by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
“It is the word which is the bridge to cross to the other. Silence is what the powerful offer our pain in order to make us small. When we are silenced we remain very much alone. Speaking heals the pain. Speaking we accompany one another. The powerful uses the word to impose his empire of silence. We use the word to renew ourselves. The powerful use the silence to hide his crimes. We use silence to listen to one another, to touch one another, to know one another.” – from Zapatista Encuentro: Documents from the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism
The lights flickered on and the doors of the bus abruptly opened. We had stopped on some back highway in southern Mexico. I had no idea what state or town we were in. I pulled the bandanna I used to cover my face when I try to sleep down and struggled to open my eyes and look out the window to see why we had stopped. It was a checkpoint. Military? Police? Two armed, uniformed men came on the bus. My heart started racing.
At this point, Michelle and many of the other passengers were waking up too. I noticed there was no sense of alarm or unease from many other passengers. I guess this was normal. The two officers were checking peoples’ identification and passports. I scrambled to find mine. In my confusion and current state of anxiety, my thoughts darted all over the place. My thoughts raced back to 2006 when I took a Greyhound bus from Utica, NY to Chicago for the founding convention of the new Students for a Democratic Society. Immigration officers from ICE boarded our bus in Rochester, NY. We were nowhere near the border with Canada, but there they were, with looks in their eyes that were filled with rage and mistrust. They asked for identification from every Latino and Black person on the bus, but nobody else. I despised La Migra – the ICE agents. That would not be my last encounter with them.
I came back to the present. The Mexican officers were sweeping down the aisle and checking for ID, one by one. I finally found my passport and my travel visa. I looked to my left and saw that Michelle had hers clutched in her hands. We briefly looked at each other, not knowing what would happen, not wanting the officers to catch on to our unease, our anxiety. Would they question us? I knew we were not going to tell any officials about our plans to join up with the Zapatistas. If we did that, or if these officers found out, I was certain we would be whisked off the bus.
One of the officers finally came to us, picked up our passports and visas and looked down at us. When he peered down at me, I swear I felt my heart stop, for a moment. And in that moment my thoughts jumped back to 2007 at the ferry crossing from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I was separated by the border guards from the hundreds of people who came off the ferry and placed in a back room with several other people, most of whom were Muslim or Asian. The Canadian immigration officer who took me to yet another back room demanded to know if I was going to any protests, what political groups I was in, what my purpose in Canada was. My passport was confiscated. I was threatened with jail time. They let me out on my own recognizance for a few hours to wait for the next ferry to come. When that time arrived, I was swiftly deported from Canada and stranded in rural Washington State. That was my first but not my last detention at a border crossing.
“Gracias, señor.” He handed my passport back to me. Then Michelle’s to her. He moved on to the next person. I sighed with relief and started to breathe again. The officials left the bus a few minutes later and waved us on. I fell asleep again, thinking about borders, about checkpoints, trying to envision a world without them. The bus continued on into the blackness of the night.
I slowly opened my eyes as the bus rolled its way into the sleepy town of Palenque in Mexico’s southern-most state of Chiapas. The lights inside the bus turned on as the driver announced we were pulling in to the town. There were no military checkpoints here. Michelle and I stepped off the bus and into the pre-dawn humidity that seemed to wrap around us like a thick, damp blanket. It took us a little time to plan out our day. Our bus rolled out of the ADO station. Another bus rolled in. The side of the bus facing us was scrawled with graffiti: “Viven los 43 de Ayotzinapa!” I wanted to take a picture but Michelle and I did not want to draw any unnecessary attention our way. We were still jarred from the checkpoint.
We left our bags at the station and ventured outside as the sun was rising. We found a collectivo that was heading up to the ruins. We crammed inside the collectivo that was packed tight with local workers. It never really happens to me but I felt a little carsick as the vehicle raced up a hill and made several stops to both drop off and pick up more workers. The driver sped around a curve here, a curve there, and the buildings gave way to a dense forest. We were in the jungles of Chiapas.
