February 14, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With Handmade textiles created with natural dyes; mole sauces of intriguing spices and colors; the juxtaposition of Mayan culture and colonial Spanish architecture; charming hotels revealing patios lined with bougainvillea; and amber from nearby mines in golden abundance, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico offers visitors an infusion of color, culture, taste, and sight. Even if you have never heard of it, you will tomorrow.
Pope Francis has chosen San Cristobal as the destination for one of his few Mexico visits, an opportunity to dialogue on February 15 with the Mayan people who make up 70 percent of its population. The Cathedral and Town Hall are being adorned with ornamental paintings in white and saffron, neighboring restaurants are prohibited from serving alcohol (no margaritas!), and 600,000 invitations have been given out to churches around the area for his visit.
For a group of Chicagoans, San Cristobal and the Mayan village of Yochib about two hours away, have been destinations for seven years. The group of Episcopalians grows and changes, but the opportunities to help with English language lessons and health classes; visit hospitals and orphanages; deliver school supplies and soccer balls to children they have watched growing up; and attend services run by the Diocese of Southeast Mexico keep Chiapas on their minds throughout the year.
“We are respectful of Mayan tradition in our work to assist Anglican congregations. In the village of Yochib, they only speak the Mayan language of Tseltal at home, so the children must learn Spanish as well,” John Bross, who has been a regular visitor to the area for years, said. “The retired school teacher suggested that it would be good for the children to learn English – we would not have started the lessons without this request.”
The Reverend Wes Smedley, Rector of St. Chrysostom’s Church, led the recent mission trip along with the Reverend George Hull of Holy Comforter in Kenilworth. Anne Brinsmade; John and Judy Bross; John Craib-Cox; Maureen and Neil Hamilton of Palm Beach and Chicago; Dorothy Ramm; and Deborah and Dan Shannon, with their daughter Sarah, all traveled down to lend a hand. The group found great joy in exploring outdoor markets, nearby villages, and women’s textile cooperatives; learning a few words in Mayan dialect; and observing Wes Smedley playing soccer with the local young people.
To reach our destination, we must first fly to Mexico City, then on to Tuxtla Gutierrez to catch a van to the city of San Cristobal, about an hour away. Chilly at night, skies are almost always sunny and blue during the day. These bright skies, paired with the warm weather, are glorious for exploring the cobbled streets sided by brightly painted walls. Amber, coffee, chocolate, and textile museums toast the products of the area in authentic tributes, while the most moving museum is run by Dr. Sergio Castro, a specialist in healing burn and wound victims in Mayan Villages and San Cristobal at no cost. Only in the late afternoons, after he has treated his patients, does this humanitarian open up his adjacent collection of rare authentic costumes of at least 15 different Mayan communities. Any donations he receives go to supplies for his rural clinics.
A smaller group, lead by emergency room nurse Maureen Hamilton and fluent translator Anne Brinsmade, toured a local hospital. “Visiting the state hospital in San Cristobal, we realized the true demands of the welfare of these patients is so complex with the medical care available. Many of the patients could not go on with the necessary services needed due to lack of funds. The contrast of these children and the enthusiasm of the indigenous Mayan youth enjoying newly donated footballs, English books, and singing well known hymns was immensely enjoyable,” Maureen said.
Hotel Villas Casa Morada, owned by a Swiss man named Ernst Riedwyl, offers large rooms with fireplaces and the most efficient staff. They quickly arranged all our transportation to the Mayan villages and the beautiful Canyon de Sumidero, for a breathtaking boat ride in the warm sunshine, as well as to the orphanage Hogar Infantil, a working farm where the children help with the animals when homework is done.
Hiking the nearby hills and caves with a guide and a cooking class were among Deborah Shannon’s favorite activities.
“Erma, from the Instituto de Lenguas Jovel, taught us how to make both red and green mole in a private home featuring a very fine kitchen, wonderful cooking equipment, and lovely local pottery for the feasting afterwards,” Shannon said. “Among the ingredients of the Rioja mole were a cup of ground animal crackers in addition to the different varieties of peppers, pumpkin and sesame seeds, dark chocolate, plantains, and raisins. It was delicious.”
Chef Roberto of Hotel Villas Casa Morada shared his recipe for the best soup ever: simply a generous bunch of cilantro – often called coriander there – added to onions sautéed in a bit of butter until they change color, a bit of white wine, a quick spin in a blender, then some crème and milk for texture, and salt and pepper. The loveliest shade of green ensues and the taste is divine.
The nine-day visit offered immersion into Mayan culture and the opportunity to spend time with families, who have become extensions of our own over the years.
Participants are developing ways to keep this connection going throughout the year and other ways to support the Anglican congregations there.
“While visiting mission projects in Chiapas, our group was struck by the general poverty of the indigenous people. And yet, the beauty of the regional textile crafts is extraordinary. At the suggestion of The Reverend Wes Smedley and several group members, I am currently exploring selling selected Chiapas textiles in Chicago. Hopefully, sales of regional crafts will be a means of returning some money to the region. I am especially researching how the sale of these textiles can support the St. Chrysostom’s Scholarship Program in Chiapas through the Diocese of Southeast Mexico,” John Craib-Cox said.
For more information on the Chiapas Project, please visit http://www.saintc.org/serving/world/diocese-of-southeast-mexico/.
Hotel Villas Casa Morada