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The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico

The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico
Pass Well over the Earth

Enhancing our understanding of the struggle for indigenous rights in Chiapas, this testimonial presents a unique account of that struggle by a woman who has been active at the grassroots level for three decades.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Number Twenty-Six

November 2011
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | 34 b&w and 10 color photos, 1 map |

Most recent books about Chiapas, Mexico, focus on political conflicts and the indigenous movement for human rights at the macro level. None has explored those conflicts and struggles in-depth through an individual woman's life story. The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico now offers that perspective in one woman's own words. Anthropologist Christine Eber met "Antonia" in 1986 and has followed her life's journey ever since. In this book, they recount Antonia's life story and also reflect on challenges and rewards they have experienced in working together, offering insight into the role of friendship in anthropological research, as well as into the transnational movement of solidarity with the indigenous people of Chiapas that began with the Zapatista uprising.

Antonia was born in 1962 in San Pedro Chenalhó, a Tzotzil-Maya township in highland Chiapas. Her story begins with memories of childhood and progresses to young adulthood, when Antonia began working with women in her community to form weaving cooperatives while also becoming involved in the Word of God, the progressive Catholic movement known elsewhere as Liberation Theology. In 1994, as a wife and mother of six children, she joined a support base for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Recounting her experiences in these three interwoven movements, Antonia offers a vivid and nuanced picture of working for social justice while trying to remain true to her people's traditions.


Christine Eber is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at New Mexico State University. Her previous books include Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town: Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow and Women of Chiapas: Making History in Times of Struggle and Hope (coedited with Christine Kovic).


Prologue: February 8, 2009


My backpack and duffel bags sit by the door, bulging with what remains after paring down to essentials. I couldn't bring myself to eliminate any gifts. They are my most important cargo, a way for me to reconnect with friends and share something with them from El Norte. This time I'm carrying photos of my godson for his parents. He has been in the United States for almost a year working on farms and in Chinese restaurants in five different states. A few months ago I sent him a disposable camera to take photos of his life. When the photos arrived, there he was, shoveling snow outside his apartment in West Virginia and posing inside in his new sneakers and cutoff pants, arms folded, feet astride. I wonder what Antonia and Domingo will think of their son. When he left Chiapas, he was much thinner. He says he's gained weight because he doesn't get much exercise. He no longer plays basketball as he did at home because he's afraid of la migra (immigration authorities).


I hoist the pack on my back and lift the two bags to see if I can carry them even a few steps. I can. I check to make sure a few dollar bills are handy to give the porters I may need to help me in the airport in Mexico City and El Tapo, the station where I'll catch the bus to Chiapas.


The phone rings. I really don't want to talk to anyone now. I've already said my goodbyes.


"Madrina [Godmother], it's me, Alberto."


I'm surprised to hear his voice since we talked just yesterday. He's called to ask for one last favor.


"Madrina, I just want to ask you to bring me a tape of my parents talking to me. I want to hear their voices."


"Of course. I'll make sure to ask your parents to do that. I'll send the tape along with some photos when I get back."


"Thank you, Madrina. I just want to ask you for that. That's all."


I tell Alberto to take care of himself and be sure to go to the emergency room if the illness he's been suffering from doesn't clear up. I hate leaving while he's still sick, but I must go. It's not as if I help him that much, living half a country away, but we talk a lot on the phone.


After landing in Mexico City I take a taxi from the airport to El Tapo, where I board a bus that will take me through the night to San Cristóbal de las Casas, the major city in the highlands of Chiapas. Most of the thirteen-hour ride I sleep, until dawn breaks and the falling temperature tells me that we are ascending into the cloud forest. The sun has yet to pierce the clouds. I long for it to reveal the green forests and end the chilly night ride. My seatmate still sleeps, crunched against the window, hooded sweatshirt pulled tight around his face. He is a young man from Yajalón, a rural township in Chiapas. He told me that he has been cleaning restaurants in Mexico City for a few months and is returning to visit his family.


