Reflections from the Habitat build and cultural activities in Chiapas, Mexico
During our 9-day trip to Mexico, our team stayed in the historic city of San Cristobal de las Casas, located in the Central Highlands region of the country and considered the cultural capital of Chiapas.
Throughout the week, we helped build a house and renovate the walls, foundation, and floor alongside the recipient family who was of the indigenous group Tzotzil Maya. Built into the work week were a few cultural activities and site seeing in and around the beautiful, historic city of Chiapas.
Saturday, April 6, 2019
On Thursday evening, my parents and I arrived in Tuxtla Gutierrez in the most southernly Mexican state of Chiapas. Since my dad and I were the leaders for the trip, we wanted to arrive first before everyone else arrived. The following morning, Friday, we decided to visit the most famous canyon in the region, Cañon del Sumidero, an enormously wide and deep canyon cutting through the mountains. We joined a 15-person speed boat and headed off on the tour of the canyon. Along the way, we spotted an American crocodile basking in the sunshine only half submerged and some playful spider monkeys who hooted at us from overhead.
When Saturday morning rolled around, we met our first team member, Jon, at the hotel where we were staying in Tuxtla. After breakfast, we headed to San Cristobal de las Casas, the city where we’d be staying for the duration of our trip. We got to our hotel, Hotel Arrecife de Coral, after an hour’s drive and found a beautiful, lush central garden with tons of flowers, a fountain with live turtles, hammocks, and a trampoline! Looked like a quaint, quiet hideaway from the busy streets.
Everyone else arrived at different times throughout the day, so we spent the day exploring the town and having lunch. San Cristobal is a very cute town and it reminded me of a tiny Antigua, Guatemala complete with colorful buildings, Spanish architecture, and cobblestone roads. There are several pedestrian streets in the city lined with restaurants, stores, parks, and markets.
By dinnertime almost everyone had arrived (except one guy who arrives on Monday), so we had our first team dinner at the hotel and began to get to know one another and learn about the coming week from our Mexican host coordinator, Anna, who soon had to leave and was replaced by Mario. Since traveling had zapped our energy levels, it was an early night for us all.
Sunday, April 7
The first item on the agenda after having breakfast at the hotel was to visit the local Habitat Mexico office in the city and learn more about the work we’d be doing, the family, and about the region in general. Our hotel is centrally located so we are able to walk everywhere. The Habitat office was a ten-minute walk away and we met many of the people we’d work with during the week including Patty, Luis, Sabastian, Roberto, and Francisco — all Habitat staff members. Here are some things we learned:
- Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico. Almost 80% of the population lives in poverty.
- The daily minimum wage is 80 pesos, or $4.22! That means a family with one full-time worker will make only 2,400 pesos a month ($126). Essentially all of that goes to buy food so there is little to no money left for other purposes.
- It takes an average family 20 years to build a home because each concrete block costs 9 pesos. Habitat reduces that time to 12 years, in which the family can also live in their house and pay over time.
- Chiapas is mostly indigenous Maya communities and most people speak a Mayan language, especially Tzotzil around San Cristobal de las Casas.
- Our Habitat family speaks Tzotzil in addition to Spanish and have four children, all of whom will be around during the week.
English to Tzotzil phrases:
Good day (greeting) = Mi li oyote (mē lē ō-yō-TĀ)
Response = Li oyune (lē ō-yu-NĔ)
My name is… = Ja’ jbi… (hhă’ hhbē)
Thank you = Kolaval (kōl-ă-VĂL)
You’re welcome = Muyuk c’usij vocol (moo-YOOK k’-OO-sēh vō-CŌL) <– 🤯
After the orientation at the Habitat Mexico office, we headed to lunch at the main square and ate on the rooftop of a restaurant where we had a nice breeze and a great view of the square and vendors and pedestrians below. After lunch, we explored a local tented market that wound around and around like a never-ending maze. People were selling everything from embroidered traditional clothes to food, amber jewelry, leather bags, and household decorations.
Our last stop of the day was a chocolate shop and museum called Kakaw, Museo de Cacao y Chocolateria Cultural, where we got a different chocolate drink prepared in the traditional way and served in glass bowls that resembled a cacao fruit pod! I, of course, got the chocolate with chili because I love spicy chocolate. We also got two very traditional chocolate drinks to taste: one with cacao, honey, and chili, and the other made with ground maize, achiote, and cacao. We were in a chocolate stupor at that point, so we went back to the hotel to clean up and rest before dinner. We ate at a local Mexican restaurant and called it a night early since our first build day is tomorrow.
Monday, April 8
Today is our first build day! We had breakfast at the hotel at 7:30 am and then piled into the van at 8:15 to head to the build site. It was only a 20-minute drive to a small community just outside of San Cristobal called Montesion. The community has seven Habitat houses already built, so we’ll get to see those later in the week.
When we arrived the family was there to meet us, Pablo (age 32), Maria (28), Sergio (9), Gerardo (7), Rodrigo (6), and Andrea (5), some community members, and the Habitat staff we’d met on Sunday. The children held up a sign for us that read, “Team Haley Pope, welcome to Montesion, this is your house. Thank you for your help.” Pablo works as a mason, so he’d be working alongside us the whole week. Maria would be in charge of preparing and cooking our lunches at the build site with some help from other relatives and community members.
Our work group consists of about half Mexicans and half Americans, and two of our volunteers speak fluent Spanish in addition to our host coordinator, Mario. It’s been very helpful to have them around because having volunteers that can communicate really breaks the ice and allows us to get to know the other individuals quickly.
Our tasks today were moving cement blocks into the various rooms of the house, laying concrete blocks with mortar, mixing mortar, sifting sand, and filling in a huge hole in the floor with sand where the patio will be. We started with no walls and ended the first day with almost all walls up to chest height and part of the hole filled in. Everyone did various tasks and switched around working with different people.
We’re building their new Habitat house in front of their current residence. It’s a pretty nice building already considering how some families live before receiving a Habitat house. But it’s too small for how many people currently live there. We’ll connect the Habitat house to their old one and it will enable the family to have much more space and a second bathroom! Everyone has enjoyed the build so far and are having some meaningful experiences already. The weather was also awesome today: 70-75 degrees F!
We left the build site at around 3:30 pm and after cleaning up and relaxing at the hotel, our last volunteer arrived. We’re now a full team! We went out to dinner at an Italian pizza place along the pedestrian street and had another early night since we were all pretty tired (and a bit sore!) from the first day’s work.
Tuesday, April 9
Our second build day went basically as the day before. We had breakfast at the hotel and headed to the site at 8:15 am again. When we arrived, Maria had prepared delicious cheese quesadillas with tea and coffee. Somehow the corn tortilla here always stay together and don’t rip like the ones do in the States. They must have a secret 😉
Because we had built the walls up to chest height already yesterday, we had to construct wooden scaffolding so the masons could work on the second half of the walls. We worked for a long time this morning lifting bricks up high to the masons, filling in with sand, and mixing mortar. It was a lot of shoveling and hauling concrete blocks, which weight 35 pounds each! Lunch was at around 1 pm, so we were pretty hungry. We had chicken and vegetable soup with tortillas and juice. The women make all the food for us and the tortillas by hand, which are seriously the best.
Gala had brought an inflatable ball to the work site to play with the kids and it was a huge hit! We went around in a circle throwing and kicking the ball to one another with the kids giggling and running around the whole time. They really liked our younger volunteers who also showed them funny faces on Snapchat on their phones. We have a great group in general because we have so many local people working with us to talk to and kids to play with during our breaks.
At 3:30 pm, we loaded back in the van and headed back to shower and relax. Some of our volunteers decided to head out to the market to buy some souvenirs, while others choose to stay back and nap in the hammocks or read in the grass. We ate at another restaurant within walking distance with a lot of different food options. I had a red Thai curry dish. Before going back to the hotel, we made an ice cream pit stop.
Wednesday, April 10
Today I was sick, so I ended up not going to the build site and stayed at the hotel catching up on some much-needed sleep, water, and crackers and recovering my energy and strength. The rest of the team went to the site like usual and continued with the previous day’s tasks of mixing mortar, laying blocks, shoveling sand and tamping the floor, and twisting rebar that would be used later in the building structure.
Now that we’ve been there for a few days the kids have really opened up to us! And not only the kids of the family, but other children from around the community who see us and are curious and want to play too. The kids also speak Tzotzil and Spanish, so those of us who know Spanish are still able to communicate with them. But at the end of the day, what language you speak hardly matters. Everyone speaks volumes just by being there and lending a hand, smiling, laughing, and using gestures. We’ve had such a great time getting to know everyone, including the awesome Habitat staff members!
That afternoon after the build, some volunteers went out to explore the city more and by that evening I felt good enough to join the rest of the team for dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. But I only ate Papas de las Francesa (French fries) to be on the safe side!
Thursday, April 11
Thankfully, I was back at the work site again today with the rest of the team. I took it a bit easier in the morning pounding thick wire straight so it could be rebent into rectangles to be used with rebar later. At around 10:30 am we had our cheese quesadilla break with sweet lemongrass tea and coffee. We worked until around noon and then took a break before lunch to see other finished Habitat houses in the community. Before the first Habitat house was built, the community was a bit skeptical, but now that several houses have been built many other families would also love to have a Habitat house.
