The Magic of the Mirror

By Madrid, Fabrizio Mejia | UNESCO Courier, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Magic of the Mirror


Madrid, Fabrizio Mejia, UNESCO Courier


The uprising in Chiapas has forced Mexican society to look at the Indians straight on, perhaps for the first time, and to start weaving with them a truly common future

I seemed to notice a movement from beneath her shawl, a kind of sudden vibration. I looked down at the woman's feet and was startled: her calloused heels bore all the dust and dirt of years walking barefoot. I placed a coin in the woman's permanently open palm, and ran into the Museum of Anthropology. I was seven or eight years old. I asked my father about the woman to whom I had just been told to give some money. "She's an Indian," he replied. "But something was moving inside under her clothes," I insisted. "It must have been her child," my father concluded, and we walked on into the Mayan room of the museum without saying a word.

The image of that Indian woman in Mexico City has haunted me every year since. It is not really an image, more like fragments of a body--an outstretched hand, the soles of her feet, the coppery colour of her arm--and the suggestion of another being moving beneath her clothes. When you come across them in the cities, you don't look at them directly. They, the Indians, lower their eyes as if to acknowledge that the colour of their skin, their "defective" Spanish and their rural garments have made them invaders in this land of mestizo nationalism. They have never had looks or expressions. Nobody can remember their faces.

In contrast, the term "indigenous people" -- as opposed to "Indians" -- is part and parcel of Mexican history. Like millions of other Mexican children, I grew up seeing murals by Diego Rivera, where the Aztecs came to represent symbols and values, but not people. From as far back as I recall, "indigenous" has meant that under the earth on which we walk there are vestiges of women and men who erected pyramids to worship the sun, dreamt about the number zero, sacrificed virgins and predicted eclipses. But between the "Indian" and the "indigenous" there has never been any connection beyond the fact that neither had a face.

For centuries the Indians submissively joined the growing mass of invisible spectators of a distant country, of an ethereal land which changes without the need to involve those who are watching it. The image of the "Indians" was one of peasants always waiting for land, justice, education and health. We knew they existed because there were millions of them, though we stayed deaf to what they were trying to tell us. Taken into account because of their sheer number, the "Indians" ended up being tackled as a "problem" in the 1970s: that of migration to the cities. The so-called "Marias"-- "Indians" who asked for charity dressed in highly coloured clothes--were the faithful reflection of the failure of our shared life and of the only offer that we made to help them belong to Mexico: stop being Indians.

When on January 1, 1994, the Indians in Chiapas rebelled once more against contempt, they did so covering the whole face apart from the eyes. They made the country look at them. They knew that morality started by looking at someone in the eyes. It is the source of empathy, of identification, a form of magic and a mirror that creates a third party: neither oneself nor the other, but that which makes us similar, that in which we both recognize ourselves. This reflection of the other which is also my own self in another person's gaze was exactly what was denied to me by the country to which I belong. For 500 years the Indians were not men and women who had to be wiped out, but simple non-humans who survived thanks to a national evasion: not looking at them head-on, in the eyes. Looking in the eyes of the Indians made us capture in their reflection the very part of ourselves that exists in the other, the foreign in each and every one of us.

Four years on, the women from an Indian community displaced by a "low-intensity war" were the architects of another major change. …

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