Mexican border town are more similar to U.S. border towns than they are to Chiapas on the Guatemala border
Baja Cactus For as long as I have lived in Mexico I have been hell bent on understanding this country that remains to me, as I said in the book’s introduction, an “enigma wrapped in a mystery”. Moving to Baja California was a first step at understanding and assimilating into Mexico. Close to the border, Baja California has adopted much of Southern California’s culture. A frontier culture that mixes: language, styles of dress, music and a perspective that is influenced by both Mexican and U.S. values. Although influenced by cross border experiences, “Fronteriza” is a distinct culture, neither Mexican nor American. This synergy of influences is producing new and unique music, theatre, literature and art. I enjoy and can relate to this Fronteriza culture having been raised in a hybrid Hispanic, Philippine and Afro American neighborhood in Oakland California.
Baja California is culturally easy for U.S. folks, especially Southern Californians whose parents brought them here as children to fish, surf or just enjoy the “kick back” Baja, beach oriented lifestyle. However, to experience traditional Mexico and its cultural diversity you must travel the interior of the country. To really appreciate the mystery of Mexico, her spiritual magic and her three thousand year history, travel to Chiapas. It is on Mexico’s Southeast coast at the center of the region called Mundo Maya (Mayan World) which includes the surrounding Mexican states of Tabasco, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan. Mundo Maya also includes the surrounding nations of: Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador.
Chiapas is the most distant Mexican state from Baja California, located at the Mexico&Guatemala border. As an American you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage. I say pilgrimage because it is the cradle of our continent’s civilization and home to Northamerica’s last remaining rain forest, whose preservation is vital to the health of our Continent.
Baja California is one of the last places on earth where Abalone still survive off her Pacific Coast. The Sea of Cortez is the only inland sea that is surrounded by the territory of a single nation. It is home to a multitude of endangered sea life including the protected 300 pound Totuaba, considered by game fisherman to be the most precious and exciting of catches. Baja’s beauty is made up of mostly pristine: desert, mountains and beaches. Similarly, Chiapas is mostly pristine wilderness. It is home to 26 endangered species of animals. Her jungles and rain forest are populated by: Jaguar, Puma, Crocodile, Armadillo, Tucan, Parrot, Monkey, Wild Boar and White Tail Deer, to name just a few. Chiapas has the largest concentration of animal species in the world. A visit to the Tuxla (capital city) Zoo and Game Preserve is an incredible journey into a small slice of an exquisite Northamerican wilderness that contains 65% of Mexico’s birds, and 1200 species of butterflies. This preserve is an important legacy to all the citizens of this continent.
The Mexican government has invested heavily in museums and parks in Chiapas in order to maintain and beautifully present the well preserved Olmec and Mayan heritage. An American heritage that most U.S. citizens know little about. History courses in U.S. public schools reflect a Euro focus that I believe warps our self identity as Americans. Our education is replete with information on Greek and Roman civilizations that existed half way round the world. Yet hardly a mention is made in our nation’s schools about Canadian or Mexican ancestral history. What’s up with this? These countries are our Northamerican neighbors. We share, and are mutually responsible for, this piece of the planet.
I interviewed a U.S. archeologist who was in the Chiapas region on an expedition focused on the Olmec civilization, predecessors of the Mayans. The Florida State University archeologist explained to me that she completed a course on ancient Northamerican cultures in preparation for her work in Mayan country. She recounted to me the erroneous and ridiculous words of her U.S. trained professor that now obsessively echos in her mind: “The Olmecs were not so much a civilazation but more an artistic lifestyle”. This ignorance was espoused by a graduate studies professor about an incredibly advanced society that knew, before anyone else in recorded history, that the world was round and revolved around the sun.
PalenqueThe Olmecs and the Mayans had written languages. They were: astronomers, physicians, engineers, artists and architects who built elaborate cities. The graduate professor’s historically bankrupt conclusions are a sad commentary of how poorly our education system has failed us regarding American continental history. A trip to Palenque, Chiapas is mind blowing: ruins thousands of years old are remarkably preserved, including the plaster artwork that adorn the walls of 66 foot high pyramids and huge buildings that are spread out over miles of jungle and clearings. A hike through Palenque’s ruins is a combination ecological, archaelogical, ethnological and historic passage unlike any travel adventure I have experienced. One is transported back thousands of years in this pristine and uncompromised jungle. The abundance of flora is amazing with 1,000 species of plants identified in one square mile. Animals and humans are still living where time and progress have made little or no impact. Even Palenque’s ancient underground aqueducts still function today.
Both Baja Californa and Chiapas have indigenous populations in Mexico. The difference is that Baja California’s five tribes are almost extinct with only 1200 survivors. They are generally not visible to visitors, living in remote locations away from the major cities and tourist zones. Chiapas, by comparison, has 750,000 indigenous inhabitants, one third of the state’s total population, and they are visible everywhere you travel. The impressivly high quality museums of Chiapas beautifully display artifacts that depict the lifestyles of these ancient people: style of dress, language, superb art, agricultural methods, and ceremonial traditions.
Once outside the museums, on the streets of the pueblos and in the surrounding jungle, you see the same facial features in the descendants of the Mayan and Olmec cultures. They still speak and read Mayan dialects, wear the same traditional clothing, create the same wonderful art and handcrafts and practice the same farming science of their ancestors . The whole state of Chiapas is a living, breathing museum of ancient cultures.
Ceremonial and religious customs are still very Mayan but mixed with Catholicism. The Chamula tribe, for example , allows only the Catholic sacrament of Baptism. From then on the priests and bishops are not allowed, not even to perform mass. The Chamula religious and ceremonial traditions are very Mayan with just a hint of Catholicism. To visit their church, any time of the day – everyday, is as exotic an experience as witnessing a voodoo ceremony.
