Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chiapas Part 11: San Cristóbal's vivid street markets

Colorfully woven baskets were on display at the craft market near Templo Santo Domingo. It is impossible to approach the Templo without passing the booths of the large mercado (market) that almost completely surrounds the church on its broad stone platform. When we visited San Cristóbal de las Casas, the market was open every day. As far as I know, it operates year-round, seven days per week. The Maya have been master craftspeople for centuries, and their goods are not only well-made and lovely, but relatively inexpensive. In this posting, we will visit both the Templo's mercado and the nearby Mercado Municipal.

The mercado at Templo Santo Domingo

A Maya woman and her two daughters shop at the mercado. They are dressed in gorgeously woven and embroidered huipils (blouses) and skirts. The woman is wearing a tzute (shawl) around her shoulders. The design of their clothing indicates that they may be from the nearby village of Zinacantan. You can get a sense of their small stature by comparing it with the European tourist approaching from the opposite direction.

Typical booths at the mercado are filled to overflowing with brilliantly colored goods. Here, you could purchase adult and children's clothing as well as candy, wax candles, and other items. The proprietor was absent when I happened by. He or she was probably grabbing a bite at one of the neighboring food boths or visiting with another vendor. Had I hung about and looked interested, someone would have quickly appeared to attempt a sale.

Intricately woven macrame belts create cascades of color. As complex as the designs on these belts are, the craftspeople can weave them with surprising rapidity.

A mask-maker's booth caught my eye. I was attracted by the imaginative woodwork and paint designs on these small masks. The owner of the booth was also the craftsman. Use of masks for festivals and religious activities goes far back into pre-hispanic history and indigenous communities all over Mexico continue these traditions. Carole and I collect masks and I made note of the booth's location the first time I visited the mercado. Shortly before our stay in San Cristóbal ended, I returned  and selected a mask in the form of a deer's head with delicately carved antlers. It is now displayed on our living room wall in Ajijic.

Finely embroidered sashes display Maya artistry. These are worn with the Maya women's ankle-length skirts. The vivid colors contrast nicely with the skirts, which are usually black.

A selection of baskets, gourd bowls, and maracas was arranged along a stone wall. The mercado extended out along the streets beside the Templo. Jícara (calabash) gourds have made ideal containers for indigenous people all over Mexico for centuries. Some of the smaller gourds seen above have been made into small sonajas (rattles) with wood handles. The sonajas are filled with seeds to create their sound.

After visiting the mercado, a Maya woman strolls along Avenida 20 de Noviembre. This photo shows the beauty of Maya clothing as it is worn, not just as seen on a rack. These are not "dress up" outfits, kept only for special occasions, but are day-to-day clothing.

Mercado Municipal

We noticed fancy red trucks like this all around the Mercado Municipal. They belong to people who bring produce, flowers, and other goods from the surrounding villages. The individual owners spruce them up with fancy paint jobs, loads of chrome, lights, and painted designs. Visiting the Mercado Municipal is a delightful experience. It offers fruits, vegetables, flowers, medicinal herbs, crafts, and many day-to-day necessities. The Mercado is located only one block north of the Templo Santo Domingo on Avenida 20 de Noviembre. For a Google map of the area, click here.  On the map, the Mercado Municipal is shown as Mercado Viejo.

The Mercado was packed, in spite of threatened rain. The people milling about included Maya in traditional dress, Ladinos (non-Maya Mexicans), and foreign tourists like ourselves. August is the rainy season, but a little precipitation didn't seem to slow anyone down. Goods were displayed in the open on the flagstone plaza, and also in booths set under umbrellas and canopies. I find traditional markets fascinating and very entertaining. Their history goes back very far, well before the construction of the great urban centers of pre-hispanic Mexico. With the advent of cities, the ancient rulers of places like Chichen Itza in Yucatan and Tenochtitlán in Central Mexico set aside special areas for public markets. Early European visitors described scenes in those ancient markets that were very similar to what you see above.

I was dazzled by the riot of color at this flower stall. The cool, moist climate of Chiapas' mountains is ideal for growing a wide variety of flowers. The Maya growers bring their flowers from their villages to local markets like this, but also use their red trucks to haul them to far-away Yucatan and other distant locations.

