In the spring of 1998, Clowns Without Borders – USA founder Moshe Cohen (aka Mister YooWhoo) returned to what is now known as the Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas for the fourth time in three years. His primary goal was to continue performing for the children of various indigenous communities in the region.
April 27 INI, St Cristobal 50 Children from 3 displaced communities
April 28 Coralito 40 Women and children from the community
April 28 Del Bosco 100 Children from 3 displaced communities
April 29 Acteal Autonomo 200 Community Members
April 29 Acteal Abejas 600 Community Members
April 29 Polho 1500 Members of Displaced Communities
April 30 St Cristobal 100 Street Children
April 30 La Primavera 300 Children from Displaced Communities
Howls of Laughter
Here is a not so brief report of my Clowns Without Borders expedition to the troubled state of Chiapas in the very south of Mexico, where tensions and conflict continue. My expedition follows that of the Circos de Manos in December (13 women and a child from the US, with a school bus as our clown car—18 shows in 18 days) and the tour organized by Saltimbanqui in Mexico City (a ten-person expedition in March). Unlike last year when I was able to travel extensively and perform in quite a variety of communities and towns, this year I stayed close to San Cristobal, mainly to avoid the threat of being expulsed by the immigration authorities. The ‘migri’ has greatly expanded their presence in Chiapas and are very actively trying to expulse as many foreigners as possible. It seemed unreasonable to me that they would see a clown as a threat to national security, but I was not about to argue.
I am glad to say that the dreaded encounter with the ‘migri’ never took place. I am sorry to say that since my last visit there has been a sharp increase in internal displacement, so I didn’t need to travel very far to find a lot of people in need of some laughter release. The shows were all wonderful, ranging from an intimate performance for a very small community in their ‘salon’ (community hall in Coralito) to using an entire basketball court as my stage and playing to a terrassed hillside ampitheater full of people (Polho). Mister YooWho was very well received and laughter was quite generous. I based my show on the word tzotz, which means “strong” in Tzotzil, and used the word liberally and often. I would comment, tzotz following some nerdish move or before running scared from frightened dogs, small children and larger strong men. As has happened in the past, the most effective humor was based on human interaction, simple slapstick and the unexpected. Repeating jokes on latecomers (such as dissappearing a stack of coins then sneezing them out my nose) brought howls of laughter from the rest of the audience.
As in the past, my performances were fasciltated by Palbo Romo from the Centro Derechos Humanos Frey Bartolome and Alejandra Alvarez from Tadas and Seva. My main support came from the organization Melel Xojoloval, a new branch of the Human Rights Center, created to work with street children and children from displaced communities. A wondrful byproduct of this collaboration was that most of my shows were followed by joy and glee as the kids pummeled at numerous pinatas and munched on candies provided by Melel. My many thanks go out to this group, as well as Pablo Romo and to Alejandra and her family (Pedro, Maru and Indira) who not only housed and fed me, but provided me with a sense of home. I am glad to have contributed some positive infusion of spirit into the region and I can only say that a great great deal more is needed.
You Can’t Argue With a Machine Gun
It is very difficult to feel optimistic about the situation in Chiapas at this time. Compared to my visit last October and following the massacre in Acteal Abejas in December, the tensions in the region have escalated sharply. The low intensity war by the Mexican government continues at an increased pace. There are some estimated 30,000 army troops in Chiapas now and I’m not sure if this number includes the blue jumpsuited Public Security troops of whom I saw many truckfulls patrolling during my short stay. The army has set up command posts inside and outside communities, and in remote areas as well. Paramilitary activity continues unabated and many communities are fearful of more Acteal type actions. The numbers of refugees in Polho is estimated to be between 8,000–10,000. The Mexican government and their office of immigration is actively trying to expulse as many foreign human rights workers and observers as possible. Some 33 have been officially expulsed and a much larger number have been ‘invited’ to leave.
This campaign against foreigners is backfiring to some degree, as many more young foreigners are coming into Chiapas to volunteer as staff for the Campamentos Civils por la Paz. My stay in San Cristobal coincided with the arrival of the Pastors for Peace caravan (I saw two schoolbuses and a truck). They brought in food and medicine for the displaced communities. Even though they were armed with official ‘human rights observer’ visas (and not simple tourist visas like myself), the army turned back their convoy on the way to Acteal Abejas (where the massacre occurred)—one cannot argue with machine guns.
The large divide between communities favoring the ruling party (PRI), and those favoring the Zapatistas and the oppostion (PRD) or neutral parties (Abejas), continues to be the main focus of tension. On behalf of which side do you think the military intervenes? The government continues to bring all kinds of social, educational and other aide to the PRI communities while ignoring the needs of the rest. The weather patterns in Chiapas continue to be abnormal with no spring rains as of yet and unusually hot temperatures in the mountains. There is fear that due to El Niño or the effect of global warming, the rains might not come as usual for planting season (mid-May). Fear of paramilitary activity might also afffect community members’ willingness or ability to plant. Any resulting food shortages will greatly benefit the ruling party’s strategies.
The latest phenomenon I heard about was the army and security police’s invasion of the community of Taniperlas, when the community tried to declare a new autonomous Zapatista zone. This occured before my arrival and received international media exposure as 12 foreigners were explused and accused of actively participating in a political action (forbidden by the constitution). As I understand it, they were sleeping when the military action took place. During my stay I saw newspaper photographs of Tanniperlas, which is literally in a state of siege. The photographs showed many well equipped army officers in front of a barrier of very large extended rolls of barbed wire. The comunity members were unable to retuirn to their homes (which had been looted), as they were blocked out by the army. A three thousand-strong caravan marched to Tanniperlas to try to force open the gates but as far as I understand, they were unsuccessful.
President Zedillo came to Chipas for a two-day visit, during which he asked the Zapatistas to make their demands known and that he was ready to negotiate. He promised that the conflict will be resolved this year without a war. The next day (May 1st) another community was surrounded and invaded by some 1250 troops and 43 people were arrested. There was no reason for this invasion, besides a supposed arrest warrant for one community member. I read this in an online report upon my return. This event did not, as far as I know, reach the international media, as no foreigners were involved or expulsed. During my stay, some 5000 communitiy members from all over Chiapas took part in a pilgrimage to San Cristobal de las Casas for an open air mass in front of the cathedral where many speeches were made and many prayed for peace.