It was finally our turn to get off. We paid our entrance fee, grabbed some maps and started walking down a path surrounded by trees and plants I had only seen in pictures prior to that moment. We could see some light ahead – a clearing in the jungle. We walked to it and out into the open. And there it was. The ancient Maya ruins of Palenque. Towering structures, pyramids, and buildings that were built many centuries ago. Palenque, which is the Spanish name given to what may have been called Lakhama by the Maya, was first settled by humans about 2,100 years ago. The height of power and civilization in Palenque peaked from around 630 CE – 740 CE and the ruins date from 226 CE to 799 CE. It was one of many cities that made up the powerful ancient Maya civilization. How could words describe the beauty before my eyes?
As I walked around the ruins I was immediately struck by a strange feeling and fell into a heavy silence for the rest of the day. Something startling dawned on me: my complete ignorance of ancient Maya history and culture. I know some of the basic facts but I was raised in a culture and society that taught me from a very young age that this history is not important. What is important, I was taught, is European history, Western civilization, Rome, England, France, Anglo-America, Columbus, Cortés, Washington… I had never heard of Janaab Pakal, K’uk Balam, K’an Joy Chitam, Yohl Ik’nal, or any of the other Maya leaders I read about that day. I still have much work to do to un-school and de-condition what was forced on me for years. I knew very little of this ancient history, of these descendants of today’s Zapatistas. So I walked in silence and listened.
I listened to the sounds of the jungle that hugged the ruins tightly, like a mother lovingly holding her child. I listened to the insects, the birds, the monkeys – sounds I was so unfamiliar with. I listened to the water running down the walks, the footsteps of the people, the wind kissing the trees. I listened to the words of the Maya vendors who were setting up for the day, placing their wares they would sell to the throng of tourists that would flood Palenque in a few short hours. I listened to Palenque. I was there as a guest. I was there in Chiapas to join, briefly, the movement that gave a voice to the voiceless Maya, the Zapatistas, and learn from them. That was my purpose for coming to Meixco. I knew I would learn something from discussion and dialogue with the Zapatistas, from meeting them in person. I had no idea I would learn from Palenque which spoke to me softly and in whispers, in a language I did not know. Still, I listened.
Michelle and I started to climb up one of the pyramids. A little Maya boy followed us. He was shoe-less and his clothes were dirty. He started talking to us and Michelle asked him a few questions. He showed us a collection of necklaces he was trying to sell us with Maya symbols on them. ¿Cuándo es tu cumpleaños? He wanted to know my birthday. I told him and he picked out a necklace from the pile he had and gave it to me. He told me it was a blessing for my family. I paid him and thanked him. We talked a little more and he walked away from us out into the open, under the hot, sweltering sun.
“I feel weird being here,” Michelle said. “I want to stay here and capture their stories.” Michelle told me a number of times how strange it was to be a tourist. I felt out of place too. I was at a loss for words. This little boy had a story to share. Palenque had a story to share. So too did Chiapas, the Maya, the Zapatistas. We were only able to pick up fragments of the story, one that was denied to us our whole lives, one my society told me is not important, or worse and at times, does not even exist. I looked at the necklace and put it in my pocket. I wondered how much food he and his family could get with what I paid him. I thought about his little feet, walking all day without any shoes. I thought about what had to change in the world to destroy this crushing poverty. The Zapatistas had their vision, one that resonates with me. But what do we have to do to change this world? How do we get there and what will it look like? I thought and I thought and I thought.
It turns out that Palenque had in fact spoken to me, in whispers, softly, and in a language I did not understand initially. But I picked up on words entangled in the whispers. Palenque told me to question this society we live in. Palnque told me to look for answers. Palenque used silence so I could touch the world around me, so I could know.
And again, as quickly as we had arrived, it seemed, we were leaving. Another bus beckoned for us to travel with it. After what was going to be a grueling ride on one of Mexico’s most dangerous highways, we would later find ourselves deeper in the heart of Chiapas. We were going to the city I had always dreamed of, where the Zapatistas rose up in rebellion on January 1, 1994. San Cristobal de Las Casas, encircled by mountains, soaked with rain, enveloped by fog, this would be our next stop. And from there we would venture into the Zapatista village of Oventic where the words spoken to me in Palenque would surface once again. I had never been so profoundly shaken by silence before.