Telling un Cuento in Travel and Journal Writing -- Project Chiapas
Linda Rader Overman, California State University Northridge
Chiapas Journal of Memory-3.28.97
Sitting on top of El Templo de la Cruz among these Mayan ruins in Palenque, the oversized white, hand embroidered shirt I purchased from a Mayan woman a few days ago, wraps itself. over my breasts, into the crevices underneath. It sticks along the length of my spine and it remains moist from the screeching humidity of this place and I am not surprised. This is where I want to be. Sitting on these stone steps, shells of what once was, I feel a connection that transcends time, myself, what I might have been, what I was, or perhaps what I am now. Quizas. I find my own deepest creative feeling in this remote jungle is not only Woman going back through the ages, she is myself discovering my own inner worlds, where my present one seems so pathetically inadequate.
I look past the trapezoidal complex of El Palacio, covered with anthills of foreign tourists speaking French, Spanish, and German who climb these steps, snap photographs, gulp down bottled water, and wipe away the perspiration from their faces. I see into the distance beyond these thirty-seven acres cleared and accessible to visitors, beyond the green of the jungle, beyond the patches of farmland, beyond the sphere of the earth, and I comprehend just why the ancient rulers from this natural palisade believed they were all powerful. They must have felt as I do now, like I’m sitting on top of the world where no one can touch me.
If, as David Bartholomae states, "every time a student sits down to write for us, [she] has to invent the university for the occasion; the student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing ... that define the discourse of our community," (460) then I, too, had to appropriate a "specialized discourse" to make a variety of connections as the student and not the teacher on this trip to the far away place of Chiapas, Mexico. All of these connections became links to ancient stones of my past; to Spanish as a second language (when once it was my first); to Tzotzil, one of twelve Mayan dialects; to code switching between all of them. I had to learn to speak several languages by "assembling and mimicking… while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history" and learning the protocols of another country within a country. That is the country of the Maya who co-exist problematically and sometimes violently with Ladinos (Mexicanos & Guatamalans who reject individually or through their cultural heritage, Indian values of Mayan origin). Coming from Los Angeles, where Mexicana/Chicana is synonymous with the label of a historically under represented group, in Chiapas, suddenly, I was a member of the historically oppressive group.
Ladinos historically have marginalized the Mayan Indians and continue to do so today. "¡Andale bruta! Que te pasa, correte y trae la seflora su toalla ahorita. ¡Estupida!" The few minutes I spent watching a young Mayan servant girl being given a tongue lashing by her Ladino employer, in the hotel I was staying at in San Cristobal, made me painfully aware of 500 years of oppression suffered by these Indians. It was something I did not want to face, did not want to remember. It was knowledge I had stuffed away inside of me and wanted no part of. But traveling and journal writing in Chiapas during an English class trip, in order to study Mayan literature in whatever form I chose to appropriate it from, forced me to confront another story, the discovery of my own cuento. I felt very much like the student who must move into "a specialized language . . . [speaking] with a impressive air of authority" (461), but struggling every step of the way in this university that was relentlessly present for me each of the ten days of my trip.
I hide from the others -- the group I came with, my classmates as I hide from the I tourists, hide from myself so that I may find her, me, this woman in her fourth decade who still seeks secrets, secrets the ancient Mayans knew and many of the Mayans of today still know. Secrets Rigoberta Menchu knows when she writes, "Nevertheless, I’m still keeping my Indian identity a secret. I’m still keeping what I think no one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets" (247).
Suddenly I hear the calling of birds, birds I do not know the names of. The music they sing is like nothing I have heard at home in any forest. At first I’m not sure if it's the birds or the howler monkeys, but they are not so very near. They are smart and stay away from the throngs of people that invade this place during Semana Santa. Foreigners, all of them, all of us, and all of me. Although I am the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of a Mestiza, I too am a foreigner in my own land. This country is some part of what I am, yet for so long I was not allowed to admit to my connections to it by a mother who wanted to protect me from suffering the racial epithets hurled at her during a painful adolescence. But now that disconnection is falling away and reconnections are merging in union with the rhythms of this rain forest, in the heat that thaws my memory and soaks my oversized white, hand embroidered shirt. Estoy empapada completamente, pero no me muevo, aqui me quedo.
Clearly I'm on a journey in time and space. Answering la llamada de la aventura, I travel, although I sit here on this age-old stone. I have not traveled nearly far enough, yet. I am compelled by the specter of my indigenous great-grandmother. She appears to me as a young black-haired beauty standing outside her hacienda in Puebla, staring toward the hills watching for her husband's return. She was barely sixteen when she married Antonio Morales. By the age of twenty-one she was dead, leaving three small children motherless. My grandmother, Maria, was only six years-old when calling for her mother one day, who had fallen ill, and was told by a servant "Esta muerta. "
I will never know what Petra Rios really looked like, nor did my mother, Enriqueta, her granddaughter. A lock of braided black hair is all that Maria had left of her mother. An atavistic memory. Now it is all I have of her to give to my own daughter Deva, whose name means nature spirit.