How different this seatmate is from those who made this trip with me in the 1980s. Then they were young, European tourists venturing into the exotic rain forests of Chiapas, or so the guidebooks promised. Today they are mostly Mexican migrants who must find work wherever they can, no matter how far away.




Once in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, I settle into a room that has just become vacant in the home of Antonia's brother Francisco and his wife. Francisco and Marta know my routine, and that I'll head out to Chenalhó as soon as I'm settled in. I want to see Antonia and Domingo, not just to deliver the pictures of their son, but because being with them is like coming home. I lived with the couple for a year in 1987 when they had only three small boys. Now their four boys are grown. Felipe and Sebastian are married, each with two children; Mariano has a job in another Mexican state working with computers; and Alberto, the youngest, is working in the United States. In the early 1990s, two girls were born. Paulina is now married with a baby boy, and Rosalva is in high school.


I pack up just what I'll need for a few days and make my way to the market, where I'll find a taxi to Chenalhó. My ears slowly adjust to the mixture of Tzotzil and Spanish as I wend among the throngs of vendors and buyers. I haven't spoken Tzotzil in over a year and struggle to get back into the groove of this language, so different from English and Spanish.


I slip into the back seat of a VW taxi and place my backpack between my legs. After a half hour of practicing Tzotzil and watching people pass by, we have the four passengers required to make the trip to Chenalhó.


I take some hope in the ride being slower than usual because the driver is middle-aged, but he proves to be as much of a risk taker as his younger colleagues. I close my eyes to contain the nausea rising inside me as we careen around one more curve, just missing two little girls herding sheep along the side of the road. When the driver slows down for a speed bump, I open my eyes to take in the land and people of Chamula and Mitontic, the townships that lie between Chenalhó and San Cristóbal.




We are moving down into the valley, and the ridge of mountains where Antonia lives is nearly visible through the fog. After the Spaniards took control of these lands during the campaigns of Diego Mazariegos in 1527 and 1528, they forced the native people onto the mountainsides and built cities and farms in their fertile river valleys. Now the mountainsides of Chenalhó are dotted with about a hundred communities, each with its own primary school, a few family stores, and a chapel or two. As we speed along I am delighted to see the tops and sides of many houses decorated with paintings of animals and plants. The birds and flowers remind me of pictures I've seen of designs that my great-grandfather painted on houses and barns as he traveled throughout the countryside of central Sweden in the late 1800s.


We arrive in Chenalhó, and I get into the back of a truck that will take me to Antonia's community. Our climb along the mountainside is faster and easier each year since the road was paved in the early 1990s. Before, we'd often bog down in mud, and passengers would eventually abandon the bus and start walking, always the surest and safest way to get anywhere in highland Chiapas.


I don't know if I'll find my compadres at home, but I'm lucky this time. It's February, coffee harvesting season, and I find them picking the last of the beans just above their house.


I call out the traditional Tzotzil greeting. "Me li oxuke?" (Are you there?)


"Li une (I am here)," Antonia answers. A big smile fills her face as she puts her basket down and descends the trail.


She is glad for an excuse to stop working and welcomes me into her kitchen, where a pot of beans simmers on the fire. It's winter, which can be cold in the highlands. Like the scrawny cat that my compadres abide to keep the rats at bay, I stay as close to the fire as I can without singeing myself.


It has been a year and a half since we've seen each other. My face is more creased and my hair more like I remember my grandmother's, grayish brown with glints of gold. Antonia's face is more drawn than I remember, but her eyes and mouth are as warm and expectant as always. Her more sedentary life has put pounds on her, a common occurrence in middle age in both our cultures. But as she repositions logs to rekindle the fire, she seems as much at home in her body as when she was a young woman.




Each time I visit I bring the gifts out right away. I want to wait, but something inside me doesn't trust that I'm enough. So the gifts come out—the Obama calendar and baseball caps, gifts from Antonia's other friends in the United States, and the little photo album of Alberto.


