Editor’s Note: In 1993, the author traveled to the Mexican state of Chiapas with the photojournalist Nicole Langlois to ascertain whether certain indigenous tribes still existed in the jungles and in the highlands. Shortly after they returned to the States, the Zapatista rebellion broke out. For the next twelve years they returned regularly to southern Mexico to document what they saw there. What follows narrates an event from one of those trips.
Wandering about the zocalo, Nicole spotted in a craft fair display the unusual traje of a local village we had never heard of, Chalchihuitan.
“That looks interesting,” she said.
Breezily, I said, “So then why don’t we go.”
Periodically the State of Chiapas sponsors folkways demonstrations in San Cristobal de las Casas featuring music, dance and handicrafts. In one of the flimsily constructed tents flocking the cathedral plaza, samplings were tacked up of tunics, headgear and such from various outlying towns, all of which we had seen and usually photographed. All, that is, except Chalchihuitan.
We told Ramon, our cab driver, to meet us after lunch. The trip was a bit of a hike, but we would arrive in the late afternoon in good shooting light.
“Chalchihuitan,” Ramon said slowly.
“Si, parece que no es lejos y conozco la ruta.” Not far, and we know the route.
"Chalchihuitan,” he said again, allowing reluctance to register in his voice. Finally he shrugged. “Como no.”
Every last roll of Nicole’s exposed film would have to come with us. As our paths had crossed yesterday with those PRI operatives in San Andres (Partido Revolucionario Industrial, the governing party of Mexico then), it would not do to leave the film in the room. Without trying too hard the operatives could find out who we were and where we were staying. Well within the realm of probability would have been our return to San Crisobal from Chalchihuitan to discover items missing from our room.
“What about the money?” Nicole asked. Given our relationship with Eugenia Guzman, who ran the hotel, our belongings had always been safe at the Casa Mexicana. On a shoot, normally, one camera bag would have stayed room-side along with the bulk of our cash. When we drove out of town that afternoon, the money came with us, too.
Once we passed the turnoff for San Andres, the drop in altitude was almost unnoticeable. Crafting through cuts in the rocky crests, the road would pull a wing-over and alongside us a paraje would spring up and tiny wild-haired indian girls ran barefoot beside the cab to the topes or vibradores, where we would have to slow down. As we eased over these speed-abatement bumps, the girls would implore us in chirpy little voices to purchase oranges or banana bunches or bowls of nut-hard limes. Portions of this road were always half-washed out and therefore under repair. Skirting one missing pavement chunk, Ramon said to me. “I would not be going to Chalchihuitan, unless it was with you. But with you, we will not have problems.”
“No, I don’t think we will,” I said confidently.
All this time we had continued our descent, but still there was no sense of what was awaiting us in the blue depths of the valleys below. Chenalho as I had remembered was a highlands town, and Chalchihuitan according to the map looked to be one too. In 1994 and in several outbursts since, fighting had erupted in Chenalho, its population switching allegiance back and forth between the Zapatistas and the PRI. Outside the town was an Army guard post, barely more than a wave and a nod. The main checkpoint was in a grove of trees where the road dipped past the zocalo. Beyond this last sandbagged redoubt was Zapatista country. In one of the few honored agreements struck in the truce between the government and the EZLN, the Army was enjoined against entering rebel-held territory unless invited to do so by the Zapatistas. Rule of law, therefore, was only what could be meted out by the autonomous village councils.
At the army checkpoint, the three of us were asked to exit the cab, enter a makeshift office manned by officers and a radio unit, register our identifications and Ramon’s taxi license and license plates, and explain in detail what we were up to. The officer in charge was out of uniform except for a holstered .45, but he was well-spoken and straightforward. “Y regresan quando?” he asked me.
“Hoy. Este tarde.”
I explained, again, that we were taking pictures in Chalchihuitan which meant it was pointless to be there when the sun went down. Further up the road, Pantelho was a true Zapatista stronghold, and while the Army was not allowed into the area, the paramilitares were, e.g. the Acteal massacre six months later of 45 villagers by rural police loyal to the PRI and by right wing death squads. Chalchihuitan, I had assumed, was just some run-of the-mill black-flagged Zapatista hole-in-the-wall.