The first house we saw was owned by one of the other masons, Pedro Pablo, who we’ve worked with the whole week on our family’s house. He is almost finished with his and it looks very nice with painted columns around the porch and painted ceilings. It’s made of four separate rooms and as soon as they have a ceremonial blessing, his family will move in.
The second house was just a few hundred feet away and was actually Pedro Pablo’s father’s house! He had a totally different design and included stairs that led up to the roof like it was a balcony or patio. The third and final house we saw was right next to our house and was almost finished. Habitat has several blueprints, but they let the families customize a bit, so their house will be perfect for their individual needs. All of the finished Habitat houses had added a layer of textured cement and paint over the concrete blocks. Most had at least four rooms.
This whole time walking around the community, we’d picked up kids along the way who were curious about us and what we were doing there. By the time we headed back for lunch, there was quite a train of little ones following or riding piggyback. For lunch we had cheese and vegetable stuffed peppers and rice. Then we worked hard for the rest of the day until around 4 pm. By this point, we had built wooden forms around where the columns would be and we were starting to fill them up with concrete. We wanted to finish the batch of concrete we had made so we stayed a bit longer to do so. Below are some progress photos of the build over the week so far:
When we got back to the hotel, again some of the team members went out to get some souvenirs and explore before dinner. We met at the main square and then walked to what turned out to be a delicious Mexican restaurant. They brought out an appetizer of crunchy fried cheese that was hard like a taco shell and could be broken into pieces and dipped into various sauces and toppings.
Back at the hotel, most of us played cards together in the restaurant upstairs: B.S. and Rummy. Tomorrow is our last build day and it’s only a half day because we have our dedication ceremony, so I hope we can finish up the work we had left over from today.
Friday, April 12
This is our last build day…already! Time has gone so fast this week. That’s how it always seems — on Monday it feels like the week will last so long because of the hard work we’re doing, but before you know it, it’s already Friday and time to say goodbye to the families. We only worked until mid-day today. The work was more of the same: mixing concrete, carrying buckets of cement to be poured into the column forms, and packing and leveling the house floor. We worked hard until lunchtime and luckily succeeded in finishing the columns and filling in the floor! They’ll be ready for the roof soon and to pour the concrete floor.
The Habitat staff told us that our team had saved them a month’s worth of work!
For lunch, we had a traditional stew with beef and veggies and of course, tortillas. The whole week the ladies in the family made our lunches and they were pretty good. After lunch began our final ceremony and the family had two surprises for us. The first was really special and was the first time I had done this on a GV build. We got to press our hands into a small patch of concrete outside their house and scratch in our names so they will always remember us for having helped them build their home.
For the second surprise, all the women in our group went into Pablo and Maria’s house. Maria dressed us up in traditional clothing consisting of a bright, colorful top with embroidery and a thick black wool shirt that wrapped around our waists and was cinched down with a wide belt that tightened like a corset. They had one thick woolly coat for my dad to wear that came down to his thighs. Many people in the region still wear these clothes. We saw many women and men wearing them around the city.
We all took pictures and then made our speeches. All were very heartfelt and emotional from Maria and Pablo, Mario, me and Dad and most of the team members. Many of us were crying by the end of it. It had been awesome to work so closely with the family, masons, and Habitat staff. We took a bunch of group shots still dressed in traditional garb and then shopped at a table where they had laid out all of their handicrafts: shirts, decor, tortilla warmers, bags, wallets, etc.
After we had said our tearful goodbyes and gotten cleaned up at the hotel, mom, Doug, Kyra and I hiked up to a church on a hill just around the corner from our hotel. The stairs snaked up the mountainside and we saw great views of the city below.
For dinner, Mario took us to a really neat restaurant that was also a pox (“posh”) distillery. Pox is a local alcoholic beverage only made in the San Cristobal area. It’s made of fermented corn, wheat, and sugar cane and then distilled like whiskey. We got a quick tour and explanation of how it’s made and then had a tasting of about five or six different versions, some flavored some plain. I liked the cacao and café flavored ones in addition to the traditional ones, amber, jade, and black jade. Even the Habitat staff we’ve been working with joined us for the tasting and dinner.
Since it was our last night, a few volunteers and I went out for drinks at an upstairs bar on the main square where a local band was playing live music. We weren’t out long, because we’d had a busy week, but it was fun to catch the local night-life flavor.
Saturday, April 13
Today is our main cultural activity day. While we have had some cultural experiences throughout the week, today we are visiting two other indigenous communities, San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, to learn more about the region. At 9 am, we piled into our van and headed to the first indigenous village outside of town. We had a local guide who spoke English and told us about the community on the way.
