I came to san Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, about 10 days ago just to spend a few days and renew my visa for Guatemala. But life has a way of opening doors one never even knew existed. I met some folks at my hostel who invited me to a benefit documentary/music show for the people of Copala, Oaxaca. If you arent familiar with the situation there you can check out http://contralinea.com.mx/ and http://redaccion.nexos.com.mx/?p=1313 these websites are in Spanish but they might be available in English too. In short, the community of Copala is occupied by Mexican military for trying to govern themselves and create an autonomous community similar to the Zapatistas. There are kidnappings, interrogations and killings. Recently there have been solidarity caravans (similar to 'freedom rides') of activists to the comunity. Several of these activists have been kidnapped and two journalists from the Mexican magazine Contralinea have been killed by the Mexican military. This benefit show was a way of showing support and raising money for the people of Copala.
At the show I met the small but inspiring activist community of San Cristobal. I also met a Spanish nurse named Marc. Marc had come to Chiapas to help in the health clinics of the nearby Zapatista communities. I told him what I have been doing and he invited me to come along to help with the women's health promoters in the community.
Last Sunday Marc and I went up into the mountains to the Zapatista community called O`ventik. We arrived arounf 11am and went up to the gaurd post at the gated entrance to the community. Three men in black Zapatista masks greeted us and asked us why we were there and what our intentions were. They took our passports and went into a little house nearby to talk with the people in the community who are in charge of who can enter and leave the community. We waited a good 2 hours outside the gate to recieve the verdict. During that time we sat in the shade of a tree and taught eachother trabalenguas, tongue twisters, from our respective languages.
We were granted permission to enter and meet with the Junta, the local governing group. We waited another hour or so outside the building where the Junta meets before we were asked to come in a sit down on a bench in from of a table where the Junta was seated. Men and woman comprised the Junta, all with thier faces covered with either black beenie-maskes or red bandanas. They asked us again why we were there and what we wanted to do in the community. Marc told them about his past experiences working in other Zapatista health clinics and that we wanted to stay and help out in the clinic there for a week. They told us to come back the next day and they would tell us what they had decided.
The next day we returned to O'ventik. We met with the Junta again after being screened once more at the entrance of the community. They granted us permission and actually welcomed us into the community for a week.
We were brought to the clinic/hospital where we were introduced to the coordinator of the clinic. She is a young woman with soft, bright eyes and she welcomed us warmly and told us a little bit about the place. The clinic there serves as a local clinic, like in other communities, but also serves as the main hospital for all of the other Zapatista communities. They have three ambulances to transport people to and from the hospital and to handle emergencies. This clinic is also where the health promoters from the othe communities come to get trained. A group of about 30 people come to study and working the hospital 10 days out of every month. They were studying during our time there.
We gave ourselves a mini-tour of the clinic while the coordinator went back to work. We waited a few more hours for her to return and show us to where we would stay. In the meantime we played cards and were invited to eat with the community in a communal kitchen/cafeteria. At the meal we met a Mexican public health doctor from Veracruz who is living there with his wife for a year. We also met a Spanish Pediatrician named Icko who had been working in O'ventik for 6 months and had just returned from a little travel break.
After the meal Marc, Icko and I were shown to our rooms in the upstairs dorms of the clinic where the students were staying. It was early evening now and we went down to the hospital to participate in the shift-change meeting to get the low down on the patients who were being treated there and meet the promotores.
The next days we observed and participated in the genral consultations of the clinic. I also spent a lot of time in the gynecology room helping with family planning and prenatal visits. It was strange to work in a more medical environment after so many month working in homes. I had the opportunity to apply some of the things I had learned from Eulalia there in the clinic such as the uses of some herbs and prenatal massage for different types of pregnancy discomforts.
I am back in San Cristobal now and I still can't believe what I have been doing with myself the last week. It was a really wonderful experience to be able to participate in such a strong community of people, to contribute and to learn. I have long been an admirer of the Zapatistas and their values of freedom, land, preservation of culture, and autonomy but now my admiration goes a lot deeper.
Tomorrow or Monday I will return to Guatemala. More to come soon...