Petra calls out to my heart, which takes steps before the rest of me. I sit still and listen as her calling intermingles with each bird song, with each cascading waterfall, with each stone that speaks to me as it did to Rosario Castellanos in her poem "Silence Near An Ancient Stone": 7he fragments of a thousand ancient defeated gods/ seek and bind each other in my blood, straining to rebuild their statue. From their shattered mouths/ a song struggles to rise to mine" (81). My own words are not quite intact yet, not as the words of the speaker in this poem who states, Estoy aqui, sentada, con todas mis palabrasI como una cesta de fruta verde, intactas. . . " nor do they [my words] bare the fruit I am looking for. Mis palabras struggle, bodies breaking free beneath the stones of my ancestors, like Petra, and her mothers before her of whom I know so little.
Sleep comes and I try to shake it off. I lie down on the cold harshness of the stone steps. I stretch out my legs. My head rests on my backpack--Mosquitoes buzz around my ear. I wave them off. Half asleep I begin to see other sights and hear other sounds, still in the jungle but far away from here. I think about the women. All those women dressed in red and white huipiles and black cortes. "No nos olvidas," they cried and I can't. Displaced, homeless, and hungry refugees, their men in prison or murdered by their enemies, the Mexican government, the women keep reappearing, the whole group of thirty or was it fifty? They almost look as if they are wearing uniforms while sitting waiting, and watching our group of fifteen college students, as we climb out of the white Ford pickup truck. We are all so happy to unwedge ourselves from the mass of crowded bodies and backpacks crammed into the back. We never did learn whose truck it really was. Juan Diaz, our Tzotzil translator, in the municipality of El Bosque, said he had a truck to take us to Las Delicias about one hour away, but no chauffeur. Armando, one of our group answers, "Pues tenemos un grupo de chauffeurs aqui, senor, " Juan smiles. "Ah pues vamanos entonces." We arrive in Las Delicias, a small hamlet about an eight hour drive in the mountains northwest of San Cristobal on a mission to take testimony from this group of expulsados, kicked out of their village two weeks earlier, by La Seguridad Publica, the men in blue, the state police. Briefed by the Human Rights Center, back in San Cristobal, in proper protocol among the Maya, we bring nothing to offer these desplasados, as we must not single anyone out. If we don't have enough provisions for 60 families, then we must not cause divisiveness by favoring anyone with food, water or medicine. Something they have little of and need desperately. Something we have more of than we need.
We arrived at this refugee camp believing ourselves to be a group of intellectuals sent by California State University Northridge to do research and gather data for the term papers we were expected to write out of this experience. We were, in fact, more along the lines of organic intellectuals, similar to those defined by Edward Said as a "[group] of individuals ... aligned with [an institution] and [deriving] power and authority from [that institution]" (50). We were ready and felt ourselves to be completely prepared by the previous two months of study on the Mayan condition, and on the political upheaval from the Zapatista Revolution with its current tensions. We had our journals. We were armed and eager to write.
We soon discovered, however, that we were amateurs fitting Said's definition as those "with desire to he moved not by profit or reward but by love for and unquenchable interest in the larger picture" (57). The larger picture in this case was a starving, ill and displaced group of almost three hundred refugees. In this picture our group was clearly one of "apprentices rather than. . . teachers or scholars" (Bartholomae 462) in a university that privileges Tzotzil over Spanish, community over individuality, and men over women. We "were children" being offered the suffering and wisdom of the others' experience. We found a completely alien environment, a university that we had to invent and acclimate to; causing us to reinvent the discourse, and ourselves.
There are over a hundred people milling around between those of us in front of the main assembly building up on a little hill where we wait and the open area below us where the women wait. We are all waiting for something to happen. I watch the women who wait still, so many of them sitting together in orderly fashion like schoolgirls. The littler girls stay together, some by their mothers' side. Other little babies are in rebosos, which are slung around their mothers' shoulders, nursing, sleeping, clutching the warmth of the body that carries them. These females of all ages are so beautiful with their long hair in braids, as they stand and sway in a sea of red and white while the day's heat melts us all.
They move as if possessed by one body, one mind alone. And I move with them as Gloria Anzaldua writes, "continually [as I walk out of one culture into another" weaving the fabric of a canto constructed out of a cuento of my own-as these women have woven the very shirts that now cling to their breasts and the crevices underneath.
Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University." Composition in Four Keys. Eds. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Weatherbee Phelps. Mountain View, California: Mayfield, 1996. 460-479.
Castenanos, Rosario. A Rosario Castellanos Reader. Ed. and trans. Maureen Ahern. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Menchu, Rigoberta. I Rigoberta Menchu. Ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.
Said, Edward. "Professionals and Amateurs." Representations of the Intellectuals. London: Vintage, 1994. 49-62
Reference Citation: Overman, L. (1998). "Telling un Cuento in Travel and Journal Writing—Project Chiapas." WILLA, Vol. VII, p. 20-22.
Find this article also at Willa Vol. 7 from The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly of The National Council of Teachers of English.