Soon Domingo joins us and the couple flips through the album pages searching for clues about their son's life, just how bad his sickness is, how much he is really drinking.


Rosalva and Paulina join the huddle around the photos. They, too, point out how heavy their brother looks. They must envy all the food he is eating. They have learned about the abundance of things to eat in the United States from the influx of imported goods and from their mother's stories about her visits there.




I have come to Chiapas to reconnect with friends, but also to work with Antonia on her life story. We have only been able to work together during summers and now, during my sabbatical, so the book has come together slowly. It means far more to me than anything I have done in my academic career, allowing me to explore issues that I just touched on in previous writing. Most importantly, I have been able to explore the complexities of cross-cultural relationships shaped by extreme power differences, but also the fundamental similarities that connect us to other humans despite how differently we live our lives.


Books have never been very important to Antonia. When I lived with her and Domingo in 1987, they didn't own a single one. I gave them a Bible, which they appreciated, even though Domingo was just learning to read. The next book they valued was La otra palabra (The Other Word), about the massacre in Acteal, Chenalhó, in 1997, with photos of people who died in the massacre, some of whom the couple knew.


During our conversations in New Mexico in June 2006, Antonia explained how books relate to other aspects of her life. She was recalling a visit the day before to the Mesilla Cultural Center, which has a collection of rare books by Chicano and Mexican writers. While visiting the center we sipped tea and talked with writer Denise Chávez. All the while Antonia embroidered a piece of fabric that she hoped to sell during her visit. At one point Denise asked her if she liked to read. Antonia recalls her response:


I told Señora Chávez, "Yes, I have books, books that my comadre has given me. The problem is that I don't have time to read because we have to work very hard in our homes. We can't count on a salary so we have to work. Just as I'm embroidering right now, I always have to work as that brings an income. I'd like to sit back with my arms crossed, but I can't because I know that I won't earn any money that way. At home we have many things to do—care for children, wash clothes, cook. There's no time to read. I want to read, to take a walk. But no, walking happens when there's a meeting to attend.




Our work is going well, despite the demands of coffee harvesting and the numbness in Antonia's face, which the doctor says is neuralgia of the trigeminal nerve. He tells her that it may take a few months to cure. We fill the prescription, which costs over $300. I am shocked, and realize that if I hadn't come, Antonia's problem would have gone untreated.


We work inside Antonia's store so she won't lose any business. Like many women in her township, Antonia has a small store next to her house to bring in a little income. We are surrounded by shelves loaded with bags of salt, sugar, pasta, soap, animal crackers, neatly stacked cans of sardines, and sodas in plastic bottles. On the floor are crates of bananas, limes, apples, oranges, and flats of eggs. On one side of the store, cascading from hooks on the ceiling, are hair ribbons and weaving threads; on the other side hang clumps of candles of different lengths and thicknesses. Domingo and his sons built this store using wooden planks for the walls, metal for the roof, and cement for the floor. The structure and its contents are a source of pride for the whole family.


In between customers I read Antonia the words that I've transcribed from our conversations over many years. Sometimes she adds additional thoughts or provides an update. Occasionally she says, "We better not put that in the book." The words that prompt her to say this usually involve criticism of someone she doesn't want to offend or information about her involvement in the Zapatista movement, which we are still figuring out how to handle.




One day I broach the topic of our motivations for writing her life story. I explain that I hope that her story will do many things, including provide an opportunity to learn about the lives of women in her community and deepen awareness about the process of mutual discovery that cross-cultural relationships entail. I end by saying that I hope that her book will increase solidarity connections between her people and people in the United States and other nations.


I ask Antonia to sum up her motivations. She gathers her thoughts and says, "I want to write this book to conserve my story so that when I am gone people will know what I thought and what happened in my life. I hope that other women will be inspired to have the same rights that I have had, to leave their homes, to know another world, and to have many experiences."