Fresh chicken, anyone? These birds are pretty fresh and it is likely that they were pecking in the dirt only a few hours previously. When you buy a "whole" chicken in a market like this, you literally get the whole chicken: head, beak claws and all. The only thing lacking is feathers and you could probably get those too, if you wanted them.

Some basic elements of the Mexican diet. Above you see many of the fruits and vegetables commonly found in Mexican kitchens. The tomatoes, peppers, chiles, and tuna (fruit of the nopal cactus) are native to Mexico and have been consumed since the earliest times. The garlic in the center basket is the only item shown that Hernán Cortez and his Conquistadores would not have seen when they toured the great market of Tenochtitlán. He described the mercado this way:

"This town has many squares on which there are always markets, and in which they buy and sell. But there is another, twice the size of the town of Salamanca, completely surrounded by arcades where every day there are more than sixty thousand souls who buy and sell, and where there are all kinds of merchandize from all the provinces, whether it is in provisions or jewels of gold and silver."

Hairy balls of rambutan fruit filled a stand in a side aisle. Rambutan grow on an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia. They have become very popular in Mexico and can be found in markets throughout the country. Although it looks spiky, the hairs are soft and the red covering is easily peeled, revealing a soft, sweet, white fruit inside. The presence of rambutan fruit in the remote mountains of Chiapas attests to the long reach of globalization.

In addition to the mercado's open plaza, there are several rows of long, narrow aisles. The aisles extend at lest two city blocks each, and are usually packed with people. When Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo visited one of these markets in 1520, he was dumbfounded:

"When we reached the great square called Tateluco, as we had never seen anything like it, we stood amazed at the infinity of people and goods, and by the method and regularity of everything."

Fresh, whole shrimp lay in a great mound on a broad table. Camarones (shrimp) are very popular in Mexico and are offered in a wide variety of dishes on the menus of many restaurants. Twenty-five percent of the world's farmed shrimp come from Latin America and Mexico is one of the major producers.

Jícara bowls made from calabash gourds were piled high in another section of the mercado. The calabash fruit grows on a tree known in Mexico as the higuera but its botanical name is Crescentia cujete. Pre-hispanic people found many uses for the calabash and modern Mexicans still use them in much the same ways. In addition to jícara bowls and cups, the calabash shell is used for musical instruments, and the pulp is sometimes made into a medicinal drink for flu and colds.

Yellow and green habanero chiles were offered at this booth. I was impressed by the artistic flair of the vendor who created this arrangement. The habaneros are carefully placed so their colors contrast in a wicker basket lined with deep green banana leaves. I found the same sort of artistry in many of the other booths in the produce area.

Masses of children's shoes hung from the support poles in another booth. These are probably cheap imports from China, another indication of globalization. China is becoming one of Mexico's most important trading partners.

Maya herbs in these sacks provide remedies for a variety of ills. The infirmities addressed on the signs above include gastritis, ulcers, and rheumatism. While there are mystical and supernatural aspects to traditional Maya medicine, the use of natural herbs is based on thousands of years of close observation of the effects of various plants on the body. While at San Cristóbal, Carole and I visited the Maya Medicine Museum, which will be the subject of a future posting.

The ultimate in fresh poultry! This one comes complete with feathers and its gobble. I almost tripped over this guy, who was hobbling around on his bound feet while a vendor's little son kept an eye on him. Live animals are another interesting aspect of the Mercado Municipal. Turkeys were first domesticated by the Maya of northern Guatemala during the late pre-classic era (300 BC - 100 AD). They were one of the few domesticated animals of the pre-hispanic New World.

This completes Part 11 of my Chiapas series. I hope you have enjoyed your visit to the local mercados. I always appreciate feedback, corrections and questions. If you would like to do so, please leave your message in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jim and Carole. Sandy (my mom) and Pat have raved about your blog. Now I know why. What an excellent job you've done. You've actually motivated me to start a blog on my life here in Africa (oh well...Cape Town). I've been threatening to do this for years but just haven't known how to get started. I'll try using Blogger. Anyway, just wanted to say hi. Best regards, Myke Scott


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim