Moshe Cohen Dharma Talk: Chiapas Expedition


Chiapas Expedition
December ’99

by Moshe Cohen


December 3 –

  • Performance in KINAL for Chamulan Weavers-50 people
  • Performance in San Andres for 150 people

December 4 -

  • Performances in Petalcingo 2 hour outdoor pre-show for 200 people
  • Show in Salon Municipal for 300 people

December 5 –

Performance in San Felippe for 100 people

December 6 –

  • Performance at INI (displaced) for 50 people
  • Performance at Colonia Cascajal for 150 people

December 7 -

  • Performance in Berlin for 100 people
  • Performance in El Bosque for 500 people


It would be difficult to give a comprehensive state of affairs in Chiapas after an 8 day stay in San Cristobal de las Casas. Most of the people that Rudi and I talked to said that situation remained much the same. The army everywhere and the government low intensity war in full action. The government has been proposing to the EZLN to return to the negotiation tables but they remain silent, theoretically still waiting for the San Andres agreements of 1996 to be implemented. Next year’s elections begin to loom larger and the PRI candidate, Labastida who will probably win via votes or election fraud, is supposedly a more hard-nose person than the current president, Zedillo. Thus one friend suggested that the Zapatistas would be better off hammering out an accord now rather than wait for Labastida to take the reins. Another source suggested that total anarchy might break out when he got elected, that there are now some 20 armed revolutionary groups in Mexico. In Chiapas, the EZLN remain committed to peaceful resolution of the conflict although there is a splinter group ready to take up arms.

One analysis suggested that even complete redistribution of all lands in Chiapas (from wealthy to poor) would not satisfy the needs of the indiginous communities and that in ten years time, given better healthcare (longer lives, better pre and post natal care) the demand for land could provide for conflict between needy communties. One suggested outcome would be the emergence of industrial maquilladores in Chiapas.

Weather patterns continue to change as the rainy season has already shifted to later in the year, and as the flooding of September and October indicate in more extreme patterns.

On the positive side, we were told when travelling through Los Altos (to El Bosque and Simojovel ) that the extreme tensions there of the past few years had diminished somewhat. However the army and immigration checkpoints along the road (we passed through 3 ) are still there. One should note that the San Andres checkpoint was dismantled the first time we went up into the mountains (Dec 3) due to Mary Robinson’s (UN Human Rights Commisioner) visit a few days earlier.

As usual, the army and immigration officials took copious time to write down all the information their mimeographed forms required them to cull from our passports. No hard questions and content to let the Payasos go on their merry ways. On the return in the evening only one checkpoint was in action and the officer was only interested in the contents of Rudi’s trunk. When opened, the first object to be visited was Rudi’s rubber chicken which brought laughter from all around.

Over repeated visits to Chiapas, one becomes more aware of the divisions in this part of the world. There is no longer an inbetween, you are either on one side or the other. Although we declare our activities non-political, by the nature of those we perform for, we are actually involved on one side of the fence. Many communities and towns remain divided between the two sides.

Performing in Petalcingo in the north of Chiapas (in between Tila and Yajalon) one got a stronger sense of the threat of the paramilitary activity. This is the territory of the Paz and Justicia paramilitary organization who reportedly are openly active in the region. Certainly several of the faces that passed through my scope of vision during the pre-show had an openly threatening scowling look to them, not the usual response to the clowns. They belonged to large bulky bodies.

The displaced communities who have been in Polho since the Acteal massacre (Dec 97) remain there, some 8000 strong (figures range from 6-10000). The only international NGO involved in the camps is the International Red Cross. In discussions about establishing a long-term Clowns Without Borders project in Chiapas, it was pointed out that the Mexican Government would not officially sanction a US or European NGO in Chiapas. The immigration authrorities we were told continue their campaign to keep foreign observers and journalists out of the territory.

Rudi and I were surprised by two immigration officers in the boarding area of the San Cristobal airport the morning we were leaving. They examined our passports and asked us questions as to what communities outside of San Cristobal we had visited and what activities we had carried out. These men had a much more serious bent than those at the immigration checkpoint outside the town of San Andres. I mentioned that we had been to Simojovel and when asked what we did there, Rudi told them that we ate, and that we bought amber. Thankfully they took the answer at face value however it was clear that in their eyes we were suspicious and that now our names are probably on one more list. These officers certainly did not treat us like tourists and walked right up to us convinced that we had been up to no good.