Over the course of my month in Chiapas I finish reading all of Antonia's words to her. Just before I leave, I lend her my tape recorder so she and Domingo can send a message to Alberto.


After my return I send the tape to Alberto in West Virginia. He calls to tell me that he was happy to hear his parents' voices. But he adds sheepishly, "They gave me advice, you know." I wondered how Alberto would take his father's lecture. Domingo spoke first and preached about the evils of drinking.


As I expected, Antonia's words to Alberto were comforting; they embody the local belief that mothers are guardians of their sons' souls, as fathers are of their daughters'. Her words also reveal the difficulties of protecting children's souls in a globalized world when one has little knowledge of the cultural worlds where they live. Antonia has repeatedly told me that the only way she knows something is if she experiences it in her body—if she lives it on a daily basis. Her words convey wisdom about knowing which is confirmed by what anthropologists have learned by accompanying people in their daily lives.


Antonia's Words to Alberto


K'ox, I want to talk to you. I'm going to tell you that I want you to be happy in your work, where you are working. May you have good spirit in your work. Save your money because you only crossed over to the faraway land once.


I only became sad about you one time. You, too, only suffered once from walking, from hunger, from thirst, from fear and all the suffering as you crossed. Thank God that you could do it.


I consoled you because you were suffering. You didn't have money, you didn't have clothes. You suffered a lot because I couldn't help you with everything.


But now be content. You're earning a little.


I only tell you to be content for that. I'm also content. That's how I always am.


May God accompany you in your work, on the road wherever you may find yourself. That's all my talk. We'll see each other later. You stay there.


Background Notes


Antonia's story starts with Chapter 1. The background notes below describe the main contexts of our work on this book and key challenges we faced in respect to language issues, the politics of representing another's life, and gathering and assembling the material. Readers who would rather continue reading Antonia's story without interruption are welcome to return to this section at points in the story.


Contexts of Antonia's Story


Antonia and I first talked about writing her life story in 1996 and began to work on it in 2002. We have known each other since February 1987, when I lived a year with her and her family in the rural community of San Pedro Chenalhó, a township in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. My goal at that time was to conduct research for my dissertation in anthropology about indigenous women's experiences with their own and others' ritual drinking as well as problem drinking. Although neither Antonia nor her husband, Domingo, were currently drinkers, Domingo was a heavy drinker as a young man and often counseled others to stop drinking.


In 1988, just before I was to return to the United States, I asked Antonia what I could do to repay her and other women in her community for all that they had given me. She told me that I could help them sell their weavings for fair prices in my country. Our collaboration began in earnest in 1989 after I returned from my Ph.D. fieldwork and began working with friends to sell weavings in the United States for Tsobol Anzetik (Women United), a weaving cooperative that Antonia and her family members had formed. This work continues today under the auspices of Las Cruces-Chiapas Connection, a volunteer organization that assists two weaving co-ops in highland Chiapas to find fair trade markets (


Another context for Antonia's life story is the solidarity movement with indigenous people of Chiapas that developed in the wake of the Zapatista uprising in 1994. Antonia and Domingo became Zapatistas soon after the uprising. Their passion for the movement inspired me and many others throughout the world to assist them as they sought ways to create a more just relationship between indigenous people and the Mexican state. This book is very much a part of global efforts to foster social justice and create understanding and solidarity between indigenous people and people of other ethnicities and nationalities.


Yet another context for Antonia's story is the movement of researchers and activists across the globe exploring the significance of women's diverse experiences. Many scholars have written about the Zapatista movement's focus on women's rights, unique among Latin American social movements.1 Antonia has built upon the Zapatista Revolutionary Women's Law to make her own voice and the voices of other women heard. As a feminist anthropologist I have sought ways to assist Antonia and other women in her community to bring their words and unique perspectives to the attention of those in Mexico and outside the country who are ignorant of the legacy of disregard for the rights of indigenous women.


