Gays in Mayan Chiapas? A (colorful) conversation.

I’d arranged to meet Chip at five. “We can do coffee at Na Bolom or margaritas at El Paraiso,” he’d said when I’d called him on our walk into San Cristóbal from our cabin just outside of town.

“You know this town better than I do,” I said.

“It depends whether or not you want margaritas.”

The woman who was renting us the cabin in San Cristóbal de las Casas recommended I connect with Chip. He is an American who’d won a MacArthur Genius grant for his work on Mayan textiles in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She thought he might know something about gays in the indigenous communities. This could be an interesting conversation—I was coming from getting my hair cut by a kid from one of the more indigenous parts of neighboring Oaxaca state, where he was telling me homosexuality is accepted and trans women are revered.

I found El Paraiso, a block from the main cathedral, with deep blue and beige stucco walls. The restaurant was empty except for one bearish man who looked like he could have been Mr. Natural’s cousin. He had a long, scraggly ponytail and a full beard that almost reached his chest.

“Chip?”

He stood, smiling so faintly I barely detected it beneath his mustache.

“How long have you been working in Chiapas,” I opened after getting settled at the table.

“Forty years,” he said. “It was a town of 14,000 people. There were no stoplights, no restaurants, and one bar.”

“How did you come here?”

“By accident,” he said, reaching for some peaunuts. He spoke so softly I could barely hear him.

“By accident?”

He was traveling with a friend who had a friend who was working down here, so they swung by. He was so impressed by the textiles that he stayed.

I told him about my project.

“I don’t know much, but I have some stories,” he said. A neatly dressed waiter in a white shirt and black vest came over and Chip ordered us two margaritas. They came out in enormous, shallow blue glasses filled with pebbles of ice, too much salt coating the rim.

“One time I took a gay couple to Zinacatán,” said Chip, who also hires himself out as a guide to tourists who want to visit the indigenous communities around San Cristóbal. While they were shopping for textiles, the vendor—who was a friend of Chip’s—abruptly said, “Are you married?”

The couple was surprised, but said, “Why, yes, we are.”

“She said, ‘OK.’” Chip paused before delivering his punchline, a smile evident in the corners of his eyes. “Then she said, ‘We have gay marriage too.’

Chip laughed outright. “I’d never heard that!”

“What did she mean?”

“I don’t know. But you could go ask,” he said, before giving me directions to her store.

He took a sip of his margarita. I was further into mine than he was because he’d been talking since the drinks arrived.

“I talk more easily with a margarita,” he said, then launching into another story. “I know the word for homosexual in Tzotzil: tutz.”

“Well, that’s almost perfect,” I said.

He laughed. “Isn’t it? But I’ve only spoken that word once, and I thought we were going to get killed for it.” He said:

At the carnival in Chenalhó, the men dress as women as part of the ritual. Half the town borrows their wives’ clothes and they go from ritual house to house singing, “I’m half man and half woman.” But one time, 20 or 30 years ago, I went to the carnival and there were no Dancing Women.

I asked some people, “Where are the Dancing Women?”

They said, “We don’t know where they are.”

“You don’t know where they are? There are always Dancing Women.”

Finally, someone said, “You might try the municipal president’s house.”

All the dancing women were at the municipal president’s house, and the president was the only one not in drag. He was falling down drunk, swooning on top of the dancing women.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he shouted in Spanish when he spotted us.

“We’re just here to watch.”

“Get the fuck out of here!”

We left, but before we went I said “Ok, we’re going now … tutz.”

He went, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!”

We heard that one tone, like an opera singer, for three blocks.

“So at the time, ‘tutz’ was more like ‘faggot’?” I asked him.

“Yes, but now it’s lost a lot of its edge. I think there’s a community of gay people who are gradually getting more accepted.”

“An actual community?”

“Well, there are gay people who are networked. But I haven’t studied it closely.”

Then he told me another story from his early days working in these indigenous communities that he said were so desperate they were struggling to make it into poverty:

The strangest community I went to was Chalután. I went there for the patron saint festival.

A guy came up to me and said, “You’re a woman, let’s go to the milpa,” which means, “let’s go fuck.”

“I’m not a woman,” I said.

“You have long hair; you’re a woman,” he said. “I’ll give you 50 centavos.”

“50 centavos?!”

“Ok, a peso.”

I started to walk away, and he jumped on me. We wrestled on the ground for while, then we got up and had a big laugh and a drink.

“It was a joke?” I asked.

“It was a joke.” He took a sip of his margarita. “But then a musician came up to me and said, “You should come to my house. You’ll be like a mother to me.”

“That was a proposition?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Were your language skills good enough that you were sure you understood?”

“Then he sang the homosexual love song to Jesus Christ.”

I nearly choked on the guacamole I’d just scooped into my mouth. “The homosexual love song to Jesus Christ?”

He half-sang in a voice suggesting he’d smoked at least as long as he’d lived in San Cristóbal:

Who knows what path we take?
Who knows what path is ours.
Oh our Lord in Heaven,
Oh our Lord in Glory,
Won’t me show me your path?
Won’t you open your little path?

“In Tzotzil, that’s about as direct as you can get,” he said.

2 thoughts on “Gays in Mayan Chiapas? A (colorful) conversation.

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