the Problem, Man?
The bus hurtled down the highway at the
edge of the canyon, weaving back and forth on the twisting road. I was
in the front passenger seat, right up next to the windshield, staring
open-eyed at the exotic landscape. It was raining hard. I watched the
river below through the thumping windshield wipers. The bus leaned on
its side at every turn, and I grasped my seat to keep from falling over,
but I felt strangely unconcerned about falling over the cliff and into
the chasm hundreds of feet below.
The giddy voices of my fellow trip members
in the back of the big air-conditioned bus rose over the roar of the storm.
I tried to ignore them, but I couldn’t help paying attention. They
gossiped about romances, musical groups, jobs, acquaintances. It was all
somehow painful to me. I had nothing to say to them. Our relations did
not seem real. In all our interactions, there was not a single moment
of mutual recognition.
The clouds cleared as we made our way up
the side of a mountain. The narrow road was a slit carved out of the jungle,
and I breathed in deeply the humid aroma of the thick green vegetation.
We came to a halt at a point marked by a large metal sign, attached to
two wooden posts. In Spanish, in hand-painted letters, it read: ‘Welcome
to this sacred ground, where our 45 brothers and sisters were massacred.
We ask for peace and justice. We don’t accept government personnel.
Please identify yourself before entering.’
We descended in a single file along the
path that led down to the village, past temporary dwellings built of wooden
slats and standing on stilts. The whole village was perched on the side
of the mountain. There was a single flat area at its center, where the
church and community center were located, along with a small muddy area,
in which a group of girls wearing traditional Mayan clothes were bouncing
around a rubber ball.
We entered the community building, a single
room made of concrete blocks, which had been built by international volunteers.
We sat on wooden planks, shoulder to shoulder. Three community leaders
stood at the front, and reviewed the history of their village. Here in
the southern Mexican state of Chiapas there was an uprising a few years
ago by a group called the Zapatistas, an indigenous group which sought
local control. The Mexican government responded by bringing in thousands
of troops and setting up military camps throughout the state. Villages
which did not support the military were attacked by paramilitary forces,
trained and supplied by the government.
The three speakers claimed that the villagers
were non-violent, though they supported the goals of the Zapatistas. They
told their tragic story, of how one day a group of paramilitaries evicted
them from their land. They had walked for days to get to this place on
the side of the mountain. Once here, they prayed for three days, fasting.
At dawn of the fourth day they were attacked, and 45 people were killed,
many of them women and children.
I looked around the room. The cement walls
were plastered with posters and letters from well-wishers all over the
world. These villagers were very poor but they had a surprising sophistication.
They knew how to use the tools of the West, like the internet, to broadcast
their claims and gain international support. A steady stream of ‘internationalists’,
mostly young, white and liberal Westerners, arrived in villages of Central
America, like this one, to help the poor and dispossessed, and to atone
for the actions of their own governments.
I watched the three Mayan men, who sat with
straight backs and intense expressions, their eyes full, words tumbling
out, barely able to wait for our leader Amy to translate their responses.
They were very thin, with sun-darkened skin, and colorful hand-woven clothing
that was clean but tattered. After the talk they sat silently for a few
minutes, and then walked stiffly out of the room.
Amy went to the front of the room to lead
the group in a de-briefing. A volunteer from the North, she was here on
a two year stint to teach travelers and to actualize her dream, her commitment
to political activism. She was confident in her beliefs. She also knew
how to be gentle, and when the time was right, her big, even smile could
win an argument with charm. But the smile could turn off in an instant,
and then the cold edge and deadly seriousness that lay underneath would
She was definitely not in a smiling mood
now. This place and this meeting had really set her off. “It’s
the policies of our own government that are the cause of what you see
here,” she said. “Globalization and Western imperialism force
the local elites to compete against other poor nations by giving up rights
to fair labor practices, to safe working conditions, to environmental
protection. In order to pay their external debt they have to extract resources
from the land, and they’re willing to do anything to accomplish
this. They use the most brutal tactics imaginable to destroy the culture
of communities that have occupied this land for thousands of years.”
Amy’s explanation frustrated me, and
I had to respond. “I want to understand what the real problem is,
too,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s politics.
Political problems are just a symptom of something much more fundamental:
our actual mediocre and narrow way of thinking and being. If we want to
address the violence and suffering in the world, we have to be willing
to see how we are personally responsible for what’s happening, and
to be willing to sacrifice and suffer ourselves in order to help others.
If we blame others for these problems there’s a danger that we’ll
end up just making things worse.”
Amy stiffened, her words hard and cool,
her eyes burning. “This is not a time for philosophy. It’s
time for action. People are dying, don’t you understand that?”
“Do you really think that government
policies and multinational corporations are the real problem, the real
reason for poverty and violence?”
“Yes, I do. It’s one side against
another. This is just one phase of an age-old history of colonization
and exploitation. We have to take a stand, against injustice and the perpetrators
I looked around the room, hoping for a defense
from my fellow trip members, but there was no hope in that. Their faces
showed no emotion, except a mild restlessness. They were ready to get
on with their program: to find and act on a simple political message,
which would make sense of this adversarial world, and did not require
soul-searching or sacrifice.
After the meeting we walked down to the
gorge, where a simple stone sanctuary commemorated the place that the
forty-five villagers were murdered. Amy had planned a special event for
this day. She made us stand in a circle, holding hands, and asked us to
sing out the word ‘presente,’ after each name that she called
off. She then began to read the names of each murdered villager, pausing
after each one, and, in a clear, lilting voice, sang the response. Everyone
but me joined in the chorus.