After more than twenty years of friendship and collaboration, I am still an outsider to the poverty, racism, and male dominance that Antonia has endured. This reality has created challenges for me and Antonia in working together, which we have tried to meet by talking about our differences. As a white woman I have not known racism, only sexism, and for a time, poverty. However, I did not grow up poor; I was raised in a small college town in Michigan where my parents were both teachers.


I took a circuitous route to becoming an anthropologist, spending thirteen years working as an illustrator, often bartering my work for things I needed. I was poor, but buoyed up by friendships with people working for social change. I was also single and didn't have to worry about supporting anyone else. Things changed when I was thirty-five and just starting graduate school. I met a man and his two children, and we began living together. The next ten years were challenging as Mike and I struggled to overcome our limited economic resources, and I tried to find my place in an already existing family.


At forty-five, I obtained my first full-time tenure track teaching position. In part I was able to obtain that position because Antonia and many others in her community made it possible for me to complete my Ph.D. by welcoming me into their community. I am indebted in ways that I can never repay. My indebtedness informs the dramatic economic inequalities between Antonia and me. In this book we explore how we have dealt with the inequality between us in our personal and work relationships. We hope that our story will give moral support to others involved in similar relationships.


The Politics of Representing Antonia's Life


Antonia is a wife, mother, weaver, Catholic, community organizer, and supporter of the Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional, or EZLN (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation). The EZLN rose up in 1994 to protest the exclusion and oppression of the indigenous people of Chiapas by the Mexican state. Soon after the uprising Antonia joined a support base in her community, one of hundreds of community-based civilian groups that support the EZLN.


From the beginning, we intended this book to bear Antonia's real name, even though we recognized risks in doing so. In the 1990s, paramilitary troops, backed by the military, committed heinous acts of violence against Zapatista supporters in San Pedro Chenalhó (see Part 2, Chapter 2).


While writing the first draft of this book in the summer of 2009, I reached a turning point in my concern for Antonia's welfare if the book were to carry her real name. Human rights abuses against social activists perpetrated by police, the military, paramilitaries, and security forces are rife throughout the nation. For example, on July 10, 2009, members of the Zapatista-inspired "The Other Campaign" and participants of the "Civil Resistance and No Payment of High Electricity Rates Movement" in Candelaria, Campeche, were beaten and detained. Antonia and thousands of others in Chiapas also protest high electric charges by the federal Electricity Commission. Members of Zapatista bases have not paid electric fees since 1994 as part of their resistance against the government. Zapatista supporters defend their actions based on the Mexican government's exploitation of the natural resources of Chiapas without regard for the basic needs of poor people. Many indigenous communities there, including Antonia's, had to wait until just a couple years before the Zapatista uprising to receive electricity, while hydroelectric dams in Chiapas were providing more than 50 percent of the hydroelectric energy in Mexico.2


So far state officials have tended to look the other way regarding nonpayment of electric bills. But the EZLN remains in hiding, and civilian support bases stand ready to mobilize when needed in response to a stalemate between the government and the EZLN over the government's failure to implement the peace accords signed in 1995. In the context of the current repression and ongoing labeling of the Zapatistas by the Mexican and U.S. governments as subversives—and even terrorists—it seems paramount to protect Antonia's true identity.


In addition to the broader-scale repression, Antonia has been the target of envy within her community. In Tzotzil-Maya communities it is considered socially destabilizing for individuals to bring attention to themselves or to acquire more possessions or power than others. As this book evolved, Antonia accepted that its publication might fan already existing resentment of her by envious neighbors. But where envy mixes with political repression in Chiapas, personal and social suffering are likely to intensify, and I feared for Antonia's and others' welfare if her name were to be used.


When I shared my concerns with Antonia about whether to use her real name or not, she left the decision up to me. I decided not to use it, with deep regrets about not giving her the recognition that she deserves.


