Teaching English and Living in Chiapas, Mexico
Nine sets of terrified eyes stare back at me. “My name is Lisa,” I repeat, emphasizing each word, for the third time and pointing my index finger towards myself. The silence in the room is deafening and even I am now starting to tremble at the sound of my own voice. “What’s your name?” I ask the sets of eyes. Nothing. I point to the little boy in front of me. His deep brown eyes scan the room, taking in the posters on the wall, the words on which he does not yet understand. “Diego,” he squeaks out as my insides sing a quiet “Hallelujah”.
I am an English teacher in Chiapas, Mexico. Most of these children have never seen a 5’5” pale-skinned white woman with freckles, red hair and blue eyes—except on television—and they seem to be mesmerized, if not slightly frightened, by the sighting. At the end of day one, they line up to kiss me on the cheek before saying goodbye. One little girl with the bouncy curly brown hair whispers in my ear “you have beautiful eyes,” before she scurries out the door to join her friends.
Introduction to Chiapas, Mexico
Chiapas is located in the southern part of Mexico. While the colonial town San Cristobal de las Casas has attracted many in the ex-pat community since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the rest of the state has remained largely untouched by foreign tourism. Only in recent years has Chiapas begun to emerge as an eco-tourism hotspot. The giant Mayan ruins of Palenque, unspoilt natural waterfalls Chiflon, Misol-Ha and the pristine Montebello Lakes have placed this largely indigenous state on the tourist map. Here, in the small traditional town of Chiapa de Corzo, however, the three English teachers who arrived at Dunham Institute are uncommon sightings.
I arrived at Dunham Institute, fresh out of university, a Masters’ degree in Political Science hanging on the wall of my parent’s house in Canada. Attracted by their language exchange program—two hours of Spanish lessons per day plus a homestay with a local family in exchange for three and a half daily hours of teaching—seemed an excellent opportunity to gain teaching experience while perfecting the language. I had studied Spanish before in Ecuador and Nicaragua, but wanted the experience of living long term in a Spanish-speaking country.
Dunham Institute houses the only foreigners living in town on a semi-permanent basis, meaning there would be plenty of opportunity to practice my Spanish and have a truly authentic Mexican experience. The only interaction with native English speakers was with the other two teachers and the school’s owner, a British-American woman named Joanna.
While day tourists arrive in busloads to take the boat trip through the magnificent Sumidero Canyon or buy souvenirs from the artisan shops that line the central park, there are no cafes or restaurants catering to foreigners, no English menus or signs. Everything in town is authentic Chiapanecan.
Wanting to immerse myself further in the culture, I took advantage of the free workshops offered at the local Culture Center, the Casa Escuela de Tradiciones and learned the art of woodcarving.
Having a musical background in classical piano and jazz saxophone, I decided to try my hand at learning the marimba—a wooden xylophone that has been a symbol of the town’s musical heritage for centuries. I took lessons with a member of the world-famous Nandayapa family of marimba musicians and was soon plunking out La Chiapaneca—a song as famous in the Chiapa de Corzo as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is in North America.
While the six-month language exchange program covered my housing costs - meaning I only had to pay for my own food (approximately US$100 a month)—I managed to lower my costs even further by befriending and teaching private English classes to a local chef who often treated me to a delicious Mexican breakfast. The chef offered me the inside scoop into the town’s gossip channel, making me feel even more connected to the local culture and able to share my newly learned secrets with my house mother who sat in awe of my knowledge.
Feria de Enero
Since the moment I arrived in Chiapa de Corzo, friendly townspeople clamoured to tell me about the Feria de Enero (January Fair)—a three-week celebration in honour of San Sebastian. The fair was originally a celebration in honor of a Spanish woman named Maria de Angulo who came to Latin America in search of a cure for her sick son and arrived in Chiapa de Corzo to find a town in famine. Being a wealthy woman, she promised food and drink for the whole town if they could cure her son. Miraculously, her son was cured and the ever-grateful mother threw the mother of all parties. Townsmen dressed up in costumes and danced “for the boy” (para el chico)—thereby becoming known as the parachicos.
While this is the most popular tale of the fair, there are many versions and friendly townspeople were more than happy to sit down for hours over coffee and sweet bread to fill me in. My host mother was also thrilled to dress me up in a traditional Chiapanecan dress (supposedly resembling the ones worn by Maria de Angulo and her servants) and send me out into the streets to party with the parachicos.
Out of Town Excursions
While off the beaten track, Chiapa de Corzo is situated within a few hours’ drive of some of Chiapas most famous landmarks, allowing for some fascinating weekend getaways.
- San Cristobal de las Casas: a colonial town an hours’ drive from Chiapa de Corzo. The cobblestone streets are lined with cafes and jewellery stores catering to tourists and the cool climate is a welcome retreat from the heat that envelops the rest of Chiapas.
- El Chiflon Waterfall: the 120-meter waterfall is the highest in Chiapas and now offers a campground for overnight stays.
- Puerto Arista: this Pacific Ocean-front town offers a quiet coastal getaway and the most popular vacation spot for locals during Semana Santa.
- Tenam Puente and Chinkultik: small, but impressive Mayan ruins situated near Comitan, about two hours away.
Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto, Canada. Her 6-month stay in Chiapa de Corzo turned into a year. She returned five years later and has been living there since January 2011 with her boyfriend. She now teaches Saturday classes at Dunham Institute and has a bread-making business, selling homemade apple, banana and carrot loaf to locals.