Mexican tourist brochures usually have at least one picture of a brown-skinned man with very long, black hair, wearing something like a white, knee-length cotton tunic. Probably the man holds a bow and some arrows, for this picture is of a Lacandon Indian, an inhabitant of the Selva Lacandón, or Lacandon Jungle, of the lowlands of northeastern Chiapas. Lacandons are considered to be the most "primitive" of all of Mexico's indigenous peoples.
On television and in the press the Lacandons are much romanticized. Present-day Lacandons are descendants of the ancient Maya who a thousand years ago built a great civilization, the hallmarks of which are the pyramids and temples that today can be seen at the ruins of Palenque and Bonampak here in Chiapas, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal in Yucatán, and Tikal and El Mirador in Guatemala. When you ask a Lacandon what language he speaks, instead of replying with a name like Tzotzil or Chol, which are languages or dialects deriving from the ancient Maya, the Lacandons simply reply, "Maya."
The ancient Maya were divided into many subgroups and these subgroups often were at war with other Indian nations and one another. At least some Maya practiced human sacrifices and one source for their sacrificial victims were the prisoners-of-war taken during raids on neighboring villages. Apparently the Lacandons were a Maya subgroup who went deep into the jungle, perhaps to escape this very persecution.
There, the Lacandons' isolation preserved them from the fate suffered by other indigenous peoples who were exterminated or enslaved by the invading Spanish.
Today only a few more than 300 Lacandons survive, and most of them are as familiar with the outside world as many Tzotzil speakers within just a few miles of Yerba Buena. Anthropologists, film makers, writers, and wide-ranging hippies from France, Germany and the U.S. have visited them too much.
Hidalgo is an Adventist Lacandon who now comes to Yerba Buena for treatment of a tumor on his left arm. Pastor Bercián and he are old friends, for the Pastor has visited his village pulling teeth. Wanting to talk to Hidalgo, I ask the Pastor to come along, and even to do the taping, since I fear that Hidalgo might be reticent talking with a foreigner. But what I find is that the Pastor and Hidalgo zip through the interview like jaded professionals. The Pastor, already knowing the highlights of Hidalgo's story, asks questions that get right to the point; Hidalgo, knowing what is expected of him, supplies answers that somehow seem rehearsed. Instead of being intimidated by the tape recorder, Hidalgo hardly can hide his boredom. Here's how the interview goes:
PASTOR: "At what age were you baptized into the Adventist Church?"
HIDALGO: "Eighteen. I'm thirty-two now."
PASTOR: "What did you eat before you were baptized into the Adventist Church?"
HIDALGO: "We ate filthy bodies (in Spanish, cuerpos sucios). Javalinas (wild pigs), parrots, scarlet macaws, frogs, snakes... "
PASTOR: "What did you do with your idols when you received the Word of God?"
HIDALGO: "We carried them to a cave on the other side of the lake. We used to feed them, but they really didn't eat. We'd put into their mouths pozol (a bread-like paste usually made of corn and eaten by many indigenous cultures in Mexico and Central America). The idol was just a head made of clay, below which there was a basin. In the basin we'd burn incense made from pine-tree resin and ask for the idol's blessing. But the idol didn't know how to bless anything.
PASTOR: "What happened when a baby was born with a disease, or maybe a blemish such as a crooked foot?"
HIDALGO: "It was killed. We said that it wouldn't live, so it was killed."
PASTOR: "What did you do with your wives before you knew Christ?"
HIDALGO: "We hit them. Sometimes there'd be discontentment in the house, so we'd hit them. Maybe a man would have four wives. So when evangelism came, the man chose the youngest woman, my mother. The older ones would stay in the house, but the man wouldn't sleep with them. Also, before we knew Jesus, whenever men wanted to, they would exchange wives among themselves."
PASTOR: "In earlier times did you use medicinal plants from the jungle?"
HIDALGO: "We used many. But not now. Only the old people know how to do that. Now we don't know much. Just one for snakebite."
PASTOR: "Did your people used to get drunk a lot?"
HIDALGO: "They always got drunk. They made their drink from sugarcane and the bark of another plant that in Maya is called baché. It was strong. People stayed drunk a lot."
PASTOR: "Would you like to live in a big city like Tuxtla?"
HIDALGO: "No. In the jungle it's better, where there's no sound of trucks, and you can breathe air and hear birds."
PASTOR: "What do you do when you go into the forest?"
HIDALGO: "Hunt deer and faisán (great curassow)."
PASTOR: "Many years ago, how did your people get their money?"
HIDALGO: "They didn't know about money."
PASTOR: "Many years ago, when a baby was born, how was its umbilical cord cut?"
HIDALGO: "With the edge of an arrow's head."
PASTOR: "Among your people, did brothers and sisters once marry one another?"
HIDALGO: "They used to, but not now. Well, I know a couple who five years ago married. But their children turned out alright."
PASTOR: "What's going to happen to the Lacandons?"
HIDALGO: "Who knows? Already many of us put on shoes and trousers and cut their hair short, like yours. They don't want to be Lacandon any more. But the government says that we need to keep our hair long so people will know who we are. Who knows?"