Some 76,000 people live in the Chamula municipality, practically all of whom are of the indigenous tribe Tzotzil Maya and speak the Tzotzil language. Only Tzotzil people can live in the city. Most people marry within their cultural group, but if a Tzotzil woman marries a man outside of the group they are allowed to remain in the community. If a Tzotzil man marries a woman outside of the group then they both must leave the community and live elsewhere.
Our first stop was at the main square where there stood a Catholic church (although it’s not recognized by the Vatican) called Iglesia de San Juan Chamula. Because it’s a day before Palm Sunday tons of women and men were in the main square in their traditional clothing (what we wore yesterday) and weaving long leaf fronds together to make a green carpet outside the church. We couldn’t take any photos of the people or the inside of the church, unfortunately.
The inside of the church was filled with thousands of lit candles on tables and struck right to the floor with hot wax. Flowers were everywhere and green pine straw covered the marble floor. There weren’t any pews or an altar at the front like a normal Catholic church. People were praying in Tzotzil beneath pictures of Catholic saints, which really represented different Maya gods. Their Catholicism is a blend of Catholic and Maya beliefs and traditions.
People would bring their own candles and water, Coke-a-Cola, or Pox as an offering, light the candles, and stay until they had burned out. We also saw one family who had brought in a live chicken to sacrifice! Red candles were burned to rid oneself of jealousy, green or yellow for fertility, and white for everything. It may have been the prettiest church I’ve ever seen all lit up like that.
Eventually, people began lining up outside the church playing various instruments and getting ready to go inside for a pre-celebration. So we left and walked through a small market on our way to the van. On our way out of town, we passed an old cemetery with thousands of colorful crosses representing graves, some of which pre-dated Spanish arrival!
Our next town, San Lorenzo Zinacantan, was another municipality with a population of around 36,000 indigenous Tzotzil Maya people. Here, we visited the Iglesia de San Lorenzo which was under construction but was a beautiful white church with candles burning inside and plants and flowers adorning every surface. The pictures and statues of saints in the church were dressed in traditional Maya clothes.
From there, we visited a women’s weaving and textile coop where garments and fabrics were hung from every available surface on the walls and ceilings. The women did a short demonstration on the weaving loom and then had us dress up in traditional wedding clothes. I was the bride and wore at least three different layers of woven fabrics, tops, skirts, and scarves. Doug dressed up as the groom (with a pretty outrageous hat!) and the rest of the group as the wedding party. They gave us all a tiny shot of pox and we made a toast. A few of us ended up buying a few souvenirs there. Next door to the store was a small wooden hut where three other women were making tortillas over a fire. They served them to us with beans, cheese, and a spicy red sauce, which I think may have been my favorites the whole trip.
We headed back to the hotel, said bye to the guide, and headed to lunch back in San Cristobal at another new restaurant. After lunch, some of us decided to go back and rest, while a few of us went shopping and then visited a small art and design museum in the center of town called the San Cristobal de las Casas Museum or MUSAC, which used to be a government building. It had a huge shallow pond and several gallery rooms with local artwork, textiles, pottery, and other cultural artifacts.
Right before dinner, Jon and Jess and I hiked up the hill with the church on top for some nice pre-sunset views of the town. For our last team dinner, we went back to the restaurant with rooftop seating. Jess, Jon and I went for cocktails before dinner and the rest of the group showed up shortly after. Everyone turned in early after dinner because almost everyone leaves very early in the morning to go back to Tuxtla Gutierrez and fly home. My folks and I will be around through Sunday and then we leave on Monday.
Sunday, April 14
Everyone left very early this morning to catch their flights back home. We had breakfast with Jon, Doug, and Mario before they left at 10:30 am. My parents and I don’t leave until tomorrow, so we have the rest of the day to explore more of town and get our last few souvenirs. We decided to visit some local churches in the area. We headed towards a church called Iglesia de Guadalupe, also on a hill overlooking the city. Along the way, we went down other streets we hadn’t been on yet, stopped in a small art gallery, and then carried on to the street where the church sat at the end of a long row of yellow stairs.
There were hundreds of wide steps that led up to the top. The Catholic church was having a mass soon after we arrived, so eventually we headed back to the pedestrian street where we found a cute café and had some traditional chocolate drinks. I ended up buying a silver and amber ring with an insect trapped inside since amber is very prevalent throughout the region. That night, we ate at a fancy restaurant and I ended up ordering a flavorful, but the spiciest dish of my life: aguachile de camaron. It was basically pureed green chile peppers with lemon cured veggies and shrimp, served cold.
Our airport transfer is at 3:30 am tomorrow, so it’s off to bed for us. We’ve had an amazing time in Mexico getting to know and work with an indigenous family here. Our GV group really got along great, worked hard on the worksite, and played hard when we weren’t. We all have many wonderful memories of Maya Mexico!