Watch this video slideshow of photos taken in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Chiapas: Defying Preconceived Notions of Mexico

When you arrive in the colonial-era town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, eternally crowned by mountain clouds on Mexico’s southern tip, you would swear you had gone too far south and ended up in Guatemala. This might depend on what your definition of “Mexico” is, though.

To the outsiders, such as casual Americans, Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas at first seems like their stereotypical idea of Mexico, that place south of Texas which gifted them the yellow hard shell taco.

View of the valley where San Cristóbal de las Casas is located.
San Cristóbal de las Casas sits in a valley in Sierra Madre de Chiapas at 7,200 feet. It can and does get cold here. If you visit, don’t forget to bring your jacket — just don’t call it a chaqueta. In this part of the country, you’ll draw a harmless a snicker.

Here in San Cristóbal, indigenous women still dress in traditional brightly embroidered clothing while going about their daily tasks in town, picking up household goods or selling in the market. Surprises, such as an outdoor market with live turkeys and hanging meat, can appear around any corner or at the end of any twisted alley.

This is an older Mexico where resistance groups and guerrilla fighters in the jungle are actively making an active effort to maintain the traditions, language, and lifestyle of its many indigenous groups. This doesn’t make Chiapas impervious to outside mega influences such as Coca-Cola and Nestle, who continue to drain the area’s watershed of its natural resources, but it’s a vocal, active resistance.

In fact, the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas have an almost European vibe, helped out by its mixture of backpackers, European expats, and 16th-century colonial architecture. But the further you get away from the hub-bub of the 160,000-person city, the more indigenous faces you see, and fewer mestizo ones.

Almost everyone I know (Mexicans and foreigners alike) describes Chiapas as magical, calling it one of their favorite places to visit in Mexico. Mexicans have a greater regard than Americans for the places and traditions in their own country, able to appreciate them in the same way that Americans might enjoy an exotic foreign destination.

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Indigenous women in the Plaza 31 de Marco in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Indigenous women sell fabrics in the Plaza 31 de Marzo in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Los Parachicos in the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Los Parachicos also take part in the Fiesta de la Merced. The dance and costume come from a hundreds-year-old tradition in Chiapa de Corzo, close to San Cristóbal.
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La Fiesta de La Merced

Towns and cities in Mexico can be sectioned into barrios or neighborhoods. San Cristóbal de las Casas’ 11 historical barrios are the product of colonial segregation that resulted after the city was founded in 1528. The Spanish took up the center of the city and relegated the indigenous groups to the outskirts.

In the city, they, of course, built churches — elaborate ones large enough to convert the natives into proper God-fearing Catholics.

It didn’t work. Indigenous religions are still in Chiapas today and sometimes Catholicism is just one element thrown into the religious mix. A mix that in this part of the country can sometimes include black magic, witches and animal sacrifice.

But in the towns and cities where the Spanish colonialists settled in great numbers, Catholicism took hold. And today 83% of Mexicans consider themselves Catholic according to the 2010 census.

One of the ways that the faith is kept among the people is through the Fiestas Patronales. These are multi-day (usually week-and-a-half-long) fiestas are dedicated to a saint or incarnation of the Virgin Mary. It’s a deeply religious event, with processions and extra church services, but for many, it’s also a party, with late-night drinking and music going until 2:00, 3:00… 4:00 in the morning.

In San Cristóbal’s barrio La Merced, they honor the Virgin of Mercy in various ways for the entire month of September, including processions such as this one.

