Cuetzalan: A Feather or a Stone?

Returning to Cuetzalan, Mexico

Special Guest Blog

A Feather or a Stone?

Cuetzalan, Mexico is a place named for a feather, but being there evokes in me the image of stone. I first walked the steep, cobblestone streets of this mountain town two decades ago while researching a history dissertation about corn farming and Indians. Back then my young thighs taunted the challenge posed by the stone streets. The climb up from the cathedral and plaza at the town’s center was easy even during the visits when I carried my toddler daughter on my back. 

My daughter and me in Cuetzalan in 1998

Now my daughter is a grown woman, my completed dissertation is in a box on a closet shelf, and this past January I found myself back in Cuetzalan of all places accompanying a group of Carroll University students for a ten-day experience directed by Xperitas. No longer young, I was delighted to see that the town had changed very little. The cobblestone streets are still steep; as I panted and sweat they took their revenge for my earlier taunts.

Like stone, Cuetzalan persists through the decades and centuries. Over the history of Mexico, the Nahua people here – who displaced an earlier Totonac civilization -- have maintained a distinct and defiant identity as part of the 7.4 million Indians today who speak languages other than Spanish. The town’s name refers to the Quetzal bird with its long tail feathers treasured like jewels by pre-Columbian peoples. The Indian residents have resisted the periodic invasions, conquests, and free-trade agreements while drawing strength from their long and accomplished histories.

After a day or two, I realized a few things had in fact changed. When I lived there in 1998 young men sought me out from time to time and sheepishly inquired about the chance of crossing over to escape the worsening poverty of Mexico’s countryside. Now the torrent of migrants over that decade and the next in to the U.S. has subsided, and I heard in January from men, proud of their English, who had worked in the U.S. and since came back.

The problems of poverty have also changed, unfortunately, for the worse. Up to the late 1990s, the natural environment of Cuetzalan had allowed an income for many Indians who produced coffee on small, steep plots and sold bags of their beans to the warehouses operated by wealthier, white residents on the town’s main street. Tiny old women used to ask me on the street what was the price of coffee that day, assuming because I was white that I worked in the coffee trade. I recall that summer twenty years ago was exceptionally hot and the summer rains were tardy a month in arriving. The air in May and June was brown with the smoke of many forest fires burning in the republic.

Now the warehouses are closed. The farming men who took time off in January to help our group build the school’s laboratory remembered that hellish summer in 1998 and said it was the beginning of the end of coffee-growing as a livelihood in Cuetzalan. Climate change and poor soils have left only a few farmers still producing a crop worth the effort to harvest.

One bright spot in the fact of worsening poverty, and a current example of the persistent resistance of Mexico’s indigenous, is that Nahua women in Cuetzalan formed a cooperative,  Maseualsiuame Mosenyolchikauani, to provide new sources of income while preserving the crafts and local knowledge of the area. In 1989 I interviewed a young leader of this co-op, Rufina Edith Villa Hernandez, when the group was just two years in existence and residing ad hoc in a building down near the main plaza for administration and running a store in another building with needlework, woven baskets, and other crafts for sale to tourists. Now the cooperative operates an extensive ecotourist lodge on upper slopes of the town with the store in the lobby that served as our lodging and board. There I met Doña Rufina again – now, like me, with some gray hair and glasses -- on the porch dining area of the lodge.

This cooperative and its women leaders were our hosts for this experience in January and guided our group in to experiences that penetrated the tourist shell of Cuetzalan. The 14 students and I crammed each morning into a covered pickup truck and rode out of Cuetzalan through the cloud forest and to an indigenous neighboring village of Xiloxochico. There, with the help of the cooperative, we were brought inside the community, helping to build a school’s laboratory, playing soccer with the older Xiloxochico students and sharing traditional midday meals complete with piles of warm, handmade tortillas in a local woman’s home.

Viky Contreras, a cooperative leader, was with us most of the time and she invited the group to participate in a velada, which is the custom of holding an anniversary ceremony for multiple years after a loved-ones passing. In January was the date that Doña Viky had lost her mother two years before. The event was the main activity of the town that Saturday and, in addition to a Catholic mass in the local church, took place in the humble home of Viky’s sister. After finishing a plate of chicken and tortillas I watched a line of family members first purify themselves with incense smoke and then pronounce solemn blessings in Nahuatl while placing a flower wreath over a wooden cross at the humble stone house’s doorway. Thinking of the countless anthropology studies I had read about indigenous Mexico, it occurred to me that our group of Carroll students were experiencing the sort of access and insight in to the distinct ceremonies of these Nahua communities that often require an anthropologist to spend a year or more to cultivate a similar level of access.

Although I have enjoyed the privilege of leading eight previous groups of college students to other enriching experiences in other parts of Mexico, Cuetzalan’s combination of openness and persistence made this experience no doubt the most powerful lesson in indigenous culture.

Me in Cuetzalan in 2019.

Bert Kreitlow earned a Ph.D. in Modern Latin American History from the University of Iowa and has taught as a full-time lecturer in the Department of History at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for fifteen years.  Dr. Kreitlow has also led numerous study abroad experiences for Carroll University, where his wife Amy Cropper is Professor of Art. They live in Waukesha, Wisconsin.