by Peter Brown
Late yesterday afternoon several indigenous Chol families walked down from their mountainside homes to teach a group of visiting students and professors traveling with Schools for Chiapas about autonomy.
The men and women were somewhat reserved as they carried mysterious black plastic bags, brightly colored plastic buckets, and the occasional bulging backpack; the children, however, were busting with excitement and anticipation, literally dancing around their elders through the blooming coffee trees which protruded across the rocky, yellow clay footpath. Immediately upon entering the Zapatista center, the kids went running to find their favorite foreign playmate for a fast game of “duck-duck-goose” or “throw-kick-hide the ball” or to simply stare at the strange activities of their unusual guests.
With a twinkle in his eye and a barely concealed excitement bursting out of his pores, the handsome young patriarch of this group of Chol farmers gestured toward the bags and buckets carried by all the adults and quietly announced. “We have brought you some food from our homes.” Clearly the children’s rambunctious excitement stemmed directly from their parents’ exuberant mood. But what was going on?
Almost any visit to the independently administered, indigenous centers in the Mexican southeast quickly becomes an adventure of missed cultural clues, linguistic confusions, and lots of good hearted fun. This group of local families had visited us several times over the last several days with friendships and understandings quickly taking root and beginning to grow. Also, these families clearly came for social visits rather than to serve as a member in one of the variety of “commissions” (collective work, security, communications, governance, education, ecological agriculture) who generally lived farther away and were assigned to help take care of the visitors. However this afternoon’s visit seemed different; this group of neighbors and new friends were clearly coming with a mission of their own.
As we gathered in the rustic kitchen, smoke from the cooking fires filled our eyes, obscuring exactly how one rich, complex foods after another appeared from those simple plastic containers. Was there some magic going on here or was it only the smoke?
First came handfuls of massive, flat tamales featuring organic, hand-ground corn mixed with sweet beans steamed and then cut into neat rectangles inside of gigantic banana leaves. (“One of these tamales with beans is all you need to keep working all day long.” )
Quickly four massive bundles of fresh greens wrapped in different banana leaves appeared – each type of green unique and distinct in color and leaf shape. (“Each of these plants are different, but they are all the same too, full of minerals and vitamins which your group has not been eating; one of our women will come here tomorrow to prepare them and to help make all of you healthier.”)
Next came kilos and kilos, pounds and pounds of warm tortillas featuring a variety of colors, sizes, and textures organic, GMO-free corn cooked over open fires that afternoon. “Each of us makes our tortillas a little different, but all of these are natural because we don’t use any chemicals and our seed is not contaminated by genetic modifications.”
Each visitor was then handed one of these same tortillas filled with outrageously tasty, fried seed pod from a prolific local palm tree which is always allowed to grow naturally whether it sprouts in a milpa (corn field) or cafetal (coffee plantation or someone’s front yard.) (“We are happy the Chicon puts out its flowers at this time because it tastes so wonderful. You can also mix it with chiles or eggs, but it is always very good.”)
During this little “show-and-tell”, two of the women had made a massive pot of locally grown coffee and three kinds of bananas were passed around the group. (“Our land is rich and gives us everything we need.”)
Finally, with a gentle and retiring pride, several clear plastic bags of nixtamal (treated, ground corn) were offered on the altar of our kitchen table. (“This is what we use to make pozol which we drink every day. It is a very good food that sticks to your ribs and allows us to work very hard walking up-and-down these mountainous fields from dawn until sunset. You can eat this tomorrow and be strong.”)
The indigenous grown beans of this region are huge and shine like black diamonds. Since our teams of visitors had mastered the art of carefully boiling these little black jewels for several hours over an open fire, even the outsiders were able to make our small contribution to the locally produced feast as everyone collectively concentrated on enjoying the company and consuming the food.
As flashing blinks announced the arrival of lighting bugs, and before the sharing of songs and guitars, there arrived a brief moment of collective silence which was again filled by the gentle voice of the powerful young patriarch, “This is what our organization means by autonomy.” So our feast was actually a lesson; and that kitchen altar the smart board of our smoky rural classroom.
Yes, Zapatista autonomy means producing most of what one consumes while growing strong, healthy children and communities; but Zapatista autonomy also means that these small farming families are neither beholding to local political bosses, nor dependent on networks of corporate food production or international banking systems.
And, yes, Zapatista autonomy means having the audacity and reflective strength to mobilize people-of-conscience around the world to build networks – and to forge new paths of resistance – with the absurd goal of collectively healing the holes in the ozone layer and the holes in our hearts.
As we lay our heads down to sleep in our swinging hammocks the Schools for Chiapas delegates felt honored and enlightened to have eaten this profound lesson in Zapatista autonomy – and we slept with full stomachs, thoughtful minds, and dreams of a new and better world.