“Bueno,” said the officer finally, cautioning us again to get back to the checkpoint by dark. I assured him we would. A sergeant, when we stopped at the perimeter road block also requested our daylight return to Chenalho. “Absolutely,” I told him.
“Get out before dark.”
“We will do that,” I said, and then asked him why.
“For you own safety,” he said.
How thoughtful, I thought, the Army as nursemaid, and I remember being impressed with their concern. Then we passed our last soldier and began our descent into the valley of Chalchihuitan. The road declined even more steeply and while the vegetation did not change much, I was surprised at how humid and hot the weather had become. When I saw my first palm tree I realized we weren’t in the highlands anymore, which, for some reason, was a little unsettling. The soil grew sandier, the vegetation scrubbier and sparser despite the tropical flora now beginning to appear. The faces of the few indians we passed seemed fire-hardened, volcanically dark. One was wearing the traje of Chalchihuitan; but modelled on a human instead of a display board, the misty-crimson, horizontally striped sleeves and almost lasciviously short tunic were not as exotic as I thought they would be.
The terrain itself was problematical; not quite jungle, certainly not scrubland. Creeper vines strangled the tops of low thorny trees and there were strange cacti among the elephant ear and banana palms. The Mexican Army must have still controlled the road because we passed four soldiers in a mobile command post unit, their presence as much picket line as checkpoint. Ramon rolled down his window.
"Desculpeme.” The soldiers looked over at us. “Bueno... Chalchihuitan?”
They pointed. Sure enough, up ahead we could see the chalky scar of the Chalchihuitan turn-off. As our cab strummed over its unpaved surface, what kept popping into my head like a dialogue balloon was, “Why don’t we just turn around.” But we had come too far. Even Ramon, whose shock absorbers were having their lifespan shortened by the minute, was gung-ho. We hit a turn; the road suddenly became paved; some of the hot light in the sky seemed to vanish and the atmosphere, the air itself, began to darken. As we rose with the road, there appeared below us in a grove of trees roofless walled forms, black with mold. We had no clue what these abandoned shells had presumed to be because the whole site, flickering past us, seemed as much unfinished as fallen into decay.
“I wonder what that was,” Nicole said. Ramon had no idea either. But these ruins gave off the scent of recent, not ancient, misfortune.
The road swerved and we slammed into the town. The trees had hidden it from us, but now we were in its clammy, claustrophobic grip and halfway down its gullet before we even saw the place: low buildings, a mingy cramped plaza as though a typical Spanish zocalo had been jammed into a narrow slot. What little there was of the settlement rose abruptly from its squeezed center. Near the plaza, men unloading sacks from a truck turned in unison at the appearance of our cab. Along the only passable street, an old man in traje padded towards us. Two women hacking with machetes at produce for sale also glanced up. Usually, upon entering one of these indigenous towns, a reciprocal curiosity sparks between visitors and locals. Either that or a complete disinterest on the part of the locals. The town might be tough, its people bludgeoned by hardship, but rarely is there anger in the initial glance. There was here. Our presence was as unwanted and unpropitious as if we had stumbled on a crime.
We had rolled to a stop, but we could not just stay where we were. “Da la vuelta,” I said to Ramon, “y entonces...” Make a pass and go.
Crunching vegetable detritus beneath us and cruddy picked-over bones, we drove past bucket-purges of filthy water and streaks of amoebic dogshit and the xylophone-ribbed dogs themselves. At the far end of town we kept going, hoping a grubby tongue of passageway might lead back to the turn-off road, but soon the concrete became hardened dirt, then it narrowed to a track, and finally to a path leading off a brambly hill to wherever it was goats went. Outside the last hovel, before the road became pre-Industrial on us, a crone in traje thrashed away at cereal grains. It was not a food preparation we had seen. “Shoot her?”
“No. There’s nothing here.”
Ramon was already in reverse; the vuelta having been turned, it was now exit time. “That was a long trip for nothing,” said Nicole glumly.
A cold current of watchfulness now rivered us forward, the town concealing itself along its banks. Up ahead, a flatbed truck was parked and beyond that, mercifully, the end of town. Out of nowhere, an indian in traditional dress stepped into the street. He saw the cab and motioned us to stop. The man was smiling. He was also drunk.
“What about this guy?”
“I just want to get out of here,” Nicole said, but Ramon had already braked.
