Women in Chiapas, 1996

The Laughter Was Generous

CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen (aka Mister YooWhoo) returns to Chiapas for the fourth time in three years. He finds the political situation to be greatly deteriorated since his previous visit, but that laughter is as available, and needed, as ever. 

Moshe Cohen

Thursday, April 23rd: Mexico City 

Past a large concrete stadium, under grey smog skies and heavy belching traffic, and opposite a trash-littered parking lot, is an enclosed not-so-grassy knoll with several tarp covered, shaded areas. Groupings of people mill around—some are seated, standing, talking, reading newspapers. Eduardo explains that they are members of the ejido to whom the land belongs. The government built the stadium on their land without their permission and has yet to pay any rent. Eduardo tells me that they have been in litigation for over 20 years. We pick up the paper from a street-side vendor to see many more stories in La Jornada about Chiapas than last year: A German woman has been deported, she overstayed her visa; Confrontations and a peace march at the new autonomous zone, surrounded by 1000 military folks and 500 PRIistas, and many peoples locked out from their homes; There’s still a great deal of tension around Acteal, where the massacres occurred; Paramilitary activities, threats, cars following people home in the black of night…It doesn’t sound like the most welcoming situation.

Saturday, April 25th

The plaza in front of the cathedral is packed, maybe 5,000 people have gathered from over 40 communities to make a peligrinage (pilgrimage). Each person has a piece of paper pinned to their shirt, identifying the zones that they have come from. The colors of traditional dress flourish in the bright sun. Many participants hold green palm fronds in their hands and they sway with the wind. A sea of green moves softly as people listen to a series of speakers and prayers, transitioned by the bright playing of a marimba band. Some people eat popsicles while others sit on the ground, no doubt tired from the long travel to be here today. The Parque Central is full of double-parked buses and passenger trucks and pick-ups. Many of the pilgrims hold up signs, banners, Mexican flags. Many of the banners are painted with slogans, often blessing the bishops, Samuel Ruiz and Raul. The feeling is peaceful, there is no sense of agitation. This is not a war party, not a grouping of trigger-happy hands. One can sense the yearning, the prayers to let them be. Give us our rights, not your riches.

Monday, April 27th

I perform a show in the afternoon for about 50 kids displaced from three communities near Chenalho. I hear stories about discord among the families, that there’s no clear leadership among three disparate groups living communally in a barn like structure. After the show the kids are treated to popsicles, and they all line up one by one to tell the young boy working the ice cream cart what they want. There us great excitement as the piñatas are strung up. The kids are separated by age group and each group rings around their piñata strung up over the branch of a large tree. Faces squirm and explode with each stick swing, miss, hit and then scramble on the ground in a big cloud of dust when the piñata breaks. A couple of social workers try to infiltrate the scrimmage to calm the fury of hands scooping candy, but it’s impossible. A huge bag of cheap plastic toys is distributed, and the kids are looking happy.

Earlier in the day, I talk with Pablo Romo about what’s going on. We meet a community leader from Polho where between 8,000–10,000 refuges live. He has come to the Human Rights Center to denounce an action taken by the military that very morning: The Pastors for Peace caravan was stopped and turned away from Polho, even though they have Observer’s visas. We talk about my going there and doing a show for the kids. He is all for it, but also mentions how tired the men and women are from maintaining a cinturon around the community to keep the military out. I see a photo in the paper of a confrontation between indigenous women and military men, the women successfully blocking the men from entering their community where they want to set up a military post. A photo of the military siege of Tanniperlas (where the military invaded last week to stop the forming of a new Zapatista autonomous zone) shows huge rolls of barbed wire fencing and scores of military men drenched in gear. It would seem that there are over 5,000 troops in Chenalho, one for every six residents.

Meanwhile global warming may be affecting the spring rains again this year. The rainy season starts in the middle of May but the first rains should have already started. There is strong concern that the cycles are truly out of whack, which will certainly affect the corn plantings and harvests next winter. If the corn is planted too late it won’t have time to grow enough by harvest time, after which it gets too cold for the corn to continue growing (if I’ve understood correctly…).

There is also great concern about the communities being able to plant at all, due to fears of paramilitary activity in the area. One of the women working with the kids today, Pat, tells me how some families only have enough corn to last until Wednesday and she is not sure how things will work out. She is trying to work out an emergency plan with Caritas.

