In Mexican highlands, the road remembered

March 18, 1994|By Linda Turbyville

THOSE 2,000 rebels who emerged from the rain forest of southern Mexico two months ago and declared war on the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari have forced at least the promise of election reform and the recognition by the ruling party that many Mexicans live in crushing poverty.

These are remarkable developments in light of Mr. Salinas' initial order to "clean out the jungle area of miscreant extra-nationals," two of whom I encountered many years ago on a drive through the Chiapas highlands with my three young children.

The highway wound precipitously in the vicinity of San Cristobal las Casa, where 300 insurgents launched the revolt in January. It's a land of spectacular views of deep, green valleys and heavily wooded mountainsides. Here and there, a solemn and bent Tzotzil Indian suddenly appeared, strode purposefully along the edge of the road and then, just as suddenly, disappeared onto one or another steep path, guided, apparently, by more ancient maps than the one in my car.

Passing through one sleepy hamlet, I did not find the expected Pemex sign and, as we continued our southwesterly course, I studied the gas gauge with growing alarm. There was little automobile traffic, and I couldn't chance running out of gas on a mountain precipice.

A sign identifying a large cattle ranch caught my attention. It was clearly a substantial operation: I saw an enormous main house, barn, large outbuildings, fenced pastures, corrals and several smaller houses. I turned into the evenly-graded gravel road and got out of my car. No one emerged in the heat of the late afternoon, and there was no sound except that of an enormous electric generator. I walked around the outbuildings, impeccably maintained, and finally approached the porch of the main house and knocked.

The door was answered by a slim and attractive dark-haired woman, fashionably dressed, probably in her early 30s. Her expression was strained -- a combination, perhaps, of fear and suspicion. I explained that I was running out of gas and feared that I would not make it to the next town with a Pemex station.

"Un momento, por favor," she answered stiffly, craning her neck to observe the unruly, squawking occupants of my car. "I'll see if someone can help you." For a few moments I stood by the screen door, expecting her to return, and I studied the polished DTC and shaded interior of the house, half hoping that I might be invited to step inside. The hum of air-conditioning was unmistakable. To my left, I glimpsed a kitchen where another anomaly caught my eye: an enormous double-door refrigerator. I stared in astonishment. I had never seen such a kitchen, except in the pages of a magazine -- but just as my curiosity reached its peak, a man dressed in the traditional attire of the vaquero stepped on the porch behind me. As I turned to face the ranch hand, the front door slammed -- almost, but not quite, in my face.

A short while later, and much relieved, we were on the road again. But though I knew little about the economy of the region at that time, a bewildering disparity had registered in my mind -- a disparity in culture and wealth that was unprecedented in my experience in any rural part of the world, a disparity now symbolized by the broadside of a huge refrigerator. And even more than that, a tension had registered -- a tension given expression in the forceful slamming of a door.

We stopped in San Cristobal las Casa for something to eat and then continued on our way, climbing back into the blue twilight of the mountains. Soon, night fell, and as we rounded a curve, a young Indian couple walking along the edge of the road turned to face our car and waved excitedly. I stopped. "Un aventon?" they asked politely. I nodded, and they climbed in. They were young -- maybe only teen-agers, I thought. Their Spanish was broken, but I understood that they wanted to go home -- home to their ranchito, somewhere up the road. They sat with their shoulders bent forward and stared straight ahead, speaking softly with one another and occasionally laughing. Their dress was homespun and homemade, and I remember its spotlessness -- the festival garb of Tzotzil Indians. The woman's shawl was beautiful, and ribbons were woven into her long braids and wrapped around the man's hatband so that they cascaded over the brim in a rainbow of color. I remember thinking that they were very much in love.

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