Language Issues


Antonia's first language is Tzotzil, a Mayan language spoken by close to 300,000 people living in the state of Chiapas. Antonia learned to speak Spanish in primary school and speaks it well. While living with her, I studied Tzotzil, but we depended on Spanish to talk about our lives. When it came to recording conversations specifically for this book, we discussed whether to work in Tzotzil or Spanish. I thought that it would be ideal to use Tzotzil in order to add to the growing body of literature in Tzotzil about Tzotzil-Maya culture and history. Two drawbacks to this option were my lack of fluency in the language and the substantial funds required to pay someone to transcribe and translate Antonia's words, as Antonia didn't have time to do this herself. Antonia concluded that we should talk in Spanish. Her decision reflects a major thread in her life since childhood—a desire and capacity to reach across cultural and language barriers to increase intercultural understanding and collaboration.


Despite our decision to have Antonia tell her story mainly in Spanish, we are aware that Tzotzil has many qualities that convey experiences of life different from what can be conveyed in other languages. For example, Tzotzil speakers use a lot of repetition and joking. Antonia often jokes around and laughs with her children and others. I am confident that the sense of humor that leavens the difficulties of life for Antonia would have come out more strongly had we spoken about her life mostly in Tzotzil. However, reflecting on her life seemed to bring out a more somber tone in Antonia's voice, regardless of which language she used.


For those interested in the Tzotzil language and issues of translation and interpretation, Appendix A provides a transcription in Tzotzil, Spanish, and English of the message Antonia asked me to carry to her son when he was working in Alabama (see pages 000 and 000). This message reflects the more formal character of Tzotzil speech used on special occasions or for specific purposes.


Gathering the Material


In 2003 Antonia and I compiled a list of the important topics and events in her life. During the course of working on this book, we transitioned from a more traditional interviewing style in which I posed topics from the list for Antonia to talk about, to recording less focused conversations about both our lives. We found the latter approach more enjoyable and equitable, as it required me, as well as Antonia, to do the difficult work of reflecting on my life.


During two recording sessions in the summers of 2005 and 2006, we shared our conversations with Heather Sinclair, a mutual friend. Heather was a human rights observer in a peace camp in Chiapas in 1996 and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Border History at the University of Texas at El Paso. We recorded our three-way conversations in Heather's home in El Paso and at a Buddhist retreat center in Tularosa, Mexico. Private conversations between Antonia and me took place in Antonia's home in Chenalhó, my home in Radium Springs, New Mexico, or in a room where I stayed in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the urban center of highland Chiapas.


Published sources that I consulted for my narrative portions include my own and others' ethnographic writings. While the scholarship on Tzotzil-Mayas of Chiapas is rich, I place this material mostly in endnotes because I want readers to pay close attention to how Antonia describes the dynamic and complex process through which she takes aspects of diverse cultural influences into her hands and shapes her life. My sense from knowing Antonia for twenty-four years is that Tzotzil-Maya cultural beliefs and practices are the warp upon which she weaves the threads of her life from the variety of cultural influences with which she has come into contact.


My intent is to enable readers to appreciate Antonia's integration into a global society and the broader humanity that they share with her. In recent decades anthropologists have tried to correct an earlier tendency to treat cultures as homogenous and bounded bodies of beliefs and practices (Rus 2004). Today they strive to show how cultural beliefs and practices are internally contested and constantly in flux. This correction is nowhere more critical than in the study of women's lives.


As a woman in Chenalhó, Antonia has not had much power. Traditional Mayan gender ideology restricts women's place to the house and hamlet, and associates women with upholding traditions. Since political opposition to state control began to intensify in the 1980s and '90s, men have stressed their right to defend and conserve their cultures and traditions. Not unlike earlier ethnographers, indigenous leaders tend to present their traditions in monolithic and harmonious terms. Today, as more and more women are gaining a voice in how their cultures are presented and defended, a more complex picture of indigenous cultures and traditions is emerging. This picture reveals men's complicity in binding women to traditions that do not respect their rights in order to bolster claims of ethnic sovereignty.