Tuesday, April 28th

I perform two shows today, the first in a tiny communtiy, Coralito, where Alejandra takes me since she has to make a delivery.  The second show is in the Casa Juventad Del Bosco, a suburb of San Cristobal, where three displaced communities from around Acteal are living. By the time I get home to bed in Alejandra’s house, at 10pm, I’m rather exhausted—and tomorrow is an even bigger day. I will go with Rosario form Melel Xojoval (the organization that works with street kids and kids from displaced families) to Acteal where the massacre took place four months ago. I will perform in Acteal Autonomo (Zapatista) and Acteal Abejas (neutral) and then go to Polho.

It will be the first time that I will pass through an immigration post, and one that has recently expulsed 30 foreigners and ‘invited’ many more to leave. Being expulsed has been my principle fear. The danger of being in Chiapas at this time is that the government is making a strong effort to empty the region of observers. After talking with many people, it seems that the most likely worst-case-scenario is that they will take away my tourist visa and give me a piece of paper saying that I have to leave Mexico within a certain number of days. Then my name will be put on the list , which means I am in immigration enforcement’s database, and likely to be given a hard time, including a very limited stay, the next time I try to come to Mexico.

The chances of something worse, such as being arrested or accompanied directly to the airport would seem to be pretty non-existent. Perhaps if I were engaged in some political activity or my visa was expired, but hey, I’m a payaso. The man from Polho who I spoke with on Monday explained that the kids were getting sick, too hot in the day and too cold at night. I hope that I can take them out of that reality into their imagination and have some fun.

I did today, especially by singing “Yuba” in a crooning style, getting on my knees in front of one of the community women. It’s a bit that I did once last year, and this year’s audience had the same great laughs and warm feelings, as the embarrassed woman hides her head in her shawl and laughs deep inside. At the end of the Del Bosco show, my repeat of several coin sneezes for some of the latecomers brings on those high howling ‘hiiiis,’ their unique vocal form of glee that is such music to my ears.

Wednesday, April 29th

Exhausted is a word that barely begins to describe my physical being. The day begins at 7am and ends after 9pm. The taxi driver who takes us up to Acteal might have made pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix based on the way he takes the multiple curves as we fly through the semitropical mountainous pathway to Acteal.

We encounter one military checkpoint but no immigration controls, to my great relief. The military are rather seriously equipped and are checking all identities and vehicles, searching for weapons and who knows what. They’re happy to hear that I’m a payaso, and a couple of coin sneezes smooth us right through. On the way back, I find myself disappearing coins for the entire chain of command. Luckily they don’t ask me to juggle. On our return journey I had just finished my third show for the displaced peoples of many communities.

The first show at Acteal Autonomo is in full mid-day heat and humidity, the air smoky from all the crop burnings going on. Some 200 kids and community members are present. We’ve brought multiple piñatas for after the shows, and while the kids are swept up in the game, I hear Conches being blown. Next door at the Abejas community, there’s an interfaith celebration happening. A group of Aztec dancers have made a pilgrimage from Mexico City and have just walked from nearby Polho to do a ceremony. They wear big feather headdresses and bells on their feet, carry smudgepots, drums and an out of tune mandolin, strummed furiously by a long-haired hippy type. They have shown up unannounced and are climbing down the narrow mountain path to the gathering.

An hour and a half later, they are still dancing, lost in their ceremony of repetitious dances, constant drum pounding and occasional ritual moments. I have lost interest quite some time ago and the experience has turned into a zen-full wait, so I can perform. I am not the only one who has lost interest but the community is full of respect, so I watch kids play marbles back behind the “Peace Camp” building.

Finally they finish up and head down to the church and cemetery to continue their ceremony, at which point I am asked to start my show. It’s a little strange, since a portion of the 600–800 Abejas are watching down the steep grade toward where the Aztec dancers are still blowing Conch horns. The kids, however, are totally focused on my entrance and more rush to come sit down. With the first laughs, as I try to stand on my suitcase, the rest of the community leaves the Aztec dancers to do their thing and turns to see what is going on. Some strange white guy with three hats on his head is trying to get on top of a suitcase on totally uneven ground, a nearly impossible task! I do succeed for a short while, and the energy of the audience is huge, the laughs explosive, and the focus complete. I whirl into the YooWho journey greatly rewarded by many smiles and laughing moments from all sides.

