Getting to the Heart of Chiapas Culture with Sergio Castro of San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Locally known as Saint, Maverick Humanitarian & Healer, my introduction to Sergio Castro was brief, but life-changing.
“He’s a big man with a cowboy hat and vest. Be at the museo at 6 o’clock and tell him you would like to work with him,” Nadia, the ‘maestra y la duena’ of La Casa en El Arbol language school, had told me.
It was a chilly November day in the enchanting city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and when the “big man” opened the museo door, I entered a world that extended into the back doors of Maya descendants who continue to thrive in this part of the Americas. After brief introductions he told me to meet him at 9 a.m. the following day to work with him on a project with no end in sight.
For locals, Sergio Castro is known as “heroe de Chiapas,” often called a saint, a maverick humanitarian and a healer. Unaware of his history and reputation, I would soon experience how one individual completes the circle of life as nature intended. Physically he is not “big man” but when measured by his deeds, his stature is enormous.
By nature, Don Sergio is a humanitarian, an ethnologist, a collector of Maya costumes, textile and artifacts, museum curator and a polyglot. By academic training he is a teacher, veterinarian and an agronomist. He came to Chiapas from Chihuahua 47 years ago to fulfill his social service work in order to complete his degree in agronomy and veterinary medicine and just never left.
The Highland region of Chiapas and San Cristóbal has that pull for people. It is a colonial town in the mountains of southern Mexico settled by the Spanish almost 500 years ago. The streets are old, many cobblestone and narrow and mostly one-way. There are no obvious stop signs, there are corners that are hard to see around, numerous pot holes, people crossing the street in all directions, high curbs, people parking and blocking traffic. With all this, the traffic flows smoothly and people get to their destination. It is Zen like.
My boyfriend and I had said good-bye to our jobs, and sold our home and possessions in Washington State. We traveled by van through North America and eventually on to Central America. Our plans were to go with the flow and happen upon places with no intent of destination. Throughout our travels we’d heard several times that San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas was magical, making it a ‘must see’ as we moved south.
After seeing much of Mexico, I was ready to do medical volunteering. As a physician assistant, I have volunteered on behalf of the under-served in the U.S. communities in which I lived. Now, I sought the opportunity to volunteer in Latin America. At 9 a.m., I met Don Sergio as instructed with no idea of where we were going, how long I’d be gone, or really what we’d be doing. With the first few patients, I quickly learned what he does: he provides wound care for those with burn and skin injuries which include mostly the indigenous and marginalized nationals, gratis.
Burns are common in el campo (the country) for several reasons: wood is used to cook, for warmth, and discarding debris. Ceramic and clay pots are used to boil food and water often break or explode spewing their contents on the closest by-stander: usually a woman or child. Other burns are caused by consumption of too much pox (the local Indian brandy), the drunkard falling into the fire and not having the coordination to get out or, by a parasite induced seizure causing one to fall into the fire. Electrocutions and gasoline accidents just as in the US can occur as well. The wounded ended up as Don Sergio’s patients as he has learned on-the-job-training to care for mild to the most severe burns with the most rudimentary supplies. Sadly, it includes aggressive dead tissue removal and sometimes amputation: all care is done without pain medication as there is none available to him.
Medical Volunteering in Chiapas
Through the time I spent with Don Sergio, I slowly learned about his background and came to understand why he is so respected throughout Chiapas.
Don Sergio arrived in the Tenejapa region of Chiapas in 1965, he helped the indigenous Maya with their coffee crops and agriculture. While developing agricultural co-ops there, he realized he had found his place in the world, a place he “belonged” and quickly picked up the Tzeltal tongue.
He saw that these villages needed clean water so, working with the local people, he made water treatment systems. When the Mexican government wasn’t providing the funds to build schools he used his own money for the materials and villagers provided the labor.
His reputation of helping with these basic civil structures now extends throughout the region. He is sought out by various village leaders to help build a school or water system. Don Sergio will find the resources and, piece by piece, collaborate with the village until the project is complete.
In addition to these civil services, many years ago he was called upon to help a man who accidentally cut his arm with a machete (a common tool carried by farmers as we carry our cell phones). Don Sergio cleaned and sutured the wound and ever since it was assumed he is a doctor.
Once his social service was complete and after a few years in Tenejapa region, Don Sergio’s wanted to know more about the Lacandones and the Lacandon Jungle. This Mayan group had successfully evaded the Spanish conquistadors subjugation and although they trade, they do not intermix with the other local groups. Don Sergio knew a few Lacandones would come to the village to buy coffee, then thought, “this is my way in”. He met with them and informed them he can show them how to grow their own coffee. Don Sergio told me of this story as if it was one of the best times in his life.