Chiapas, sumidero canionChiapas is an incredibly beautiful region: huge waterfalls, raging rivers, heavily forested mountains, pristine beaches, 15th century colonial towns, modern cities, living ethnology, handcrafts, heritage, art, music, dance, folklore, wonderful and exotic foods and beverages, animal and plant life and some of the worlds most important museums and archaeological sites. The economics of visiting there is another big plus with five star hotels at $50.00 and delicious regional dishes in the $5.00 range. Despite all of these extraordinary travel assets Northamerican tourists are profoundly scarce. This I find true in most of my travels through the colonial cities and remote regions of Mexico. Ironically, French, English and German travelers, armed with history books, are everywhere in Chiapas and the other “unknown to Gringos” locations in Mexico. Ninety percent of all U.S. tourists to Mexico visit: Cancun, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta where it is so Americanized they learn and experience almost nothing of what is truly Mexico.
As fellow custodians of this continent, all Americans owe it to themselves to visit Chiapas. To experience our last remaining rain forest, 15th century colonial towns that rival Europe, and the ancient civilzations of our forebearers. Despite political turmoil, that fills the world news, travelers are safer than they would be visiting a major U.S. city. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic I believe I am a changed person for having visited Chiapas – I have a clearer historical perspective, a renewed sense of environmental responsibility and a deeper appreciation of what it is to be an American.
THE BORDER REGION AIN’T MEXICO AND AMEN TO THAT
When people in the provinces of this country, Baja California is especially provincial, say they are going to Mexico they mean the interior of the country. Going to Mexico means the center of the country’s power and it’s surrounding states: Guanajuato, Morelos, Puebla, and Jalisco.
As a Califoniano, Oakland and Ensenada, I ask myself why anyone would want to travel to Mexico City? You don’t know whether your cab driver is a real cabbie or a violent thief who will rob and possibly hurt or kill you. The air is unbreathable and the traffic unbearable.
A client of mine is a Daimler Benz owned Mexican company called Temic. My work with them requires me to fly to Mexico City once a month. Luckily, it is not necessary for me to use cabs. My client provides a chauffeur who receives me on each visit and returns me to the airport on departure in Mexico City.
My work takes me to their plant, located an hour and one half from the Mexico City Airport, in the state of Morelos. The plant is located in a beautiful agricultural area in the municipality of Cuatla; a half hour south of Cuernavaca.
The state of Morelos, finds itself in a political mess as I write this. The governor just resigned and there is still talk of indicting him for corruption and other criminal activities. The last straw for Morelos citizenry was the discovery that the “elite” kidnapping investigating unit (hand picked by the gov) was responsible for a number of kidnappings. Morelos leads the nation in kidnappings with 360 last year. The cop/kidnappers were caught disposing the body of one of their kidnapping victims of Morelos.
I visited Cuernavaca , the capital of Morelos, for the first time in 1977 and it was a beautiful pueblo (little town) with jungle like hillsides: full of flowers, butterflies and the scent of lush flora. Today it is a grimy city with traffic problems caused by too many cars on narrow cobble stoned streets. Streets not designed for the magnitudes that fill this pueblo turned city.
Please don’t get me wrong I like going to Morelos, but I’m so glad I live in Ensenada. One very important reason I like going to Morelos is the chorizo. The crap that we call chorizo here in Baja Califonia and most of California is not what I grew up on. In Morelos my grandmother’s chorizo and morsilla (blood sausage) is in abundant supply. Chorizo, by my criteria, should not fall apart when you fry it up. True chorizo remains an in tact sausage that you cut with a knife and fork; seeing and smelling those fine, spicy juices explode as you cut into that plump motha. DAMN! Makes me hungry thinkin about it.
Morelos is culturally more traditional Mexico when compared to Baja California. Food preparation in Baja California, for example, is not high quality Mexican Cuisine. In the state of Morelos, Mexican cooking is an art form. The variety of dishes and sauces is vast, exotic and prepared with exceptional pride and caring. Holidays, fiestas and religious practices are more tradition bound and integrated into community life in “Mexico” as opposed to Baja California. Morelos is an interesting change for me from Baja California so I do enjoy my visits. A great place to visit but.
The political and social climate in the state of Morelos is also quite distinct when compared to Baja California. In Morelos, for example, the unions are very strong and often create major problems for large employers. In Baja California the unions are a joke, neither employees nor employers pay much attention to them. Most maquiladoras (foreign owned assembly operations) are non union shops in Baja California. Tijuana leads the nation in the number of maquiladoras; twelve hundred of the nations 2,000 maquiladoras are in Tijuana Baja California.
Union bosses, close proximity to Mexico City style corruption and a traditional acceptance of a government that does not represent the people’s interests has created modern day Cuernava. Once the Mecca for Mexico’s great artists it is now a bustling, “dog eat dog” city, bursting at the seams and hell bent on repeating the awful disaster that is Mexico City.
Cuernavaca and the rest of Morelos is still a popular weekend getaway for stressed out Chilangos (Mexico City residents). Only an hour away , via a very modern toll road, Cuernava is at least a little slower and less crowded than the Districto Federal.
Lots of tradition and great food has Morelos. No surf, sand, desert, wide open spaces, clean air or that layed back Baja California feeling. Baja California must also be lauded for a state government that works hard to protect the interests and rights of its citizens. Where abuse of authority is the exception rather than the rule. Gracias a Dios, I do live in Baja.