Participants in the Fiesta de la Virgen de Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Clergyman and parishioners accompany the image of Our Lady of Mercy through the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas during the Fiestas de la Merced.
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Each barrio has its own patron saint and patroness. La Merced’s patroness is, of course, Our Lady of Mercy. Each year during a month-long fiesta, the image of the Virgin is brought out of the neighborhood church and paraded around the streets of the barrio.
Man lifting his hat while passing image of La Virgen de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas
A man lifts his sombrero as he passes an image of La Virgen de la Merced (Our Lady of Mercy). The image is displayed during the fiesta in the barrio of La Merced, which celebrates its fiestas patronales in September.
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Prayer Candles in the Church La Merced
A man prays at the front of a candlelit side chapel in the Iglesia de la Merced during the Fiesta de la Merced
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Man praying in la Iglesia de la Merced in Chiapas, Mexico
A man kneels in prayer in a side chapel in the Church of Mercy in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico.
Papel picado hanging at the Iglesia de Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiaps, Mexico.
Papel picado flies in the wind in the courtyard outside the Church of Mercy in the Merced barrio of San Cristóbal de las Casas. This particular papel picado, a traditional practice and a form of Mexican folk art, is actually made from plastic.
Schoolkids wait for the "Parade of the Fatties" (la Fiesta de los Panzones) in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
A procession causes of a wave of excitement to precede everywhere it passes. These school kids crowded at the window of their classroom and are thrilled to watch the parade go by. They want to see this year’s “Parade of the Fatties” as it dances by.
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El Anuncio de los Panzones

By far the most visually dazzling part of the fiestas patronales, perhaps anywhere in Mexico, are the panzones that accompany the procession for the Virgin de la Merced.

The panzones (which means large stomach or fat person) use suspenders to hoist enormous tire tubes around their waists. Then they don colorful, custom-made dresses and put on scary masks, while dancing and jiggling for hours through the downtown streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

This is a tradition that originated in San Cristóbal and is a unique tradition to the town. (Though on YouTube you can find the same panzones during a fiesta in Ocótlan, Jalisco.)

Fiesta de los Panzones in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Every town in Mexico seems to have at least one unique tradition which can’t be found anywhere else in the country. La Fiesta de los Panzones (Parade of the Fatties) is San Cristóbal’s most popular one, though it’s still relatively unknown to Mexicans who don’t live in the area.
Los Panzones in the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
The Fiesta de los Panzones occurs during the month-long Fiesta for Our Lady of Mercy. Dozens of people put on suspender-hoisted tire tubes and dresses, plus scary masks, and take part in the Catholic procession.
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The Fiesta de los Panzones during the Fiesta de la Virgin de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
The panzones (panzon is the word for a large belly) mix into the general procession, which means they’ll find themselves wedged in between marching bands, clergy members, and normal processioners. It’s a tight fit when your panzon is six feet around.
Los Panzones in the Fiesta de la Merced
The panzones will dance through the streets of the Merced Barrio in San Cristóbal for four to five hours with a break in the middle. It takes an effort to dance for so long with a tube and a heavy dress, but everyone who participates has a good time — and the crowd watching it all go by does, too.
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This video taken from YouTube gives a good idea of what the opening day of the Fiesta de la Merced is like.

The Zapatistas: Chiapas Is Rebel Country

Chiapas’ history is one that always returns to the subjugation its indigenous people, from pre-Aztec times and the colonial conquest, through today. Contemporary methods of racial and economic slavery work in the more subtle ways of neoliberalism. They take the form of exploiting indigenous land rights in the name of large international corporations, such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola.

In defiance of all this, in 1994 a group of peasant indigenous farmers rose out of the jungle and took up arms against the Mexican government. They wanted to incite a national revolution so the government sent in the army and infiltrators to take out the leaders, one of which was a masked man who smoked a pipe and spoke to the world in a series of written communiques which seemed to be written more by a poet than a politician or a guerrilla leader.

More than 20 years later, the Zapatistas live in autonomous communities in the highlands of Chiapas, which are kept off-limits to outsiders and the government. They provide themselves with their own healthcare, education and social programs. Ordinary villagers form their own government and women make up 50% of the seats. One of the first official acts the Zapatistas did was to create a women’s bill of rights, called Women’s Revolutionary Law.

Since settling on non-violent methods after their initial 1994 uprising (and garnering international sympathies), the Zapatistas have been models of resistance for all disenfranchised groups fighting against neoliberalism in all parts of the world, not just the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

Subcomandante Marcos costume during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal
Someone dressed as Subcomandante Marcos takes part in the opening of the Fiesta of La Merced (Mercy) in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
President Peña Nieto costume during a parade in Chiapas
A woman inspected the blood-stained flag worn by a person in a President Peña Nieto mask.
Zapatista poster in Chiapas
The familiar red handkerchief-hidden face of the Zapatistas are everywhere in San Cristóbal, and signs of it are everywhere, including posters, street art, graffiti, and in cafes and restaurants.
Anti-Machismo Graffiti in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
“Machete to the Macho!” says a smiling Snow White in this revolutionary graffiti found on the street in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

VIDEO: Neoliberalism in three minutes.

