All entries for Tuesday 20 September 2005

September 20, 2005

Na Bolom

Follow-up to San Cristobal de las Casas from The Midnight Heart

I have been reading today at Na Bolom which contains a fantastic library of books about Mexico, its history and its indigenous peoples. Among others, I have been reading Sons of the Shaking Earth by Eric Wolf and The Mexican Codices and Their Extraordinary History by Maria Sten.

The former is an anthropological read about the cultural battles that ensued first between various indigenous tribes and later between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. There is a great deal of detail here. I was fascinated by Wolf's careful mapping of the progress of different tribes – the Toltecs, the Chichimecs, the Mayans and also the Aztecs. The section about the Aztecs is particularly useful. I enjoyed reading Wolf's analysis of the Axtec rise to power and his description of the make-up of teh consequent Aztec empire.

However, there is something about this kind of writing that makes me feel uncomfortable. I skipped the part about the mongoloid and European features of the 'indians' because it sounded a little derogatory to me. Even Octavio Paz speaks in ambiguous tones again about 'indians'.

Interestingly, I watched an independent locally made film about the problems of indigenous peoples here in Chiapas and about the rise of the Zapatistas. In the 1990s the Zapatistas took over a number of villages and towns in Chiapas and declared them as independent municipalities. The Zapatistas wanted to draw attention to the situation of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas who were and in some places still are treated like dirt. The jails are full of indigenous people whose only crime is to be different according to the Zapatistas. The army's reply was to crush the uprising and many died. The Zapatista movement however did not die out and the Zapatistas continued to put pressure on the government. Unfortunately, the result was that the government began to fuel paramilitary groups who pressurised, infiltrated, intimidated, threatened, murdered the indigenous communities in the mountains. Yet here the government made its worst move, because the public have come out in huge numbers to support the Zapatistas and the violence in the mountains has only created new recruits for the Zapatista cause.

The grainy video footage of corpses, gun battles, indigenous people pushing soldiers out of their towns with their bare hands was very moving. Even though I am ambivalent about the intial violence of the Zapatista movement, I think that something is needed here to help the indigenous peoples and at the moment, the Zapatistas must fulfil this role.

The Mexican Codices was something I wanted to read because I have seen examples of the codices elsewhere and wanted to know more. The fact that a Frenchman stole some of the most important documents of Mexican history is shocking. They now languish in libraries throughout Europe: fifteen in Paris, four in Madrid, six in the Bodleyan Library, four in the Vatica Library, two in Florence and one apiece in Liverpool, Dresden, Bologna, New York, Berlin, New Orleans and Basel. My Spanish teacher here in San Cristobal, Eduardo, told me that the Louvre in Paris has a headpiece belonging to the Aztecs and the museum refuses to give the piece back, because it claims that Mexican museums do not have sufficient security to protect the piece from thieves. This is simply untrue – the museums in Mexico City are simply magnificent and besides what gives that museum the right to determine the fate of another country's heritage?


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The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik


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