One evening he showed me a photograph of a 108 year-old Lacandon Chief and expressed his admiration pointing out how dark his hair was and saying that the man was very happy: he had six wives and oddly, only eight children. Two of his sons never returned from hunting and the Chief believed they were attacked by jaguars. The Chief said he never went out to hunt javalina as he would sit in his house and wait for them to come in to eat his corn. Sitting quietly in a corner he killed them at a very close range with an arrow. Don Sergio is one of the few outside of the Lacandon tribe that can fluently speak Lacandon Maya.
A few years later, Don Sergio moved to Chamula helping the regional villages with water treatment cisterns, schools and agriculture in addition to helping those with burns or injuries. In Chamula, the language is Tzotzil, most common around San Cristóbal. Of all the years in various villages Don Sergio said if he could he would live in the jungle near Chamula. He spent many years here and of course learned how to speak Tzotzil.
Don Sergio’s Humanitarian Work
Don' Sergio’s work and pivotal role in Chiapas culture has paved the way for ‘The Circle’ a system that keeps funding community projects
For all Don Sergio’s work over the years, the gratitude from the villages was shown by their giving him gifts of traditional Mayan artifacts, art, costumes and textiles. Serendipitously, without Don Sergio knowing it, he was slowly becoming a Mayan artifact collector. To date, he may hold the largest private Maya textile and costume collection in the world.
As tourists came through San Cristóbal or the Chamula region Sergio was asked to show his collection, like a traveling show-and-tell he carried his prizes in large suitcases. He was given ‘tips’ which he then used to help build more schools and water cisterns as well as feed and support his family of seven.
Eventually, the collection grew so much that a tourist recommended he start a museum. Build it and they will come; and they did. The circle: help a community, they reply with unique handmade special gifts, display the items and educate foreigners about the Indios, they give donations, this funds the next indigenous community project and the cycle continues. Anyone that sees this ‘flow’ cannot help but be humbled, amazed, and inspired.
As a UNESCO world heritage site, San Cristóbal, Chiapas attracts visitors from around the world, mostly European. Don Sergio does not advertise his museum and it seems that if one is lucky enough to be made aware of its existence you’ve found the gem of Chiapas and your soul will stir with awe in meeting this man. While in San Cristóbal anyone can ask about Museo de Sergio Castro or Museo de Trajes Regionales and you will be directed to 38 Guadalupe Victoria. Do not expect to see obvious signage, just “38.”
Although he prefers giving group tours of his collection he will not turn anyone away unless he is very tired. He will invite you in to look around and answer your questions. If enough people are there you will receive the treat of a life time with his 30-60 minute tour. The various ceremonial costumes, accessories, textiles are displayed in a large room and he starts with orienting you to the location of Indigenous tribes on a map of Chiapas. He explains the nuances of how the Mayan groups can be recognized by their language, attire and styles (who would have known there is a ‘fashion statement’ to be made amongst the Maya). The tourists easily gain a basic understanding of the unique region, people and culture of Chiapas and deepen their awareness of Mayan people and their current existence. If the group is large enough and his Kodachrome projector is working he will present a slide show of his years with the various Mayan groups. Only at the end of the show does he mention his humanitarian works, briefly.
In older guide books the fee for the museo is 35 pesos, Don Sergio never asks anyone to pay and he lets you peruse the museo at your own pace. When the tourist enters the final room they are surprised to see the accolades and awards for his humanitarian work, which he never mentions. They are also taken aback by the photos of horrible wounds, burns, injuries that Don Sergio has cured or cared for. This is totally unexpected when you come to a textile museo, but his care and work is how he acquired the beautiful and complete costumes the visitor just had the pleasure to see. This room also holds the donation box. Don Sergio will never ask for money directly, he lets you draw on your own values.
Through time spent with European tourists over many years, Don Sergio has become fluent in French, Italian and English. Hence, he can give the tour and speak to just about anyone on the street: from European countries to the Lacandones.
My boyfriend and I ended up in Tucson, AZ after 14 months of travel. The trip deep into our neighboring country has opened my eyes to the lack of healthcare and severity of health conditions. It has been four years since the museo door opened and I met the “big man”. Semi-annually I return to San Cristóbal to work with Don Sergio spending two – five weeks per year. I help with challenging medical cases, bringing supplies and do what I can to augment his ability to receive funding to lessen the natural financial burden he bares as is the nature of what he does. While in the U.S., I send Don Sergio supplies and coordinate with other supporters to help obtain funding to keep him going. It seems it is a hole that can’t be filled but for those of us that have seen the work he does we gladly do what we can to make life easier for him.