I rolled down my window. Another indian materialized, this one doggedly gripping the strap of his leather bag as though only the strap was holding him upright. These were the only two friendlies we had seen in Chalchihuitan. I was saying hello and goodbye and telling Ramon to put the car in gear when I saw a big guy, a mestizo. Two strides and he was in our path, a fury in him, but worse, an authority. Immediately, I had that fucking-up-in-a-foreign-country feeling. He looked into the back seat at Nicole. Our jackets covered the camera bags.
“No se dejan fotos aqui,” he said. We don’t allow photos.
“No los tomando.” We are not taking photos. The man stared at me. His eyes were red, but he was not drunk, not very drunk anyway.
“Dame la filma.” You must give me the film.
“No hay filma. No tomamos fotos.”
“What does he want?” Nicole asked, her voice anxious.
“In a minute.”
The man stuck out his hand. “Dame la filma.”
She had figured it out. “Tell him we did not take photographs.”
The man looked at her. “Tomaron fotos.” You took photographs.
We have no film, I told him, because we had taken no photographs. The two indians to my right were now five indians. Six others appeared in front of the cab.
“Necessitan dame la filma.”
As a stalling tactic, I repeated to Ramon what the man was demanding and broadly signaled my confusion. Ramon gave me a stricken look. Now five more indians stood at Ramon’s window. We were boxed in. “Esta en las maletas,” said the man, pointing to the lumps under the jackets. “Dame la filma.”
“What do they want?”
“... Little problem.”
“What do you mean, ‘fucked?’”
From outside the cab, voices sing-songed in Spanish or Tzotzil what almost sounded like English: “fukkt, fukkt... fuckt.”
“They want the film.”
“We didn’t shoot any film!”
“I think what they really want is the camera bags. They’re not going to let us leave.” Ramon took the car out of gear and with a sickly, fatalistic grin slumped in his seat. It was the equivalent of curling up into a fetal position.
In front of and behind the cab more indians had appeared. They knew and we knew we weren’t going anywhere, and as they pressed in around us tighter we began to hear more loudly, “... fukt, fukkt, fuktt, fucck...” the indians smiling and laughing as they chanted this, seeming to know, vaguely, what the word meant. That it was not good and that it applied solely to us.
Glancing around to gauge his numbers, the big guy put his hand proprietarily on the door frame. Twenty or thirty men now surrounded the cab. Knuckles were knocking at Ramon’s window; Ramon rolled it down. He had been carjacked once before, violently, and had hit upon the strategy of friendly submission to fate, especially when fate was armed. Nicole slumped back in her seat. She had been in these kind of situations before.
“Try the press cards,” she said wearily.
“I’m about to. No tenemos cameras,” I told the man, “pero somos journalistas.”
Blank expression. As I glanced at Ramon, who was slumped in his seat affecting his most nonchalant posture to go with his let-the-Gods take-me smile, I let my gaze pass across Nicole. Deft as a pickpocket, she had rummaged the press cards from under the jackets. She now slammed them in irritation against the window for the man to see. “Danos las cameras,” he said, without looking at the press cards. Give us the cameras.
“No tenemos cameras.”
The man smiled, angrily. “Look,” I said to him in Spanish, thinking to slide into the tourist dodge. “We heard about Chalchihuitan, what a nice place it was. We just came out from San Cristobal to see it.”
“Y las maletas tambien,” said the man, motioning towards Nicole. The bags.
“This is not right,” I said. “We’re journalists. We’re writing a story about the war between the Zapatistas and the government. We have shot no film here.”
Now, on the other side of me, Ramon came to life. To a fat-faced indian leaning on his door he said, “It is true. I have seen it. They are journalists.” He said this in a relaxed, off-handed manner.
I was not relaxed, however, I was pissed off. “You call yourselves Zapatistas!” I blurted out. “You call yourself Marxists! You are trying to take things that are not yours! We know Zapatistas in San Andres. They would never do this! You are acting like, like...” I kept trying to remember the word in Spanish for “thieves,” which luckily would not come to me. “You are Zapatistas, are you not?”
“What are Zapatistas?” the big man said.
“We don’t know any Zapatistas,” said another mestizo.
“Este es bullshit! You are Zapatistas, and you should be ashamed of yourselves!” Which got a delighted laugh from the Spanish-speaking indians on the other side of the car. The second mestizo stepped closer.