Nevertheless, I try in this book to show how Antonia acts in the world on the basis of many traditional Tzotzil-Maya conceptions of human nature. She defends her native language and many of her people's beliefs and practices, even the traditional bride petition process in which a girl does not have boyfriends, but waits until a boy comes to her house to ask her parents' permission to marry her (see Chapters 4 and 5).


Organizing the Material


In this book I hope to carry the gift of Antonia's life to the world, but I don't want to deliver it in a package with a neatly tied bow. I want to allow for the assumption that people overflow boundaries and that appearances often deceive; what one sees may not be all that there is, and what one reads on these pages is only a partial, biased image. Writing about mourning his wife's passing, C. S. Lewis said, "I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person" (1961, p. 78). Lewis went on to say that we continually construct images of others, and that they have to depart pretty widely from our image of them for us to notice. Yet in real life, they are rarely "in character." They always have a card in their hands that we don't know about, that they might not even know about until they find it.


Although I want to allow for readers to meet Antonia on their own terms, to find the card in her hand, I have searched for a thread while organizing her words, to tie her life to my own and others' lives. I haven't asked Antonia's help to find this thread when I am with her. We stay focused on the stories themselves and how she feels about all the things that have happened in her life, leaving the work of stringing this all together to me. But early in our relationship, Antonia gave me a key to doing this work that respects our distinct cultural worlds while placing us on common ground.


During one of our Tzotzil lessons in 1987, I asked, "How do you say 'life' in Tzotzil?"


Antonia looked up from her weaving with one of her "You're not going to like this" looks, laughed a little nervously, and said, "How about banamil?"


Okay, I thought. I already know what banamil means. It means "Earth." It doesn't mean "life."


Antonia went back to her weaving, and I went back to biting my fingernails. How, I asked myself, could "Earth" take the place of "life"?


Later that day Antonia offered me some of her thoughts about "life," perhaps realizing that la vida is a significant concept for Ladinos and gringos.


"Look, Cristina, when I think of my life I think of how I am passing over the Earth from year to year and with whom. Well, I think of a few years, like three or five. These are like chapters in the books you read. I'm changing in each chapter, different things interest me. But it's not important what happens just to me. What matters is that I follow the traditions and serve my people, that I show respect to people and God, that I pass well over the Earth."


Years later I learn that Tzotzil does have a word for life, k'uxlejal. Nevertheless, the fact that Antonia, whose mother tongue is Tzotzil, didn't immediately think of this word suggests that it is not a common one.


By uniting "Earth" and "life," Antonia forewarned me of the danger of drawing the thread of her life too far outside the larger fabric of which it is a part: her family, community, Earth (a sacred being in Maya culture), and the generations of Tzotzil-Maya men and women who have passed this way before her. The collective ethos of Antonia's life accounts for much of its distinctiveness, as well as its relevance to the lives of women in other times and places who have struggled together for justice for themselves and the social groups to which they belong.


In addition to trying to convey Antonia's integration into a broader social whole, I also wanted the book's organization to convey the ebb and flow of her life—its many cycles of light and dark. Based on my understanding of these cycles, I have organized her story into three parts.


Part 1, "Becoming a Batz'i Antz (True Woman)," describes the important role that Tzotzil-Maya beliefs and practices played in shaping Antonia's understandings of how to be a respectful person and a proper wife, mother, and member of a household and community.


Part 2, "Contesting the Status Quo, Creating a Different World," explores Antonia's experiences in the weaving cooperative and Zapatista movements, and how they helped her find a way to express her more assertive personal style. This part also shows Antonia's struggles to be a good mother to her sons and daughters in rapidly changing times.


