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Social Development and Theater in Indigenous Chiapas

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- “Alcoholism, poverty, violence, I think that those things are made bigger by economic strife,” spoke Rachael Albers, an education/ theater social activist from the USA who has been working in Chiapas for the past couple of years. I was interviewing Rachael as part of an investigations into the various cultural spheres of Chiapas, and she was laid out for me the socio/ political/ historical background of Chalchihuitan, an indigenous community an hour and a half north of San Cristobal, where she coordinates a theater group of young women, called Las Jades, in conjunction with the local high school.

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- “Alcoholism, poverty, violence, I think that those things are made bigger by economic strife,” spoke Rachael Albers, an education/ theater social activist from the USA who has been working in Chiapas for the past couple of years.

I was interviewing Rachael as part of my investigations into the various cultural spheres of Chiapas, and she was laying out for me the socio/ political/ historical background of Chalchihuitan, an indigenous community an hour and a half north of San Cristobal, where she coordinates a theater group of young women, called Las Jades,  in conjunction with the local high school.


The municipality of Chalchihuitan has a population of around 12,000 people, the great majority of them being Tzotzil Maya — indigenous people who are the direct descendants of those who have been living in the Central Highlands of Chiapas for the past 1,700+ years.

The relationship between the modern Maya and outsiders has rarely ever been a smooth one. More than often, the indigenous people of Mexico have found themselves marginalized or exploited by the Spanish, Ladinos, and Mestizos in turn for the past 500 years. This is never more evident than in the fact that the history of the Tzotzil, who are one of 12 recognized ethnicities in Chiapas, has been wrought with regular uprisings, with major rebellions occurring in 1528, 1712, 1868, and 1994. Inequitable land distribution, amongst labor and other abuses, were often the impetus behind these uprising — problems which have not been resolved to this very day.

Likewise, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico and has the largest disparity in wealth distribution. Indigenous people make up roughly a million of the five million people in the state. According to Mexican government data, 42.76% of the Chiapan population aged over 15 has not completed primary school, and 20.4% has not received any kind of formal education. 27.9% of indigenous men are illiterate, as are 50.1% of the women. Per capita, indigenous people earn 32% of what non-indigenous people earn in the state. A third of Chiapas’ indigenous population does not speak Spanish. In 1994, malnutrition was the sixth leading cause of death among indigenous people. In 2008, it was estimated that  70% of the indigenous population of Chiapas suffer malnutrition. The indigenous infant mortality rate is 75 deaths per 1000 — for scale, this number is 4.3 in the United States.

“In the Americas you have 500 years of oppression of the indigenous. Punto,” Rachael sums up the situation. “So that division is 500 years old and has not really improved at all. Before the Zapatistas, places like Chalchihuitan were completely ignored, their problems were just swept under the rug, no one gave a shit, they just built a high school there. They just built a high school,” she repeated for emphasis. “Chalchihuitan is one of the poorest communities,” she continued, “it also has a lot of violence as far as land disputes.”

Rachael then began to tell me about the town’s struggle with sexual abuse, rape, and alcoholism. “It’s poor as hell and there is really nothing to do there but get wasted. If you don’t have enough money to feed your family, and life is hard, and you’re working 16 hours a day and it doesn’t even matter — what are you going to do? You’re going to get drunk.”

My initial reaction was to stem her justification of drinking problems in the village with a strain of counter-logic, but, though I did not wish to admit it, I knew that she was more or less correct: there is a pattern around the world of poverty and alcohol abuse going together in a vicious cycle, one ever worsening the other.

“In Chalchihuitan,” Rachael continued, “you either work in the campo (in agriculture) or maybe you will have a store in town. Other than that there is nothing to do. Women are closed in the house, they are not educated. A few of my girls are married, and now that they’re married (they are still in their teens) they have to ask for their husband’s permission before coming to rehearsals.”

This was my introduction to Chalchihuitan, a place in the mountains of Chiapas that houses a culture that has been more or less battered, exploited, and left for dead throughout the last five centuries of its history — but it is also a culture that refuses to die, and holds fast to its ancient identity. A community working through internal problems while meeting the globalized world head on — a culture forced into transition — is what I was looking at.

As I listed to Rachael speak, it became clear that she works in Chalchihuitan not as a flag bearer of cultural imperialism, but as an inter-cultural liaison: someone whose work is meant to help bridge the gap between the somewhat removed world of the rural Maya and the bulldozer of neo-liberal expansion that is barreling down upon them.

The Maya of Chiapas, generally speaking, have not been hanging out in some high altitude paradise like an un-contacted tribe since time immemorial. No, they have had a history of conflict with a succession of outside groups, have contended with feudal-like land distribution systems, and have often been pretty much marginalized by various external political and business initiatives up until this very day. The problems that are evident in their contemporary culture — in my opinion — in large part reflects the trials of their history.