“We have had bad people come here and try to steal things,” he said.
“You are trying to steal things.”
“Give us the cameras and give us the money,” said the big man.
“We don’t have money,” I said. “We are journalists.”
“And give us the car,” he added. “You can leave then.”
“We have nothing to give you.”
“Then we will just take these things.”
“We don’t have any money!”
We had all of our money: hundreds of dollars worth of pesos, our passports, every roll of film, Nicole’s Hasselblad and Nikon camera-bodies and lenses.
“Give us your bank card,” said the big man.
“Credit cards? That won’t work.” I was hoping he was confused.
He leaned forward. “Tarjetas de credito, no? Tarjeta de banco. Eso es!” This was not a good development. I assumed he knew nothing of PIN numbers and thought that while we were being held hostage in Chalchihuitan he could drain our bank accounts in San Cristobal. Or worse, he did know about PIN numbers and was taking a cue from Mexico City robberies in which bank customers were hauled around to cash machines at gunpoint to withdraw their accounts before being killed. There was another ingredient, too. Subliminally, and then more insistently, I began to notice the physical assessment stares at Nicole and hear the unmistakeable gutterals of sexual slang. Some of the men had even climbed on the trunk to peer through the rear windshield at her.
“If you do something to us,” I said, “the Army will come in here. We’re journalists.” Maybe these guys really weren’t Zapatistas and wouldn’t know the Army’s hands were tied.
The big man and the others took this the wrong way. Well, actually, the right way. They took it as a threat and they were furious. If something bad happened to us, how dare the Army come in and punish them!
“They won’t come here,” said the big man, fiercely. “No one will.”
Nicole had been smuggled into Afghanistan by mujahadeen in the opening hours of the Afghan-Russian War; had traveled with Yasir Arafat, surviving the tense nightmare of bad-time Beruit; had shot in Khmer Rouge prison camps in Cambodia and Thailand. Nicole, softly, in the back seat, began to cry.
“We have to protect ourselves,” said the smaller mestizo. “That is why we are doing this.” The greased skids of justification were now under our wheels.
I heard the fat-faced indian on Ramon’s side of the car ask, “Why is she crying?”
“She is crying,” said Ramon, “because she feels badly for you.”
The fat-faced indian laughed. “Why?”
“Because of what will happen to you if she and this man are harmed.”
Brilliant! In fact Nicole was crying out of guilt at having gotten Ramon and me into this. “What will happen to us?” said the fat-faced man. With a convincing shrug, as though any mitigating mercy would be out of his hands, Ramon said, “It will be very bad.” Without the murderous hostility I was fielding on my side of the car, the indian man stared at Nicole. “Give him a thousand pesos,” he said, indicating the big man. Ramon repeated this to me.
“A thousand! We don’t have a thousand pesos.” We had much more, but the way this game worked, whatever we gave them would only prime the pump.
“Give us four thousand pesos,” said the second mestizo. I looked at him. For the first time, a slam-dunk, end-of-the-line certainty had become a negotiation.
I laughed and shook my head. “What are they saying?” asked Nicole.
“Money. But we may have to.”
In the streets, other citizens were turning late afternoon rounds. Bystanders in Chalchihuitan did not do much bystanding, which left the thirty or so entreprenuers packed around our cab free to pursue their objectives. Whatever happened here would be known by all and spoken of by none.
The big man put his hand on the roof of the cab. “Entonces...” he said.
“How much money?” I asked.
The big man stared separately at each of us to make sure his meaning was clear. “Todo lo que tienen,” he said. All that you have.
“We are paying our friend to drive us,” I said, indicating Ramon. “That is our only money. We’re journalists. Journalists aren’t rich.”
Nicole held up a small wad of pesos she had somehow fished out of the hidden bags. To the big man in English, she said, convincingly, “Here. This is all of it.”
“Es todo que tenemos,” I told him, waving the hundred-peso notes. “Dos cientos pesos.” The man snorted in derision. He wasn’t alone. The other mestizos, some of the indians too, they all snorted. But now it became clear to me. This was a value-added problem; these people wanted to be paid for their time. Surely their threats and scary presence had been worth more than two hundred pesos.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s all we have.”