Part 3, "Gains and Losses, Lessons Learned," recounts Antonia's reflections on the challenges, setbacks, and suffering that stem from trying to honor her cultural beliefs and traditions while also being a Zapatista and a member of the Word of God, the local name of the progressive Catholic movement in highland Chiapas (known also as "liberation theology"), which began in the 1960s, soon after Antonia was born. Part 3 builds on previous chapters to show the conflicts that Antonia faces as she tries to balance her life as a wife and mother with her work in cooperatives and her collaborations with outsiders.


Most chapters begin with introductions placing Antonia's words within broader historical, cultural, and social contexts. At times these "introductions" precede a part of Antonia's narrative within a chapter. Sometimes my words relate Antonia's experiences to my own in hopes of deepening readers' appreciation of the commonalities and differences between Antonia's life and the lives of women in other societies.


Chapter One


A Childhood Memory


This memory, this thing that happened, it's very difficult for me. I can't forget it. I always tell my children and my husband, "You haven't had happen to you what happened to me."




When I was a little girl I got sick with an illness. I don't know what they call it. I don't know if I was six or eight years old. My whole body swelled up. I was going to die from swelling. My hair fell out, and when it began to grow back it was coarse and thick.


Each morning I felt so cold from my sickness. My feet couldn't get warm in the bed. I didn't have a blanket, just a thin one that didn't warm me. My legs were swollen—my feet, too. I could hardly sleep in my bed in the morning.


When my mother woke up to make the fire, she would have to bring me to the edge of the fire to lie down on two blocks of wood. In the day I had to go outside to warm myself in the sun. Although the sun was strong, it didn't warm me. I had to take off my clothes so my skin would warm. I even went as far as to take off my blouse to warm my skin. I was a little girl, I didn't know what to do.


I felt so much like eating things. I wanted to eat fruit, pears, elotes [fresh ears of corn]. I couldn't bear to wait for the time when the elotes came out. I was desperate. But where was I going to find them? In the past, they didn't sell elotes like today. Now they're selling them all over the place. But in Chenalhó at this time there weren't any. I wanted to eat everything, but there wasn't anything to eat. No way to get it. My parents didn't have any money or maybe they didn't sell these things in Chenalhó. At that time there weren't markets or stores like today.


I had an old blouse that I hung in a tree so that it would rot. It was made out of an old bag that they put sugar or flour in. Each time I came to the tree, the cloth would be more torn and rotted from being outside in the rain. I would tear off pieces to chew. I went to the tree to eat.


I also chewed on newspaper. It tasted good to me. In the past if we bought a kilo of sugar, they wrapped it in a newspaper. Afterward the newspapers were in the house, and they smelled as if they still had food in them. I ate these things because I felt as if I was going to die of hunger.


My illness lasted for many months, perhaps a year. My parents took me to the Health Center in Chenalhó. But they treated me very badly. "Una chamulita" [a little Chamula girl],1 they called me! I don't know how I looked when I was sick. Maybe I looked worthless. But they acted racist toward me. They gave me medicine, but with the medicine I didn't get better.


My parents looked for j'iloletik [healers]. Although many healers came to me, my mother saw that I wasn't getting better. She looked for another and another. She would wait a few days to get some more money and then ask another healer to come. I don't remember who came first. But each healer when he came held my hand to listen to my pulse. He had to listen to my blood to know what sickness I had. Then he began to pray to ask that my sickness leave me. The healers asked my parents for rum, a chicken, candles, incense, and branches of ocote, tsots te', lotsob chix, and valak xik.2 Those are the main plants that healers use. And with the rum they began to do a cleansing in the form of a cross. As I lay in bed they did this with four witnesses. Each time they cleansed me with rum and also with the chicken, three times in front of my heart and three times on each side.3


The healers said that mutton is good for illness. So I ate mutton. It took a long time to cure me. Eventually I got better, probably because of the healers. After, when I was a little better, I wanted to eat all kinds of things. I yearned for food. I couldn't wait to give my body what it craved.



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