Overall the government’s campaign to keep Chiapas out of the International headlines has been relatively successful. The conflict remains at a tense standstill, locked in with no significant changes on the horizon.


This expedition to Chiapas proved highly successful on several fronts, both that of performing in the communities and of investigating the possibilites of a long term project.

The trip started out with a few difficulties as we missed our Mexico City airport connection, our San Francisco plane in too late to catch the once-a-day flight to San Cristobal. Although we succesfully negotiated an alternative routing via Tuxla with the airlines paying a two hour taxi ride to San Critobal. Unhappily our luggage did not accompany us and we spent the next two days squating the Aero-Cariibe office tracking down the lost cases in the catacombs of the Mexico City airport. We started to accept the challenge of creating a new show and costumes from scratch but thankfully the two trunks did arrive on Thursday in time for our first shows on Friday.

Rudi and I performed a show full of slapstick and several chase scenes built around individual routines. The show brought choruses of the high howls that are expressions of laughter in these parts. Finding volunteers for routines remained a challenge that we continuously explored and which resulted in occasional hilarious chase scenes. The shows were well received and we were continuously surrounded by joy and laughter.

Working with three organizations (MELEL, KINAL and TADAS) we planned a full schedule which brought us into several communities, three divided towns, the small displaced community housed at INI in San Cristobal, the Colonia Cascajal, an impovrished community in San Cristobal, and a weaver’s cooperative gathered for a meeting at KINAL. The shows ranged from very small (INI, KINAL) to very large (El Bosque, Petalcingo).

Chiapas in December is a very beautiful place to be. The winter air is crystal clear, cold nights and warm in the day. We traveled through some of the most glorious mountain and jungle scenery immaginable and we worked with wonderful people, most notably Alejandra from TADAS and Oscar from MELEL. The old colonial town of San Cristobal was our base of operations where we stayed most of the time in the borrowed apartement of Claudia (Alejandra’s former daughter in law).

We were there just when all these runners were doing their pilgrimages to the Virgin of the Guadelupe and we saw several groups of barefooted runners with banners of the Virgin running towards the St Lucia church atop the hill. They ran in formation chanting ‘VIVA VIVA VIVA GUADELUPE …RA RA RA ‘ and similar slogans then clapping hands in rythm. We also caught several processions in town of truck bed floats oflittle girls dressed as angels with Santa Claus on a pick-up truck following behind.

Due to out short time there and to the lost luggage debacle we travelled a little less through the territory. However both the trip to Petalcingo and to Simojovel/El Bosque took us on very long day excursions. The trip to Petalcingo was especially grueling as we were accompanying people closely related to the Coordinating Committee of the Zapatistas, to a meeting of the Petalcingo ejido. We travelled in a pickup that fed exhaust into the back camper shell area where we were generously bounced around on the often bad roads. As is often the case in Chiapas, we left late (actually some 2 1/2 hours late) and found ourselves in the dusty one street town around 4 pm. Rudi and I were to perform after the meeting which began around 6pm. A very curious group of townspeople gathered around us as the meeting was underway and we goofed and found ourselves performing all these little bits that had the growing group howling. As the daylight faded we noticed that the towns lights were not turning on and we soon found ourselves in the dark. Rudi continued to perform and I spotlighted him with my mini mag light. The meeting taking place inside the Salon was lit by candlelight and we were starting to get nervous that we would not be able to perform. Opinions from the crowd were unanimous as to why the lights hadn’t been turned on: the bills hadn’t been payed. However it was not clear if they would come on at all that night, some suggested at 8pm. Luckily that proved to be the case and were able to perform for quite a large and enthusiastic audience.

As we were aware that Paz and Justicia were openly active in the area, it did not feel comfortable to be driving back down these bad deserted roads at night. However there was little choice in the matter and the journey proved uneventfull, if rather uncomfortable. Travelling in the company we did no doubt added to our files at the gobernation offices. However at was noted earlier, in Chiapas you are either on one side or the other.