Youth in transition

“There is little opportunity unless you become a Mestizo,” Rachael explained. “The only jobs that really exist in the community are labor jobs, and so kids don’t have any examples of what it’s like when you go to college and what you can do. If you do go to college, you leave. You go to somewhere like D.F. (Mexico City) where they can pay you.”

“So a lot of the young people are leaving?” I asked.

“Yes,” she responded sharply, “the brightest young people see no reason to stay, they see no opportunity. A lot of the girls in my school who have graduated, who have never been outside of town, move to Cancun, to D.F. because they hear these things about how life can be better there. So the community is staying stagnant because there are no opportunities for growth.”

“Is there is a notion in the community that there are other opportunities on the outside?” I asked.

“There is a vague, foggy idea, a dream,” Rachael began. “We really want one of the brightest girls [in the high school] to get into college, but it’s hard because her family is kind of resistant to it. She will say things to us like ‘I have dreams and I hope that I can fulfill them, I hope I can make my dreams happen.'”

“It is really interesting,” Rachael continued, “because American kids are told — it’s almost a lie — that you can do anything you put your mind to. These kids don’t get that message, they don’t get the message that they are capable of doing whatever they put their mind to. No, they’re like ‘maybe I could do something a little bit better than what I’m doing here’ but it’s not like ‘I’m gonna be a _____, I’m gonna be the president of Mexico, I’m gonna be a basketball star.’ No, there isn’t that altitude of dreams.”

“Is there conflict in the community over the young people moving away?” I questioned.

Rachael nodded in the affirmative. “The older people in the community are like, ‘why would you need to do anything more than you have here?’ Education can be viewed as a threat because it is taking the young people away, because educated people are associated with Mestizo culture, and Mestizos are known to be connected with the government, and the government is known to oftentimes lie and manipulate people. A lot of people [in Chalchihuitan] are reluctant to have their young people go and join that system and turn their backs on the community.”

The division between the indigenous people and the mestizos of Mexico is a cultural one first, a racial one second. As Rachel said, it is possible for the kids in Chalchihuitan to leave the community, move to Cancun, DF, or another large city, leave their indigenous clothing, customs, and language behind, and essentially become a part of the mestizo system. “That is the easy way to do it,” Rachael admitted. The racial lines in Mexico between mestizo and indigenous are slim, but the cultural gulf is vast. As the globalized world has hit Chiapas head on, the lure of escaping the poverty of the indigenous communities for what is shown as being brighter on the other side of the cultural divide dangles before many of the Maya youth. Making this cultural shift is in no way easy, but it seems to be vastly less challenging than entering the mestizo world as Maya.

“Do you think that there are real opportunities that these kids could have in Chalchihuitan while maintaining their indigenous identities?” I asked Rachael bluntly.

“Yeah,” she replied without hesitation, “there are opportunities for these kids but they are going to have to blaze their own trails.”

Some of the kids that worked in Rachael’s theater group have blazed these trails, but others have gone away just to return. When this happens, reintegration back into the community is sometimes an additional challenge.

Rachael told me about a couple of girls who recently went away to D.F. for work, but soon returned to Chalchihuitan. “It’s like their fire has gone out,” she explained. “I saw one of them the other day, she was taking care of her sister’s baby and she looked like something had died within her.”

Rachel continued: “Another girl went to DF all fiery and full of hope and full of excitement and came back a women. She went a girl and she came back a woman,” Rachael emphasized. “I think she sees a lot of problems in her community and she feels a lot of despair. She was like, ‘I never go out with my friends anymore, I don’t even leave the house, I can’t handle the gossip, I can’t talk to the people anymore, they are gossiping about me.’ She is at a tipping point where if she doesn’t get a big push from the people who care about her she is going to get married and go and work in the campo, and that will be her life. She is like: ‘I don’t want to do it.’

I then asked Rachael how common it is for the kids in Chalchihuitan to leave the town to and go to college, to pursue the education that they are now being encouraged to reach for. Rachael explained that this does happen, but admitted that it is not very common. She explained how the public universities in Mexico do not operate with any sort of affirmative action: if you don’t pass the entrance exams, you don’t get in. But these exams don’t take into account the fact that many indigenous and other poor youth did not grow up with access to quality education. There wasn’t even a high school in Chalchihuitan up until a few years ago. Thus, many indigenous kids have a difficult time passing the entrance examinations, and the public universities are therefore off limits to them. Though there are private universities in Mexico that the Maya kids could go to, but it would mean paying “thousands of pesos a month,” an option that is not often viable in a town as impoverished as Chalchihuitan.

