This morning my wife Kelly and I were all set to take a drive and find a couple of old abandoned Dominican churches not too far out of town. We were going to have a picnic and take some photographs. Kelly made a nice lunch, we loaded the van and headed to the highway. Just after we turned onto the highway we noticed a crowd of people blocking the lanes in the other direction with cars and trucks. I was glad we weren’t getting stuck in that mess, then about a mile in the other direction we ran into a crowd doing the same thing to our side of the highway. Not only were they blocking the highway, they were blocking the main side roads leading out of and in to town.
No one looked angry, everyone was quite matter of fact about the whole thing and I was not at all alarmed. I was just disappointed that it was clear there would be no day trip adventure to take photos of old church ruins, drat! I figured even if we could find a way out of town on side streets, campesinos in other villages are most likely doing the same thing. I figured it’s better to get stuck in a town we know than in a small pueblo we don’t. We turned onto to a small side street. I figured I could wind our way back to our house on side roads. Just about when I realized that was easier said than done, a local police pickup truck came by.
I flagged him down and asked for directions on how to get back to the center of Comitan. He started to answer then shook his head and told me to just follow him. He turned around, turned on his siren and escorted us through a maze of winding streets back to near the center of town. That’s what I call a friendly police department. This has actually been my experience with local police all through Mexico, they are very friendly and helpful. I have heard some stories that are exactly the opposite. I always figure the gringo involved must have had his, “I am a superior American”, attitude on. I always try to be extra courteous and respectful and have found that I get the same in return, with an occasional look that says “poor idiot gringos, how do they ever survive”.
We arrived safely back at our house. It’s a beautiful warm spring day so we decide to head to the park and see whats going on. Then we do something no one should ever do in a foreign country. I decided we should walk over to the highway 5 blocks away and what the protest is about. I have to say that after living here in Comitan and doing a lot of driving in the country, I have come to feel quite at ease here. It’s no exaggeration when I say the people around here are genuinely friendly. My guess was that the demonstration would be a Zapatista group exercising their democratic rights. As it turns out I was right. My experience has been that the Zapatistas are mostly just poor farmers who are trying to save their land from encroachment by government and international corporations. They don’t want trouble, they do want to be heard. They don’t hate outsiders, they do want respect and they give it in return. Just like any demonstration in the States, it’s not the demonstrators who are likely get violent, it’s the police. That is why it’s dumb for an outsider to get caught up in a protest in a strange place, you never know what might happen. There was no police or military presence, the protesters were calm, so I felt reasonably safe.
We turned onto the highway and passed a car parked with a loudspeaker with a man talking about Zapata. I approached the guy in the passenger seat and motioned with my camera asking permission to take a photo of the car with its sign and him. He and the man speaking both smiled and agreed. I also motioned that I would like to take pictures of the group marching up the highway and they responded positively and reassuringly. As the march approached I continued taking pictures and making eye contact with the people marching. If I had felt anger in their eyes I would have stopped, but about everyone near by smiled at me after I took their photo. I think they want the world to see that they are peaceful and friendly.
After the march went by we continued walking to the park. They too were headed for the park, but more slowly. We were there to meet them when they arrived. There were people and vehicles blocking the various roads they would need to use on the way. When they got to the park they assembled peacefully. There was a speaker who was talking about Emiliano Zapata and his achievements and sacrifices for the Mexican revolution. It turns out today is the day he was assassinated 91 years ago. Actually many of the heroes of the revolution were assassinated afterwords, as was Belisario Domínguez, the man for whom Comitan de Domínguez was named. I can’t speak to the immediate demands of this group, but the indigenous people and poor farmers in this country have been getting the short end of the stick for 500 years and very little about that has changed since the revolution in 1910.
So I didn’t get to go take pictures of old churches today, but I did get to see Mexican democracy in action. Mexico has plenty of injustice and problems, but on this day there was no violence or even unkindness ever displayed. From blocking the streets to an impassioned speech about liberty, I saw a respectful and friendly bunch of people that just want corporations and government to keep their hands off of their way of life. I will close with a quote I really like said by the EZLN to the tourists in San Cristobal de las Casas during the Zapatista uprising, “The road to Palenque is closed, we have taken Ocosingo. Sorry for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution”.