The expedition ended with a nice show in front of the church at El Bosque. It happened to be the big day of the fiesta of the Guadelupe and thus we played for a very large festive gathering. Otherwise everyone would be off in the mountains harvesting the coffee(so we were told). The catechists from the communities has evidently complained as to why the payasos always play in town and never make it to their communities and the next expedition will need to include some shows around that area. There are a huge number of communities in Chiapas and we have only so far scratched the surface.



en el camino de topes
we dream banana trees bending in the hot sun,
coffee beans spread out on flat cement rooftops,
old men backs bent with sticks strapped to their foreheads
and barefoot women braiding hair of children
their dirty faces
tangled hair of laughter.

All this from the back of a dirty pickup truck as we drive 31/2 hours to Petalcingo. We navigate each bump, each falla, each twist of this serpent road we call: el camino de topes. We arrive in a dusty town of long afternoon shadows and sleeping dogs everywhere. There is a small trickle of a river and a bridge in the middle of the town at the foot of the concrete stairs that lead up into the blue painted church. Within minutes we are surrounded by friendly zapatistas who graciously shake our hands and welcome us warmly. There is to be a meeting with the leaders and we are to perform afterwards. Moshe and I are told to be ready to go in an hour. Like good clowns we go to the back of the truck to get ready.

We are followed by around 20 children and young men who are mesmerized by our mere prescence. I make a funny face and they giggle, Moshe makes some coins dissappear then sneezes…more laughter. I take my eyeball out throw it up in the air and catch it, Moshe plays a tune on his mini harmonica and squeaks a little boys stomach. Like this we take turns for half an hour as the darkness falls slowly all around us. We decide to stop doing tricks and sit down inside the camper shell which is our dressing room. But the crowd of people beg for more; their brown eyes drunk with laughter. By now it is almost completely pitch black so we use Moshes small flashlight to illuminate our faces. We take turns passing it back and forth. I show them my brain, Moshe does another hat trick. I take off my thumb, do the broken arm again and make my knees pass thru each other. The crowd goes crazy boracho drunk by now almost a hundred pushing and shoving to get a closer look. I decide to climb onto the roof of the camper so that they can see better. I dance to imaginary mariachi music as they howl like coyotes in the moonless night. I take a red scarf and pass it magicaly from my hand to my mouth, i shake my butt and then leap onto a 10 foot high wall and accidently grab onto the power lines; i pretend to get electricuted. Nobody laughs except me. I do a shoulder stand on top of the wall, lose my balance then fall over the edge and dissappear into the black zapatista night. For three hours we make magic in the darkness, armed only with what we possess in our bodies and our pockets. We make them forget that they are poor, that they are oppressed.

en el camino de topes
we dream of laughing zapatistas,
their faces obscured in the darkness,
and the flicker of their eyes
that sparkle and become the stars all around.


During our stay, we explored the potential and possibilities for a long-term project. The reponse was very positive and we entered into discussions with several organizations. The picture that emerged is a three year plan focusing on performances and both arts and basketball education(there seems to be a basketball in every community and it is widely popular.) The basic framework involves fascilitating both short term performance expeditions and longer term education projects. The arts education would include creative endeavors such as mask and puppet making as well as circus skills and performance groups. Specific communities would be targeted to participate in these activities and the knowledge would then be shared to other communities by those we educate. We would rent a house in San Critobal and procure a vehicle for transport in the area. Thus we could have a certain degree of autonomy and not be overly dependant on any one organziation for support. There is surely some risk factor involved as we would be operating on the fringe of legality. The Mexican Constitution guarantees the right to cultural exchanges. However we have no doubts that if the goevernment wants to kick us out of town, they will without any hesitation.


There are several performance projects planned to Chiapas in the near future. The Saltimbanqui puppet group in Mexico City is planning their sixth March trip to the selva areas around La Garrucha. They also plan to perform in Acteal. Clowns Without Borders is also planning the fourth trip to Chiapas at the time of the Day of the Child (Dia del Nino y de la Nina). Chiapas remains one of the conflict zones in the world that scoots under the media’s radar. There remains a great obstacles to any peaceful settlements and hopefully many obstacles to any large scale outbreak of violence. We return to the land of plenty convinced that there remains a great deal of work to do.