The Pope Doesn’t Buy Shawls – by Pablo de Llano (El País)

~ This essay was originally published by El País on February 15, 2016 ~
A woman selling crafts outside the cathedral in San Cristóbal. Photo: Pablo de Llano

A woman selling crafts outside the cathedral in San Cristóbal. Photo: Pablo de Llano

At 11 o’clock Sunday night, a seventy year-old indigenous woman was sitting at the corner of the plaza that faces the cathedral of San Cristóbal de las las Casas in Chiapas, with her woven handcrafts out for laid out for sale, covered from head to toe in a black wool blanket. Every once in a while, a small girl, perhaps her granddaughter, would put a few colorful caramels in her hand. She did not say anything, just ate them. Thirteen hours later, at midnight on Monday, the plaza was filled with people awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis and among all those people, on the same corner, was the same indigenous woman, in the same position, with her products for sale, but without the blanket and without the girl who punctually and respectfully delivered the colorful caramels. Jorge Mario Bergoglio visited a city where the indigenous residents do not seek faith. They ask, they wait, for someone to buy something.

The silent woman of the colorful caramels was not the only one, of course. Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents of Chiapas of distinct ethnicities saw the religious events as a commercial opportunity. Today at midday, just before the Pope would appear in the city’s center aboard the Popemobile, the area surrounding the cathedral was a bazaar of native peoples who needed to earn money. They sold everything from traditional handcrafts to modern selfie-sticks. There were so many that each struggled to sell. One, a boy selling selfie-sticks, a Tzotzil from San Juan Chamula who in three hours had only sold two, resignedly joked “It’s the curse of Francis!” while another chided him not to say the name of the Holy Father lightly: “Don’t say that…”

Faustina Díaz was selling blouses. Since she had no customers to attend to, she agreed to spend a moment writing “Welcome Pope” in her Tzotzil language: “La tal xa,” she scribbled in the reporter’s notebook, and sat back down to wait for someone to ask for a blouse.

The anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho claims that the indigenous population of San Cristóbal de las Casas is 40% of the city’s 200,000. It is a product of the unstoppable migration from the countryside to the city in search of money from tourism. Frustrated by the rural stagnation, which they endure with the support of the state government and what they grow on their small farms, they have increasingly decided to leave their towns and take up urban street vending. “Since the government does not give us work, we have to go sell in the streets,” says Victoria Gómez, a 55 year-old Tzeltal, seated on a windowsill with her offerings of cheesecake for sale on her knees.

Behind the pretty yellow cathedral in San Cristóbal there is a long line of women—no men—with their shawls, wraps, scarves, hats, and other knickknacks, young women with sleeping children or nursing babies, sitting with the same impassive expression as the woman with the colorful caramels. Some do not speak Spanish. Others speak a little, but do not like to talk, or are too timid. They tell how Bishop Samuel Ruiz, when he arrived in San Cristóbal in 1960, was struck by how it was common to see indigenous people lowering their heads when they passed a mestizo in the street. Half a century and a Zapatista uprising later, in the symbolic capital of indigenous Mexico these gestures of submission are no longer seen, but it is still impossible to find integration, much less prosperity.

Three hours later Pope Francis arrived at the cathedral. Outside, the indigenous women were still waiting. The Blessed Father of Buenos Aires said a few words and passed down the aisle of the temple greeting the faithful. When he had left, a man took the microphone at the altar and said, entranced, “Brothers, it has only been a few minutes but we have received the blessing of the Pope, and nobody can take that from us.”

Pablo de Llano writes for El País. This article was originally published under the title “El Papa no compra chales,” and is available at:

 Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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