The reading had an immediate visceral effect.
Tears began to flow, noses to run. I heard sniffles, and, one by one,
each person broke their grasp to take out a handkerchief. Lilliana Marie
Fernandez, age sixty-four. Katarina Ana Gomez, age two. Then the melodious
response rang out, ‘Presente.’
An emotional tide swept over the group.
I stood my ground, unwilling to be carried along. This was a planned event,
orchestrated to evoke a specific response to a specific situation, designed
to justify the condemnation of specific policies. Why cry over this disaster,
and not others? Was it compassion that we felt, or just some kind of group
catharsis, a bit of fascism insinuating itself into our minds? But in
spite of myself, my heart softened. I stood tense, a stern expression
on my face, but my own eyes watered and my nose ran. I let out a stifled
During the afternoon I played with the children.
The sun shone, and the muddy plaza began to dry out. It was a great moment
of freedom for me. I cherished each instant of free time. The group activities
were stifling, smothering me with a mass mind that choked off the simple
clear beautiful native energy that I sought. I just wanted to walk, and
breathe and look at the sky. But I was soon called in for another special
event which Amy had created. We gathered in the community center, again
forming a circle. “We’re going to take our bus back into town,
but before we do, I want to share this song with you. It was written by
a female inmate of a concentration camp during World War II. She didn’t
survive, but the song did, and I’d like us all to sing it together,
and as we do, walk around the room and look into each other’s eyes.”
She began to sing a haunting, sensitive
melody with Hebrew words. As the trip members learned the words, they
began to mill about the room, singing to each other. I stepped back out
of the circle, trying to find an inconspicuous place in the corner. I
could accept a little singing, but this idea was formidable. To look into
someone’s eyes while singing was a terribly intimate act, like looking
right into someone’s heart. But to do so when one did not have an
intimate connection was a violation. It was a pretense, and to pretend
to do what is real is to treat the truth lightly and desecrate it.
I didn’t have all those thoughts,
I just felt them. I looked down, avoiding the eyes, mortified. It was
embarrassing enough to watch the others in this performance. To participate
myself was simply out of the question, but I could not stand there anonymously
any longer. “I won’t do this,” I said, raising my voice
over the song. “I’m taking a local bus back to town. I’ll
meet you there.” I picked up my knapsack and was about to turn away
when I looked up and met Amy’s narrowed, piercing eyes. I pulled
the door closed, and stood outside, listening to the muted sound of the
beautiful tragic melody, breathing deeply, untrapped, freed from falsity.
I hiked up the mountain trail, and arrived
at the road just as a crowded local bus pulled up. I pushed my way in,
finding a seat in the back. A Mayan woman took the seat next to me, and
she was immediately pushed against me when a whole family crammed into
the remaining space. Seven of us sat on a row designed for four. I was
jammed against the cracked window. The Mayan woman sat silently, hands
folded in her lap, her eyes fixed straight ahead. She wore the complete
hand-woven traditional outfit, including a colorful embroidered blouse,
full of flowers and geometric designs, which represented the ancient traditions
of her own village.
It was a very old U.S. school bus, now in
its second life far from the place where privileged children once sat
on new seats. The black vinyl seat covers were now torn, the padding spilling
out. The walls were dented, and new steel plates were riveted onto eroded
sections. I looked at the silent peasants, pressed tightly together, leading
lives so unlike my own. Rooted in the land and in tradition, they suffered
but persevered. I did not know any details about their lives, but I could
see their solid bearing, their reticence and modesty. They possessed one
of the only remaining cultures still holding up against our Western one,
which in many ways is its opposite.
The Mayan woman next to me was raised with
a fixed culture in a fixed place with a fixed role. Her round, humble
face was a picture of modesty. Modesty, a quality rarely seen in modern
times. Modesty: that which does not easily reveal or magnify the self,
and does not make claims about who one is or what one has achieved. It
was almost a contradiction that she was now pressed hard against me, and
at every twisting mountain curve pressed even harder, shoulder, waist,
We passed through the green mountains and
fields, and at last entered the city center, pulling to a stop at a traffic
light. On the street in front of the bus a young European couple was walking,
hand in hand. The lady was thin and tall, with long and flowing blonde
hair, carrying an embroidered bag, a tourist ornament made in the Mayan
tradition; the man wore shorts and sandals, and a Mayan bandana. They
crossed in front of the bus, their hands clasped tight, locking themselves
together in their secure and magical adventure to this exotic land, where
they spent their days distributing the bounty of their wealthy homeland.
They were young and they were powerful and they were free. They owned
this Earth. At this time and place—though it flees, it transforms
and disappears—they were unafraid and dominant.
I looked again at the Mayan woman pressed
against me, and her lips rose slightly in a half-revealed smile, and I
sensed that she liked or respected me, or at least that she sensed me,
and somehow understood me. I could have asked her a few questions, using
my limited Spanish vocabulary. But I had no desire to learn a few facts.
What I wanted was to look straight into her eyes, and smile. The differences
between us meant nothing. Actually, they were useful, because they offered
the challenge to overcome artificial and transitory limitations, and to
find and meet each other on a level, unobstructed field of total equality
and freedom. Yes, she would smile back at me: a still, broad smile, with
unwavering eyes, filled to the brim. It would be a pure relationship of
unity and love, instantaneous and eternal, resolving everything. No, we
were not ready for that. Her modest glance and half-revealed smile would
have to do.