Chiapas (Mexico)

Chiapas State lies in the South-East of Mexico on the high central plateau of Sierra Madre del Sur, north of the river Usumacinta, east of Oaxaca State, south of Tabasco State and of the Yucatan peninsular and west of Guatemala. At the south it is bordered by the Pacific Ocean. Enjoying a tropical climate and sharing ​​ a coastline, valleys, mountains and tropical forest, this region displays an extraordinary biodiversity (Rosier, 2008, 224). The capital of Chiapas is Tuxtla Gutierrez.


  According to the most recent census conducted by the National Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) in 2010, the State has 4 796 580 inhabitants per 73 289 kilometers. As an area of high ethnic diversity, it comprises twelve groups of Amerindians: the Tzeltal 37.9 %, the Tzotzil 34%, the Chol 16%, the Zoque 4.5 % ​​ and the Tojolabal 4.5%. The rest of the native population (2.6 %) is composed of the groups, Lacandon, Kanjobel, Mame, Chuj, Jacalteco, Katchikel and Mocho. The State has numerous natural resources at its disposal: it provides 35% of the national production, 50% of natural gas, 55% of the hydroelectric energy of the country and almost 30% of Mexican oil, yet it is the poorest State of Mexico. Its economy also relies on agricultural products-coffee, cocoa, maize, bananas, mangoes, sugar and spices – whose profits all go to the large property owners who exploit the indigenous workforce.

As a center of resistance, the region has witnessed numerous rebellions, including that in 1712 of the Tzendales from the village of Cancuc. In Le Rêve mexicain ,Le Clézio refers to this particular event when he describes resistance movements whose principal aim is ‘the rejection of the Spanish ​​ clergy’ (RM, 184).


However, the most memorable uprising was that of the Zapista Army of National Liberation (E.Z.L.N.) led by Rafael Sebastian Guillen known as ‘deputy Marcos’. The rebellion broke out symbolically on January 1st 1994, the date when the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States ​​ and Mexico (ALENA)came into force. It was signed in the village of San Andres Larrainzar. This agreement created amongst the Chiapanec peasants an unprecedented crisis(Collier, 2005, 207-208):the Zapatistas ​​ demanded the  ​​​​ cultivable land, the recognition of indigenous cultures, the right to democracy and justice and they let their cry of ‘Ya Bista’ ​​ (that’s enough’) resound throughout the entire world (Mentius, 2006, 108), The uprising was brutally crushed by the military onslaught of the Mexican government.

It is impossible to speak about the history of the Chiapas resistance without mentioning Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) who was appointed first bishop of the State in 1545. His struggle against “l’encomienda”, a system reducing Amerindians to slaves (Higgins, 2004, 36) as well his writings and debates notably his “Contreverse de Valladolid” (1550-1551), question the legitimacy of colonialism. In La Fête chantée, J.M.G. Le Clézio mentions ​​ this ​​ ‘famous argument between Bartolomé de Las Casas et Juan Ginés de Sepulvarda about the ‘slave-like nature’ of ​​ Amérindians’ ​​ (FC, 165). Le Clézio views this Spanish bishop as one of the ‘founding fathers of the new Mexican civilisation’ (FC, 158) and reminds us on several occasions of the part he played in the condemnation of the cruelty of the Spanish conquerors. He also stresses the importance of the Bishop’s text Brévissime. Relacion de la descruction de las Indias, published in 1522 and translated into several languages. The book had a key role in denouncing throughout Europe the legend of the Spanish conquest, -‘a legend of rape, murder and despoliation’ (FC, 159).In honour of his memory, the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the cultural capital of the country, is named after him.

The other well-known personality in the struggle against colonialism was Belisario Dominguez, a doctor and senator from Chiapas . In Le Livre des fuites  ​​​​ Le Clézio introduces this militant in the following manner: ‘Belisano Dominguez was a deputy. To wreck vengeance on him, Victoriano Huerta made him a prisoner. Then he tore out his tongue ( L F, 279). Indeed, in 1913 ​​ the politician, Belisario Dominguez, had condemned Huerta’s crimes in his speeches which, judged ​​ politically subversive, ​​ were turned down by the president. He therefore decided to print and distribute them widely, an act which led to his assassination.

