A break dancer in San Cristobal
I knew instantly that I’d misread the situation as I stood there with 50 pesos in my outstretched hand. His look, scornful and indignant, accompanied by a vehement shake of his head said “fuck off, I don’t want your money” as clearly as the words themselves. I had been enjoying an evening walk in the central plaza of San Cristobal when we came across a group of teenagers break dancing in a smooth marble corridor. Their casual yet exuberant athleticism was incredible. I assumed they were street performers looking for tips, I just just couldn’t see the hat lying around. I’d just discovered how wrong I was: they were just here for the love of their art.
I find nuance to be challenging. In Mexico it’s been easy to just kind of passively assume that everything has a financial angle. So many things do. Getting shut down like that stung, and I instantly started an internal monologue in defense of my best intentions. Since monologues aren’t that productive, I decided to bring an imagined version of this young man into the conversation. This changed my perspective right away. The westernization of non-western places is at once a blessing and a curse. The influx of tourist money and international interest in a place undoubtedly enriches aspects of that place, and creates work opportunities in an environment where they are desperately needed. On the other hand, there’s a certain presumption that we bring with us. We come, with our week of vacation and some money in our pockets, looking for authenticity and access. This leads to the commodification of culture and experience. We don’t have the time or emotional availability to invest in real connection, so we fall back on money. For the people who call these places their home, there is sometimes a sense of resentment, even violation, around the laying bare of those traditions and art forms that have deep intrinsic importance in exchange for cash.
I’m not claiming that break dancing is an ancient indigenous tradition (although it might be — I actually have no idea how break dancing started). Rather, I was wrapped up in the commodification of culture, unquestioningly assuming the role of a buyer, albeit a well-intentioned one, who was abruptly reminded that in Mexico people still do things just for the love of creative and communal experience. Even in one of Mexico’s poorest states, where jobs have long been relatively scarce and average incomes are low, not everything is for sale.
Once I started paying attention I saw this over and over again over the course of a week in Chiapas. The women in the plaza with the woven shawls and ponchos would happily sell to you, but they would often keep their smiles. Visitors were welcome during the Holy Week ceremonies in Chamula, but you could only watch that sea of candles, incense, and people from the surrounding villages from the shore — there was no getting in the water. There is a fierceness of spirit, an insistent dignity in the face of massive external change, that makes Chiapas an incredibly beautiful, and challenging, place to visit. When I return back I’ll bring an extra dose of humility with me, ready to learn once again from its people.
I still can’t believe how many full rotations that kid was able to pull off spinning around on just the top of his head, arms crossed, daring anyone else around him to even be half as good.