As the million twinkling lights of the central valley receded below us, we climbed into the Sierra Madre mountains, shivering our way along the twisting roads into an icy dawn drizzle.
My destination was the town of Santa Cruz Tepetotutla, on Mexico’s Gulf Slope. Difficult geography accounts for the region’s isolation. Some believe that the names “Chinantla” and “Chinantec” were derived from the Aztec word chinamitl, which means “an enclosed place.” Correct or not, the description is certainly apt. Only in the last decade or so have roads begun to burrow into what are some of the largest and best preserved swaths of tropical montane cloud and rain forest left in North America. The ecosystems here, ranging from 3,000 meters to just above sea level, are home to more than 4,000 species of identified plants — who knows how many have yet to be described by science — and nearly 1,000 species of animals. The Chinantec culture mirrors the natural diversity: residents of the forest communities speak at least fourteen variants of the root language.
By choosing to protect the carbon-absorbing diversity inhabiting their slice of the 460,000 square kilometers of the Papaloapan River watershed, the Chinantecs have found themselves on the frontlines of the struggle to slow the progress of climate change. I hoped to see what they had saved and to understand how they had done it.
Seven hours after leaving Oaxaca City, the van pulled to a stop. It was with no small relief that I unfolded myself from the seat and stepped onto the cement of Santa Cruz Tepetotutla’s municipal plaza.
Waiting for me under a large, black umbrella was Pedro Osorio, who would be my guide for the next ten days. Pedro, whom I had met the year before on my first hike through the Chinantla, greeted me and led me to his home for a breakfast of blue corn tortillas hot off the comal and black beans from his milpa.
On this visit, my idea was to walk with him along the thousand-year-old footpaths that snaked scores of kilometers through the territory the Chinantec communities guard from the voracious reach of national and international logging, mining, and energy companies. There, I believed, far beyond the cluster of tidy cement and board homes that give shelter to the 700 or so Tepetotutla residents, I would witness the delicate but sustainable interface between what was human and what pertained to nature.
As I ate, Pedro told me that he had recently been named director of trails and tourism for the community. The following day, instead of setting out on a week-long trek, he wanted me first to experience the walks he’d created for weekend visitors.
That next morning the sun rose, bathing the western slopes above Tepetotutla in golden light and sucking water out of the pale mud. In the banana grove just outside the rustic guest house where I slept, tanagers, thrushes, social flycatchers, and bananaquits began their morning forage. After my own breakfast of wild greens collected from the forest and the deliciously bitter, “edible inflorescence” of the pacaya palm or tepejilote prepared by Pedro’s wife and daughters, Pedro and I walked south toward the stone Catholic church. He told me how it had been built by the townspeople fifty years before the road reached Tepetotutla in 2004.
He pointed to a school. The municipal buildings. Sheet metal roofs. Concrete homes. A cement basketball court where teenagers dribbled and shot. The cement and metal had been borne on the backs of people and mules as many as sixty kilometers over pitched forest trails.
The Chinantec culture mirrors the natural diversity: residents of the forest communities speak at least fourteen variants of the root language.
Leading me to a dirt path that veered from the concrete walkway, Pedro stopped before a large metal sign, partially obscured by vines. It announced the way to the “Cancha de Pelota,” or ball court, evidence that the sacred, pre-colonial, Mesoamerican game had been played here. Among the government agency and environmental non-profit sponsors whose logos decorated the placard, I spotted the beer keg that identifies Grupo Modelo, Mexico’s largest beer manufacturer.
To me the multinational sponsor seemed like an intruder here, but it offered Pedro, who had held a variety of positions in the local government, a glimmer of hope. Serving as town mayor and then the territory commissioner, he had used his savvy to push the state of Oaxaca to complete the road that connects them with the outside world, and he encouraged village residents to embrace national and international agreements that certify their commitment to the conservation of the 24,000 acres of wild lands under their control. Now, Pedro has promised his community he would try to boost the local economy by attracting eco-tourists to explore the Chinantla’s ecology. He needed all the help he could get.
“If we can make ecotourism work,” says Pedro, “it will help us ensure the conservation of our land, maintain our language and culture, and keep our children from migrating.”
Apart from meager remittances sent by family members who have already left the town for work in the United States or one of Mexico’s major cities, coffee had been Santa Cruz’s only cash crop. Since 2013, a coffee rust fungus has devastated as much as 75 percent of the coffee crops across southern Mexico and Central America.
Meanwhile, the federal government is pushing to commercialize the Chinantla’s forests, rivers, and minerals. So far, the pueblos with the help of state and national NGOs have thwarted the efforts of big business to enter their territory. Most recently this meant blocking an industrial hydroelectric project. But the cash from the sale of natural resources is tempting and, as the fungus continues to desiccate coffee plants, Pedro worries that the people’s will to preserve their autonomy may wither.
