Merida, The Yucatán, November 1973
I see them first at the train station in Merida, when I go to buy a ticket for tommorow’s train to Mexico City. Three of them, men with long, rough cut hair, in primitive white smocks that’re made from a long piece of cloth folded over and stitched up the sides, leaving arm holes. The hole for the head is just a slit in the cloth. Their best finery, worn to come to the city. They stand close to each other in the cobblestone courtyard outside the station.Two are barefoot, but the leader wears shoes.
His wide feet
Squeezed into a scuffed pair of
Ladies’ black pumps
The only possession they have is a large bundle of arrows, perhaps fifty or more. Three feet long, the arrows are fletched with the feathers of jungle birds, and are sharpened to fine points, but they bear no arrowheads. The bundle is bound with twine. Have they arrived by train? From where?
I try not to stare at them, but they’re nothing like the Mayans, the people of the Yucatán. The Mayans are short people, with wide bodies. Some of the market ladies are only as tall as my elbows. These men are taller, the leader as tall as me, and they’re thin. The Mayans wear bleached white cloth shirts or dresses with colorful embroidery. These men are dressed for the Stone Age.
After I buy my ticket I walk back to my hotel, passing through the market on the way. I see them again, talking to a man who is one of the vendors. A large crowd of the locals surrounds them. I work my way in closer. A woman’s voice behind me says the word Lacandöoa, and then I know who these three strange men are.
Before Chichen Itza,
Deep in the jungle, first people,
Indigineos. Still there.
The market vendor is bargaining with them for the bundle of arrows. Something rare to sell to tourists. The leader rests his hand on the sharp tips and looks out over the crowd. His companions stand close behind him, frightened, I think, to be in the middle of so many people, standing so close to them. The market vendor talks on and on in rapid Spanish, his hands working the air in front of him, arguing for his price. The leader ignores him, waiting to hear a better offer. Among the many, he and I are the tallest, both of us a full head above the crowd.
His dark eyes.
Two strangers, tourists. He smiles—
Be not afraid.
The woman behind me says Estos son gente que se vende sus niños—These are people who sell their children.
I turn around and look at her. She’s Mayan, dark-eyed and brown-skinned, her face round and broad, the sort of face that’s looked down on in Mexico City as provincial, Indian, illiterate, poor. She goes on telling her friend how savage the Lacandöoans are, how they make sacrifices to pagan gods, and eat only squash and wild game. Tan primitivo, she says, They don’t even have rice and beans. Indios, she calls them, Perros sucios—Dirty dogs.
She’s so close
The sweat in her armpits
Smells of fear.