“But it is not enough!” said the big man. Plan A was obviously back on the board. The fat-faced indian said something to Ramon, to which Ramon raised his hands in an I-have-none-either gesture. Which was smart. Money in his wallet might embolden them to grab his cab, too. But in a bit of stage business, or perhaps having just remembered it was there, Ramon slowly two-fingered from his shirt pocket the twenty-peso note I had given him earlier that afternoon. With an air of relinquishing the gold fillings from his teeth, he handed me the folded bill.
The big man, the other mestizos and the fat-faced indian were glued to every nuance of this performance. Folding Ramon’s twenty in with my hundreds, I said again, “Es todo que tenemos.” The fat-faced indian said something across the roof to the big man. A disagreement ensued, but I realized with a shock that it was the indian who held sway here, not the mestizo.
Very quietly, Ramon said to me, “He is telling him to let us go.”
“En serio?” He nodded. The disagreement going on across the roof, now in Tzotzil, continued. “You’re not going to believe this...” I started to say to Nicole.
The fat-faced indian looked through the window. “Give him the money. But never come back here again.”
“Thank you,” I said. “We never will.” Sotto voce I said to Nicole, “It worked!” I handed the money to the big man and the cab was magically undraped of bodies and for the first time in a century the motor started up.
Ramon was thanking the fat-faced man and I, God forbid, was thanking the mestizo, who seemed one muscle twitch away from changing his mind. We rolled forward, but a flatbed truck was backing into the street up ahead and behind us we heard voices yelling. Shit! The prevailing cooler heads had unprevailed and a new slam-bang ending was about to be tacked on. In what seemed like super slo-mo, the flatbed creaked and rocked across the road. Gunning the engine, Ramon swung out wide as the truck jolted to a stop. Barely clearing the jut of its flatbed, we hit the open road. “And keep going fast,” said Nicole. “Please!”
We raced down that hill in a heartbeat, dry-mouthed with relief. On the last flat stretch before the main road, a familiar tableaux approached us on foot: a drunken man in traje goat-herded by his wife. Although our destinations were diametrically opposite, the man signaled for a ride. Yeah, that was exactly on our to-do list, a return to Chalchihuitan. When we sped up, he gave us the finger.
“Can you fucking believe that! The finger. Perfect!”
On the main road, we swerved to a stop once the mobile Army unit loomed into view. “You have to make sure they don’t let anyone else in there,” Nicole insisted as I got out of the cab.
When I told the soldiers what had befallen us, they asked if the men were armed? “Machetes. No other weapons I could see.” Had we been physically assaulted? “No.” How much was taken? “We gave them 220 pesos to let us leave,” roughly $25. The soldiers nodded somberly, but I could tell they wanted to laugh.
“Yeah, well, you should tell people not to go in there,” I said, annoyed.
“We do tell them,” said one. “If they ask.” Our ordeal was about 48 hours away from becoming just another adventure and I could almost manage a wry response. But not quite. “Tell people not to go in there even if they don’t ask,” I said angrily. “Okay?”
Then we were soaring back towards Chenalho, nerve ends twittering. At the Army checkpoint, we reiterated our tale. “We could not have rescued you,” said the officer with the holstered .45, both gravity and relief in his voice.
We gave a ride to one of the Army techs and all the way to San Cristobal swapped carjack and hostage stories and passed around congratulations like candy.
Outside the hotel, we watched, as though he were our child, Ramon in his cab rumble off into a benign urban night. At dinner, two nights later, Chip Morris laughed at our idiocy in going to Chalchihuitan. The place was a byword for thuggery and murder. Those ruins fretted with creeper vines we had passed on our way in? A government grant to the Chalchihuitan town council had been funnelled into a hotel development; the decaying cement blocks intended for cabanas. Sand was then thrown into the project’s gears by political in-fighting which provoked a council member in the interest of compromise and good government to lug his AK-47 up to the hamlet of a fellow council member and splatter the man and his extended family all over the walls of their domiciles. “That’s how they settle disputes in Chalchihuitan,” Chip said. “They’re famous for this shit.”
The next day when Ramon and the senora drove us down to the airport their solicitousness knew no bounds. They were sure, I think, it was the last of us they would ever see. We had been through so much together after all. Too much, really, and they were hoping that too much might be, finally, enough.