Starting along the trail, I asked Pedro if the path had a name in Chinantec, supposing that the “Ball Court” title had been invented for tourists.
“Each section of the trail, each rise and descent has its own name,” he said. “This part,” he continued as we started down a rocky stretch, “is called, in our language, Piedras Entre Bejucos.” What Pedro translated from Chinantec to Spanish, in English means “stones between vines.”
Up ahead, we spotted a man standing beneath a banana palm. As Pedro introduced me to Melquiades, I peered behind him into a snarl of jungle and wondered what he was doing. And then Melquiades began to give me a tour of his garden, his gray head bobbing along like a giant moth under the shadowy canopy.
He showed me guahamol, a palm that gives a red fruit prized for its chicken-flavored, yellow pulp. Vanilla vines were trellised over a dying coffee plant. In addition to the bananas there were chiles, at least two different kinds of beans, yucca, wild greens that could be eaten raw or cooked, squash vines, and the tepejilote flower that I had eaten for breakfast.
Melquiades’s garden was an edible riot, a chaos of nutritious growth that supplemented the corn and beans he harvested in his milpa. Where I had at first seen only shades of green, I now began to see a dozen edible plants.
As I had walked Pedro’s trail, the line that separated what is human from nature had begun to blur.
Melquiades joined us as we continued along the trail, following it down to a rivulet shaded by enormous, shiny leaves of the elephant ear plant. “This area is called Cleared Stream,” announced Pedro. But the area certainly isn’t cleared, I observed. “Our abuelitos told us, ‘Sow your water,’” Pedro told me. I wondered what he meant. He explained that the people of Tepetotutla had to relearn some lessons that had been lost along the way. When they cleared the trees and plants from around this spring and the stream that flows from it, the spring went dry. Now a community rule forbids clearing or planting crops within one hundred meters of a spring. The name of this section of the path has become, therefore, something of a cautionary tale and a reminder of ancestral wisdom.
Beyond the stream, we climbed a ridge, making our way toward a dense thicket, past milpas where electric green corn plants grew. We came to a stretch of path called Cross of Blood and then suddenly we were standing in an enclosure that measured nearly 50 meters in length and 15 meters wide. Pedro and Melquiades pointed their machetes at the perfectly square, cut stones set along the edge of a tree-covered wall. This was an unexcavated ball court larger than the one found at the ancient — and much visited — Mayan city of Uxmal.
“We don’t know who made this,” said Pedro. He’s not alone. The site is not even registered with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). “Whether they were our forefathers, or other people,” Pedro continued. “No one can tell us. And our abuelitos didn’t know. But they say the path is called Cross of Blood because the people who built this performed sacrifices.”
Down from the ruin, we came to a wide stretch of ridge. This, said Pedro, had been an airstrip. Back in the 1980s when the coffee harvest fetched a high price on the international market and there also was a demand for barbasco, a wild yam used to produce progesterone for birth control pills, Cessna planes zipped in and out of Tepetotutla to carry away the harvest. The grass on the strip is still short, kept neat by a small herd of cows.
At first it appeared that a plane could still land there. But when I turned to look south, I saw that a massive landslide had carried away half the runway along with at least twenty hectares of ridge. As we stood contemplating the brown gash that swept away toward the sound of the rushing Perfume River somewhere far below us, my mind wrestled with the idea of airplanes taxiing in and out of this remote town.
Melquiades said something in a low voice. I leaned closer to hear him. “Some think the malos did this.”
I was puzzled.
“The people with double spirits,” he explained, referencing the Chinantec cosmology that says some people are born with both a human and an animal spirit, or even the spirit of a lightning bolt or a rainbow. These powers can be used for either good or bad and explain significant events in the lives and environment of the Chinantecs, like landslides that destroy runways.
From the ridge where we stood I could see the tin roofs of the town two kilometers away, shining white in the sun. As I had walked Pedro’s trail, the line that separated what is human from nature had begun to blur. Anthropologist Daniel Oliveras de Ita divides the Chinantla into three sections, lower, middle, and high — categories determined by both the altitude above sea level and the ethnographic data, suggesting an inextricable relationship between environment and human culture. Now I had seen this relationship up close. Melquiades’s garden was the jungle and the jungle was the garden.
I thought I had to get away from the town to see nature. But nature enveloped the town, was everywhere along the paths. It permeated Pedro and Melquiades’s lives. And this, it seemed to me, was what gave them the strength to save their forests, yet accept some help from a multinational corporation, or Cessna planes, to laugh at a plastic deer, and still stay true to the spirit — or spirits — of their place.
Aran Shetterly is a writer and editor who has lived in Mexico since 2005. He founded an English-language magazine in Mexico and is the author of The Americano, a book about the Cuban Revolution. Currently, he is working on a book about the Chinantla region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
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