How The Consumption of Processed Foods Is Poisoning the Maya in Chiapas
The days spent with Don Sergio are caring for wounds that not only include burns, but severe diabetic and lower leg ulcers. Diabetes is now rampant in Mexico and the consumption of processed foods and sugary drinks has taken its toll on the genetically susceptible Maya. Just as has happened in the U.S. with the younger generations moving to the cities, this is happening in Chiapas and the diet has changed from naturally-grown foods to boxed or processed foods. Also, the fact that they’ve been drinking sodas ‘as they are safer to drink than the water’ I only anticipate the problem will get worse. Why don’t the injured go to the hospital? Many of the Indios do not want to go to the hospital as they feel discriminated against, they don’t trust the hospital system, and they don’t understand the system nor does the system understand them. Many times they wait too long to go to the hospital and when they finally do go they die as their condition has become too severe. Hence, ‘the hospital is where you go to die’. And, lack of proper training in burn care is not available to the hospital staff. (In the U.S. we have 62 verified Burn Centers; Mexico just opened up their first Burn Hospital in Mexico City February 2011.)
Don Sergio knows these people well and even when he recommends they go to the hospital they are still reluctant: some do, some don’t. The one constant is if they come to Don Sergio he will do his best to help them although he knows the outcome is not good. The unwavering trust from the Maya is clear when they arrive to his museo which is also used as a clinic. I have benefited from their trust in him as now they trust me. With each return visit it seems I make a closer connection, especially with the women, who in this culture are submissive to their male counterpart.
When I am working with Don Sergio, we do not talk much. He is quiet and says very little; when he does talk there are very few moments in which he opens up to me. Between patients, if there is any down time, we sit in silence and when traveling in the taxi–silence. I’m a people person and very chatty, but with Don Sergio, there is no need to talk; just work and take care of these horrible skin wounds, burns, injuries or infectious skin diseases. On all my visits I work much harder alongside him than I do in clinics in the U.S.
At the end of my last trip, we visited a Tzotzil patient with the knee injury and visiting this home was welcoming and a pleasure. The Tzotzil women welcomed me kindly and the shy, curious children run up to Don Sergio to help carry his supplies up the narrow trail.
After we’re done with our wound care, we are asked to sit and eat. They put two small chairs, a table with a tablecloth outside and place homemade blue corn tortillas and a couple of omelets on top. Two days before they served us “los puntos” — the tips of the chayote plant in soup form with homemade tortillas. Although this is not the cleanest environment I cannot refuse this incredible kind offering and follow Don Sergio’s lead. I do not want to offend as these poor people offer me one of their most valuable gifts: food. The effort to continuously feed their large family can be time consuming, costly and at times inconsistent. They let us eat as they stood in the one-room house and watched us.
The women knew it was my last day and one of them touched my hands and arms with the lightest and mindful contact as she expressed her gratitude for my coming. No words need be said, the touch conveyed everything.
Don Sergio is 71 years-old and he has created a legacy of clean water systems maintaining the health of the villagers, schools built to educate the children (sadly illiteracy is prevalent), and has helped countless with the worst wounds one can endure. He has educated foreign tourists on Mayan garb, costumes, art, artifacts, and the sound of three Mayan languages and a brief overview of their culture. Many people have found an interest in him, interview him, try to get to know him, but there is no deep secret within him. When asked why he feels the need to do all this, his reply, “This is how God made me.” What he does is the path chosen for him; he has no other choice.
Upon returning from each trip to San Cristóbal, as I unpack, I am torn between relief of being back in the US with its accessible, immediate and high-tech healthcare and the desire to return and help. I continue to think about how Don Sergio carries on the rest of the time….and I have little tolerance of listening to complaints my friends may share with me upon my US return. All I can think to do is gather more supplies, inform supporters of my most recent experience with Don Sergio and plan my next trip. The same God that made Don Sergio has drawn me into this circle.
Don Sergio’s official website is www.yokchij.org; you can learn here how you can visit the Museo and/or make donations.
Visit a blog created & maintained by Friends of Don Sergio:
Independent film makers Veremos Productions created a documentary about Don Sergio, El Andalón: http://veremosproductions.com/el-andalon-2/ Part of the proceeds go to Don Sergio.