“This is the problem we have now,” Rachael spoke, “there is no college prep program in the school.”

Theater for exploring social issues

Photo by Rachael Albers, www.rkainla.com.

“We use theater to explore issues like violence, alcoholism, health, sexuality, identity,” Rachael described the program that she runs in Chalchihuitan. “I focus on art as a tool for education and empowerment.”

Rachael explained that she uses the methodology of the Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical spin off of the philosophy put forth in Paulo Freire’s Pedogogy of the Oppressed, that was first engineered by Agusta Boal. This method of performance art uses drama to explore social issues in the context in which they occur. The audience in such performances are not passive observers, but, as Boal put it, “spect-actors” as they participate, explore, and raise issues along with the actors in the play.

“This tool I use is just a tool,” Rachael explained. “I don’t come in with a question or an answer. I come in with a tool, and the community identifies the problem and the community identifies a potential solution. So that is one way that anyone can help, whether they are from town or not, and be an advocate without imposing.”

I then asked what the end game was for her theater work in Chalchihuitan.

“Social theater . . . is an alternative to traditional activism and organizing. The goal is 1) self esteem, it is a way of building these girl’s self esteem; 2) self-expression, which is highly deemphasized or discouraged in the community, and without the ability to think creatively these students are being limited in their ability to solve their own problems and engage in the Mestizo/ globalized world. The idea is to give students skills to think outside the box, and then giving them the means to respond to the problems they confront in their communities. Creating thinking skills, problem solving skills are vital. If you are only taught to think in a box then you are basically just taught how to be a good soldier of the system.”

“These girls,” Rachael continued, “I tell them: ‘you are actresses, you are writers, you are directors’ and they are really excited about it.”

“What are the topics of the plays?” I asked.

“We are doing plays about their culture, I’m not bringing them Shakespeare or American authors, we are not doing plays about living in a fancy apartment. No, we are doing plays about their lives and about things that are important to them, their history. This is my way of saying who you are matters, we don’t want to lose this [their culture], so we are not going to only do our plays in Spanish but we are going to do them in Spanish and Tzotzil.”

“It’s the idea of giving cultural support,” she concluded.

The future for the indigenous in Mexico

“What do you think the future holds?” I asked Rachael “Do you think these kids can make the transition and face the globalized world with their indigenous identities intact?”

“Yes,” she replied, “because I think they have a lot of really great examples in the communities that surround them, and the education of the young people is a big step in the right direction. I have a lot of ideas about how things could get better, but I’m against me coming in and saying: ‘you guys have this problem, let me tell you how to fix it.'”

“One of the things we are trying to do is create leadership opportunities for the students,” Rachael continued, “so they have an incentive to see opportunities where they can make change, which is why we are also pushing them to get college educations.”

“Do you think the community needs your help?” I asked a question that had been burning in my mouth since the beginning of the interview. “Do you ever think the indigenous people of Chiapas would be better off left alone?”

“Yes, I think the community needs help because of globalization,” Rachael responded without taking offence. “Capitalism is here to stay. The government has its hands on Chalchihuitan now, the government is starting to implement projects there, so we are at the point of no return. If everyone like me leaves town that doesn’t mean that they [the Maya] are going to be left alone. They are not going to be left alone. There are still going to be conflicts with the government and with other communities over land, and there is always going to be some foreign money coming in. One day, Chalchihuitan is going to look attractive to some developer for some reason.”

The data backs Rachael up. In 2005, the highlands of Chiapas experienced the highest level of marginalization in all of Mexico. Marginalization being officially defined as, “a population which does not enjoy the use of goods and services essential to the development of its physical capacities.” No doubt this trend has continued.

“There are lots of government organizations coming into town doing projects to teach people how to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps,'” Rachael spoke with a touch of sarcasm in her voice. “The idea is that some of these government workers will [someday] be from Chalchihuitan and they will get into the government and they will come into the community and do these projects, rather than it being only outsiders and people who don’t understand fully how the community runs.”

“For me,” Rachael spoke, “it’s about creating an environment and a space for people where they feel empowered to start solving their own problems. The idea for the program I’m running is to eventually leave it — for it to be self sustaining. I want to pull out. The idea is that you go in, you become part of the community, you implement something sustainable, and the community takes it over, and it is the community’s.”

Read more about Rachael Albers’ projects in Chiapas on her blog at RKAinLA.com. 


Filed under: Culture and Society, Indigenous People, Mexico, Social Issues

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Harold D November 27, 2011, 10:59 am

    The idea of being a cultural liaison is interesting. It sort of explains a little of what all those NGOs are doing.

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