The references to Chiapas in Le Clézio’s work are all associated with a ​​ condemnation of the ​​ intrusion ​​ of foreigners into the lives of the Amerindians. The writer’s own aquaintance with this region goes back as far as 1968, the year of his discovery of Mexico. This encounter is so memorable (Mayer, 1998, 36) that the name, Chiapas, figures in most of Le Clézio’s texts belonging to the Mexican cycle. These include Le Livre des fuites (1969),L’inconnu sur la terre (1978), Le Rêve mexicain ou la pensée interrompue((1988), La Fête chantée et autres essais du (de)thème amérindien (1997) ​​ and Ourania(2006). Amongst these works, Le Livre des fuites published shortly after Le Clézio’s discovery of Chiapas, is the text most heavily influenced by Amerindian culture. The final chapter of the novel describes the arrival of Hogan at the little village of Belisaro Dominguez in Chiapas. Initially, the peaceful atmosphere of the village creates an impression of euphoria, one however that is later dispelled when Hogan realises that this ‘abominable peace’is the outcome of a disease that renders people blind. He discovers later that, in spite of this disease being transmitted by mosquitoes on the coffee plantations, the owners refrain from spraying the plantations with DDT, as that would ‘ make the crop more expensive for them’ (LF, 281) In the moving description of the state in which the population found itself, ​​ Le Clézio denounces their cruel exploitation as one of the outcomes of the intrusion of the conquerors. The invasion of the mosquitoes, rendering the Amerindians in a similar state of dead and alive, can be compared to that of the colonialists who have deprived them of their freedom: ‘Their opaque eyes are closed on the war, leaving room for a peace which is insane, a peace that is worse than war. A calm suffering bears down with all its weight on the village. It is a strangled cry suppressed within the body and all the more devastating’ (LF, 24).

The silence reigning over the village recalls Le Clézio’s lament in ​​ Le Rêve mexicain ​​ (RM, 212-213) : ‘ it is without doubt one of the greatest dramas of humanity’ (RM, 212-218) ​​ as it ​​ the deprives ​​ the Amerindian of the ​​ ‘right to think’ (RM, 212-218). It is for this reason and also to illustrate ​​ that it is a question of a ‘clash of ideas and cultures’ rather than ​​ just of ‘peoples and races’ (RM, 190) that Le Clézio chose the State of Chiapas ‘(RM, 190) .Indeed, one of the causes for ​​ this deep division between ​​ the materialistic culture of the colonialists and the ‘primitive culture’ of the Amerindians ​​ lies in ​​ their ​​ very different approaches to the religious question: ​​ for the Tzendales of Chiapas, religion ‘is never divorced from the real world as it gives expression to the identity of a clan, of a tribe’ (RM,181). Similarly, ‘the priest is more than an intermediary, he is himself a god’ (RM,183). This explains why ‘most of the rebellions, especially in Chiapas, are led by spiritual leaders who are opposed to the Christianity of the Spanish and preach the return of ancestral traditions’ (RM, 182). The violent rebellion of Lacondas provides an example (RM, 182).

Reading the descriptions of Palenque, the impressive Mayan city, would ​​ make it difficult not to dream. Its construction may go back to the year 100 before J.-C., but most of the monuments, the most famous being ​​ the Palais royal and the ​​ Temple des Inscriptions, were constructed between ​​ 600 and 700 AD., that is, during ​​ the reign of the famous king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Kops, 2008, 8). The word Palenque is the Spanish equivalent of Otolum (‘Land of sturdy houses’), the name given by the Chol Mayas to the city. Lying at the heart of the tropical forest and enjoying a special atmosphere, the site attracts many travellers to Chiapas. ​​ Le Clézio views it as ‘one of the most prestigious sites in the world’ (OU, 280). In L’inconnu sur la terre, he sings the beauty of temple ruins by offering us a beautiful description of the site. However, the passage reminds us of an absence, that of one of the most prodigious civilizations of humanity: ‘The temples deserted by men and the gods are now the home of insects.’ (IT,177).



Maryam Sheibanian

Translated by Bronwen Martin






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