Thursday, May 1st

I take a May Day bus ride up over the mountains and back to Tuxla for the plane ride home. From Tuxla to Mexico City to Guadalajara, it’s a day dazed in airplane haze as I drift back to yesterday’s shows: the first for the street kids of San Cristobal, in the cupola of the park behind the Santa Domingo church. The kids are tough, not easy to laugh, but I manage to find a few avenues to fun. The piñata proves to be a great struggle for the Melel volunteers who try to maintain some semblance of order. These kids, the shoeshine boys, the Chamulan girls selling the little homemade Zapatista doll (so well made for so little money) have their strong sense of independence. There are some 200 kids expected but only about half show up. Today, the Dia del Niño (Day of the Child), is too great a day for business to be watching a show. It’s kind of ironic that this day meant to celebrate would be too good to waste…on a celebration.

The women from Melel Xojoval tell me how the shoe shine boys want to set up their own organization to protect their rights. There is also demand to set up a savings bank. I eat lunch with Pablo Romo whom I meet at Freyba (Centro Derechos Humanos Frey Bartolome). He is being interviewed by a team from Televisa (national TV). There is an interviewer, a cameraman, a soundman and a communications man—or so he would seem, since he has two cell phones that keep ringing as if in a comedy show. At the end of the interview, the interviewer takes a long phone call after which he says something to Pablo that causes him to shake his head in disbelief. It turns out that a Lieutenant Colonel from Guadalajara has killed 12 soldiers and wounded seven others in Comitan, a town on the way to the Guatemalan border. The official version is that the officer ran the victims over with a truck but Pablo tells me that they were gunned down with a machine gun. We are eating lunch at “El Teatro” a nice French/Italian restaurant, a short excursion into a world of wider luxuries. Pablo tells me that you can’t eat at just any restaurant, because many of them are staffed by waiters with very large, informant ears.

During Pablo’s interview, the cameraman scans to where several human rights workers are conferring with Corinne, a Swiss coordinator. The TV story is about accusations against Freyba engaging in the illegal act of inviting foreigners to supposedly engage in forbidden political activities, so naturally the TV people want images of foreigners. The camera pans to me and I place the large envelope of photos I brought for Pablo between myself and the camera. I sense the camera is still there, and pull out one of the photos for the camera eye. It turns out to be one of children parading and wearing clown noses—appropriate, I figure. Then I stick my nose and eyes out between the envelope and the photo and sure enough the camera is still on me. Well, if they use the footage, hopefully it will create some laughter.

The afternoon show is at La Primavera, a school on the edge of San Cristobal that’s being used as a refugee camp for displaced communities. A good 300 people, mostly kids, watch the show. They have great fun and don’t seem to notice my state of exhaustion, which really sets in toward the end. I left my cane in Polho so I use a big stick instead. My voice is shot and when I try to yodel “YooWho,” a raspy broken sound comes out of my mouth. The kids are asking for more and so I pick up my ukulele to try the same stunt as in the morning, when I got the street kids to sing along with me as I made up a gibberish song. The kids recognized and welcomed the improvised nature of the moment, and became enthusiastic about what I could make up next, repeating all the phrases as best they could and breaking into laughter as the phrases became more and more ridiculous. But I am unable to repeat the mornings success as neither my voice nor my creative process are willing to cooperate. I break it off and thank the kids who follow me in my retreat, crowding around me as I collapse on one of the playground’s large cement sit-down squares. To my surprise, Rosario gets all the kids to sing a song for me, and they even add a verse about the funny man with the colored tie.

Going Home

Slowly, the bus descends toward a vast cloud canopy, toward the infinite horizon of diversity. Two days ago, high in the Chiapan Sierras amongst thick banana-like leaves reaching well over my head, I watched a boy scramble down the nearly vertical slope of the Acteal mountainside to recover a marble that escaped their game behind the Campamiento Civil por la Paz. To my amazement, he came back up with the marble and the boys resumed their game in the red soil.

Acteal Abejas was surely the highlight show, with the community gathered for the interfaith celebration, an altar with candles, and green needles covering the ground amongst simple hand wrought benches. The laughter was generous and I brought out  playfulness, eager to delight this town that had known such tragedy. During the show, I glimpsed several military trucks full of soldiers passing on the road above. I didn’t try to imagine what it must be like to live there, with all the hidden paramilitary pressures weighing so heavily on these people.

I did not go visit the church where the actual massacre took place. It was an unconscious decision. I wondered where it was, and the sound of the Aztec dancers’ Conch shells told me it was a little way down the mountainside. Perhaps it was better that way, allowing me to bring in fresh, untainted energy. Just what is the role of the payaso? I know my feelings run deep for these humans, people who don’t seek luminous power, but rather a simple life. I hope that the rains come soon.

 

 

 

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