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A cranky stop on the Ruta Maya

6 March 2009

San Cristobal de las Casas is a very, very weird place.

on-the-road-chiapasThe sizable gringo (the North American variety) population in San Cristobal de las Casas …  like the denizens of all other gringo enclaves… will tell you there is something “magical and different” about San Cristobal.

After Oaxaca (where Editorial Matzaltan books, including Gods, Gachupines and Gringos are sold by Amate Books),  I spent a day in San Cristobal.  La Pared  in San Cristobal is quite a good bookstore (and also carries Editorial Mazatlan books).   Those on the “Ruta Maya” trail are encouraged to stop.

San Cristobal has a lot to offer tourists, but I really wasn’t planning to say very long.  As to being “magical” or “unique”, I’m convinced that’s in the eye of the beholder… or, perhaps more realistically, in the brochure of the promoter.

Its charm for the U.S. gringos is that not being near an airport — or much of anything really — you actually have to do some work to get there.

Once there, you either sell real estate, or you reinvent yourself as a “free spirit” and artist.  Given our propensity to believe that indigenous peoples somehow possess some secret wisdom the rest of us forgot, never mind that the indigenous people have been treated like dirt for the last half millenium.  Having them around makes it seem like you’re one with the ages… or can claim the Tzotzil cleaning lady is your friend, the “indian.”  And, you can drop a few French phrases and sound wordly.  And… Chiapas having been left behind by the Mexican Revolution, you can live out that fantasy of being a great white colonial at a fraction of the cost of, say, San Miguel de Allende.

And, while the Mexican south has always attracted more European tourists than the rest of Mexico, there’s something distinctly odd about a town best known for having been the center of an uprising against foreigners and outsiders becoming… in a very short time… a mecca for those foreigners as a result.

In their native costume (based on the San Cristobal sampling, this consists of dirty, rumpled tee-shirts and shorts, mixed with scarves from the local market covering unwashed dreadlocks) they travel in packs crowding the indigenous Tzotzil, Tzeltel and Chontal people out of the downtown area — as per the tradition of their European oppressor ancestors.

What the locals make of the exotic contemporary foreigners I can’t say.  But, the locals weren’t shoving their cameras into the faces of the colorful visitors, nor taking photos of them doing everything but taking a dump. Though, maybe issuing a few cameras might be the way to touch off the “real” revolution.

I’d never been in a Mexican town where it was hard to find Mexican businesses… every third building seemed to be a hostel for grubby European backpackers, a cafe (for grubby European backpackers) or a den of internet-iquity (for grubby European bloggers).

At La Pared, the English language bookstore (which ALSO carries Editorial Mazatlan books), I was clued in.  The children of the European bourgois revolutionaries (those Italians who voted Communist, just because the Christian Democrats were hopelessly incompetent and corrupt, for example) have the luxury — and arrogance — to “take the revolution” to the people.  As long as it’s not their own people.

Given the way the Italian and French tourists treat the locals, I’d hate to see how they treat their own Romas, Albanians, Africans.  Ah well… one must cater to one’s market.

And those Zapatistas are so darn cute!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Berynice permalink
    8 March 2009 11:25 am

    As you noticed, you bring yourself with you wherever you go – and you brought yourself. There are many more European ex-pats in San Cristóbal than United Statesians. Not sure what you’re on about, but hey everybody doesn’t have to travel and blog or live in the country where they were born. La Pared! What a laugh – owned by an “ugly American” woman who is Republican and hates the “Indians”. Pathetic. Too bad you missed the beauty.

  2. ... permalink
    8 March 2009 4:02 pm

    I’ve never been to San Cristóbal, but I have often observed the neo colonialistic mindset Mr. Grabman criticises.

  3. Dana Burton permalink
    12 March 2009 8:27 am

    Setting the record straight – I own La Pared, am a registered Democrat, very vocally anti-Bush, pro-Obama, pro-choice & pro-gay rights. If that describes a right wing Republican, hooray for the changes in that paty. I’m also not an Indian hater, just have no respect for those whose attitude is “You have it, I want it, give it to me,” no mtter the ethnicity. There are more hard-working, respectable Indigenous than there are the other types who make the headlines.

  4. 12 March 2009 10:06 am

    And Dana runs a damn good bookstore — where Indigenous peoples and even Republicans will find a fine selection of English-language books.

    Certainly, an English-language bookstore isn’t going to attract a large Tzotzil-speaking clientele, but one would expect to see Tzotzil-speakers in the restaurants, and… for that matter… it is difficult to find a restaurant that caters to the working class. I don’t think I saw a single cocina economica in SCdelasC, and I looked.

  5. Quentin permalink
    17 March 2009 8:00 am

    I’ve lived on and off in San Cris for 15 years and this review does not resemble any town I have ever seen.

  6. Roy permalink
    17 March 2009 10:10 am

    Quite the impression for someone who spent a whole day in SC. If you would of gone a few blocks away from El Centro you would have seen a different SC.

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