This book is a collection of twenty-eight life stories of women from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds who have lived in Chiapas during the past 60 to 108 years. One woman, Merle Greene Robertson, was not born in Chiapas but dedicated a great part of her life to studying the art of the ancient Maya. We included her as an example of the many foreigners who have been enchanted by Chiapas and have decided to make their homes here.
Why did we write down these women's lives? For most of human history, young people listened to the life stories of their elders for pleasure and for guidance. The wisdom found in traditional fairy tales is the essence of the stories that countless individuals experienced and dreamed long ago. Today our mothers' and grandmothers' life stories often bore us. We look to science and the fabricated biographies of celebrities to guide us. Yet every time we listen to another person's story we immediately see that life in relation to our own. Each story helps us reevaluate and even reshape our lives.
Most life stories published in books are accounts of men who went off to discover and conquer the world. In comparison, the lives of women who stayed at home and cared for children are considered dull and mediocre. But what if the experiences of those women were regarded as a different kind of adventure, one that demanded as much courage as the exploits of heroes who ventured off to kill dragons?
Intrigued by this question, we decided to listen to the life stories of women from Chiapas, where we have lived for over twenty years. When we arrived in the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, high in the mountains of southern Mexico, we discovered a world where medieval and Maya traditions coexisted in an uneasy truce. Cold and remote, the place had resisted change for centuries. But during the past two decades, San Cristóbal has grown from a provincial town of 25,000 to a cosmopolitan city of over 150,000 citizens. Cars cause endless traffic jams. Squatter's shacks blanket the former meadows, Evangelical churches ring the hills, and, nestled by the springs at the northern edge of the valley, a Muslim mosque draws worshipers to prayer. The forests that once covered the surrounding mountains are disappearing; the crystal-clear rivers are polluted. Rampant population growth, along with a total lack of urban planning, has created all the problems and pressures of a modern city blessed with colonial charm.
Beyond San Cristóbal, hundreds of ancient Maya cities lie in ruins. Today, about one million Maya people live in traditional villages scattered across the limestone ridges of the highlands and in the vanishing jungle of the tropical lowlands. They still speak their native languages and maintain many beliefs and rituals that date back to Classic Maya civilization.
Since the Spanish Conquest, San Cristóbal has stood as a bastion of religious and political conservatism holding sway over the native population. While the upper class has profited from coffee, cocoa, mahogany, and cattle ranching, the indigenous people have endured extreme poverty. In spite of the state's natural wealth, the people of Chiapas are among the poorest in the nation.
Several times over the past few centuries the Maya have rebelled against their oppressors, but each rebellion provoked bloody reprisals that left the Maya more oppressed. The Zapatista Uprising of January 1, 1994, drew world attention to the miserable social and economic conditions of the Indian population of Chiapas. Signs of progress are few. In many communities the rift between rebel sympathizers and government supporters often erupts into violence, which has only widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
The Zapatista Movement is only partially responsible for challenging the status quo. Evangelical sects have caused enormous tensions in Maya communities. In San Cristóbal, Ladinos, Indians, and Mestizos encounter Mexicans from other parts of the country as well as foreigners from all over the world, some of whom have settled here and represent a permanent subculture. The proximity of so many disparate cultures and ways of thinking creates a fascinating, yet divided, community.
Such a multifaceted society seemed to be the right place for us to record women's life stories. We decided to interview women over the age of sixty because we assumed that they had witnessed extraordinary social changes in their lifetimes. How had they coped with it? Some of the women were old enough to have lived through world-altering historical events. What were their personal views of those events? No books could tell us, because there were no studies of older women in Chiapas, much less older women from diverse social backgrounds. Last but not least, we were motivated to undertake this project for personal reasons. Both of us had recently entered our fifties and were reconsidering our own stories, trying to find the meaning of our lives. Soon we would enter old age and wanted to get acquainted with it. In this sense we were looking for guidance, just like the generations of women who listened to the stories of wise women in former times.
We began by interviewing women who have played intimate roles in our lives. They came from San Cristóbal, nearby Indian communities, and the Lacandon jungle. The first interviewees led us to others.
We structured the interviews with a loose list of questions, beginning with personal memories of childhood, first loves, marriage, and motherhood. We asked the women about their work, their fears, and their thoughts about dying and death. In the end, we seldom stuck to our questions and just let the women talk. Eventually they expressed their personal concerns and revealed their perspectives on the social forces that had influenced their lives.
Eight of the women we interviewed come from prosperous or prestigious families in San Cristóbal. Although some have lost their wealth, they still maintain upper-class values. All of these women attended high school before they married and became housewives. Most achieved successful marriages. Later on, one returned to teaching, two opened businesses, and another took over the administration of her family ranch. One young widow, Maruca Navarro, worked as a typist to make ends meet, but she never recovered from her husband's tragic death. She is the only woman who did not want to have her photograph taken.
The seven Mestiza women we interviewed grew up in poor families that had abandoned the customs, dress, and language of Indian culture. Most attended a few years of grade school until economic pressures forced them to find work as maids, cooks, or laundresses. Despite stern moral strictures, several women had children out of wedlock or lived with their husbands in a common-law marriage.
The twelve indigenous women grew up in traditional Maya communities where they received no formal education. They either do not speak Spanish or speak it as a second language. Unique village customs and language separate them from one another and exclude them from the dominant culture. Yet most of these women became successful artisans whose talents have given them the wherewithal to be relatively free of the hardships that indigenous women commonly face. Several women we interviewed were involved in the Zapatista Movement, but without explicit permission from their leaders, they were forbidden to talk about political issues.
Indigenous and Mestiza women remember little about their childhoods. The slim memories they recount are painfully similar: an absent or hard-drinking, violent father, years of deprivation and hunger. On the other hand, the well-to-do women recall their mothers, fathers, and siblings in great detail. They also fondly reminisce about teenage sweethearts.
Courtship was a different matter among the poor. Most of the Maya women we interviewed were thrust into arranged marriages when they were barely past childhood. Surprisingly, the three Lacandon Maya women, who lived in polygamous unions, expressed few complaints about their husbands. But most indigenous women describe husbands who drank, beat them, and were unfaithful.
The women who either lost or left their husbands early in their marriages chose not to remarry. Four women never married at all. Instead of husband and family, they decided to lead a religious life, one as a catechist and two as ordained nuns. As founder of the first congregation of indigenous Catholic nuns in Chiapas, Sebastiana Pérez Espinoza dedicates her life to the health and welfare of Indian women.
Without exception, religion is a source of peace and solace in all these women's lives, even though their beliefs and practices vary widely. It is probably their deep faith that allows them to look at death with equanimity. They know that it will come eventually, but none expresses fear or fantasizes about what might or might not come afterwards. They all trust that God will help them at the final moment. Meanwhile, they enjoy what life has to offer: home, family, trips to town, or a tasty plate of beans.
These interviews tell us how twenty-eight women have dealt with the universal issues of life. Even in the worst of circumstances—hunger, violence, and the devastating loss of children—they discovered ways to surmount life's challenges. They reveal their scars, along with a remarkable resilience. Many of these life stories upset our preconceptions. Several Maya women restricted by extreme poverty, by their traditional female role, and by the complete lack of education nevertheless invented amazing opportunities for themselves out of nothing. They remind us that if we are flexible, creative, and courageous, we have many more possibilities than we think we have.
Even though biology, society, and culture shape our lives, we have some extra room for choosing how we deal with circumstances. No two human beings respond exactly the same way to life's challenges. Every woman is unique, a world unto herself. And that is what makes listening to life stories so fascinating.
Gayle Walker and Kiki Suarez, December 2005