Street Art in Mexico

Mexico’s street art community is not exactly what you might describe as robust. But it exists and thrives best in the largest cities, such as Guadalajara and Mexico City, where the city life contrasts greatly with life in the country. San Cristóbal, though a town of 100,000, still has a small-pueblo feel to its very large central zone. It’s a vibrant street-art town no matter what the standard is, much of it centered around the themes of indigenous life and rebellion.

Street art in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Street art, much of it revolutionary in nature, is found on walls all over San Cristóbal.
San Cristóbal de las Casas street art by Designer Checoz
Some of the street art in San Cristóbal is just plain bizarre. Bizarrely good. Follow Checoz on Facebook.
Mural of Emiliano Zapata in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
No Mexican street art is complete without a mural of Emiliano Zapata, the bad-ass leader of the Revolution.
Parachico girls during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
These kids are taking part in the Fiesta de la Merced. The girls wear parachico dresses which come from Chiapa de Corzo, about an hour’s drive from San Cristóbal.
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A World of Markets of All Kinds in San Cristóbal de las Casas

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, a market seems to be around every corner, each one larger and more sprawling than the last one you stumbled onto. Some are indoors and others are filled with vendors in open-air stalls. Most specialize in selling one kind of thing, be it food or textiles.

Mercado municipal in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Inside the municipal market, San Cristóbal’s main indoor public market. Come here to find anything, including dozens of exotic beans, chiles and spices unique to southern Mexico.
A family selling tomates verdes (tomatillos) in the mercado municipal in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
A family removes the thin, papery husks from tomatillos (in Mexico they’re called tomates verdes) for sale in San Cristóbal’s mercado municipal.
Chickens for sale in an outdoor market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Chickens for sale in el Mercade Viejo outdoor market in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. Their legs are tied together to keep them from straying.
Turkeys in an outdoor market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
These turkeys are for sale in el Mercado Viejo outdoor market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico.
______ market with stacked fruits and vegetables in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
The El Mercado Viejo in San Cristóbal, one of the many markets scattered around the city. The magnificent, unblemished fruits and vegetables are stacked into neat pyramids in all of San Cristóbal’s markets.
Window/door on street in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
A door/window on a wall on a street in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
A colorful door in Chiapas, Mexico
A colorful, striped door in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

La Quema de Pólvora

On the second day of the Fiesta de la Merced, they set the streets on fire. Pretty literally. Does making a line of gunpowder a kilometer long and connecting it with little sticks of dynamite every foot count? Then yes, they literally set the streets on fire during the Quema de Polvora, while bystanders gather and watch it come towards them before backing away to let it pass at a safe distance. The explosions are deafening as the line of burning gunpowder travels block to block for a kilometer ahead of the morning procession for the Virgin de la Merced.

Bombas during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
This line of gunpowder is about one kilometer long and connects thousands of bombas, which are kind of like mini sticks of dynamite. They blow up in the middle of the street during one of the processions during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Bombas exploding during a procession for la Virgin de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
The procession walks behind the exploding bombas, which is deafening to anything within a few meters of the blasts. A thick smoky fog envelopes everything in its wake, including the people and banda in the rear, which stay a reasonable 30 feet away.
Quema de Pólvora in the barrio de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
The procession of 100 or so people during a morning recorrido through the streets of San Cristóbal. The city is often enshrouded in mountain fogs, but during the Quema de Pólvora the barrio of La Merced is obscured by the smoke from a line of gunpowder several kilometers long.

In this video you can see (and hear) the explosions during the Quema de Pólvora during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

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San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Panteón municipal.
Inside a mausoleum for a woman in the municipal cemetery in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.
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Exterior view of Cathedral of St. Christopher in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
Outside the Cathedral of St. Christopher in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
A banda playing during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas
A banda plays during a procession for Our Lady of Mercy during the Fiesta de la Merced in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.
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