The center is an independent entity aimed at documenting, revitalizing, and preserving the Tojol-ab’al language. The center works with several indigenous communities to promote what they term “contagious education”, the idea that anyone can learn the language and teach it to others. The center has successfully documented and normalized the language, translated and broadcasted radio announcements, published programs online in English, Spanish, and Tojol-ab’al, and participated in a number of socio-linguistic forums. Currently the center is looking for ways to outreach more into the communities through Tojol-ab’al children’s books, calendars, guidebooks, Bibles, and other educational means. We enjoyed learning about the Tojol-ab’al Language Documentation Center and efforts made to preserve culture, language, and history of ancient Maya of Mexico.
Bethany Hope Henry, University of Missouri
On Thursday we visited the city of Comitán. There we checked out several cooperatives, toured the Mayan site of Tenam Puente and ended up staying the night. During our stay in Comitán we were able to observe the city and it was a lot different than San Cristóbal, where we had spent the majority of our week. Driving into the city, you would not have known we were in Mexico: we saw a Wal-mart, Sam’s Club, Subway, Burger King, and many more. This city was very commercialized and could have been any town. Later in the day, when I first walked around I quickly noticed that the women dressed in much different clothing than what we were accustomed to in San Cristóbal – they all dressed very western. I did not see one woman in traditional dress during our stay. Also, while walking around there were no vendors on the street trying to sell goods.
The city was beautiful, great Spanish architecture, large walking streets, a huge square and an immaculate Catholic church in the center. When we checked out the main square it was not hard to miss the high-end men’s store or other non-traditional shops. Many members of our group felt the city had a very “European” look and feel. Several of us checked out a guide book and it explained the history of the city and a little bit of background that I believe is the reason for this difference in atmosphere. The city is a “Ladino” city, meaning it is a place where many of the people who immigrated here were not indigenous. The city’s culture developed around values and customs of the non-indigenous life. For example the women who we met at Lunatik were brought up without emphasis on their culture. They are only now beginning to learn and embrace their culture. Only recently however, more indigenous immigrants have come to the city to try and make a life for themselves, but they are not in the city center.