The Ancient Zinacantec Merchants

The translation that follows is from one of a number of booklets written in a native language and Spanish by the Chiapas Writers Cooperative. The oral tales presented in the booklets are printed with the assistance of the Mexican Ministry of Education. The initial distribution of the publications to the native communities is preceded by a puppet show which enacts the written story.

The Zinacantecs are primarily merchants. Before the Spanish conquered them, they weren't involved in agriculture at all, only commerce. In those times, many of them had to travel to Villahermosa in search of trade goods for which they could barter highland products. The inhabitants of Villahermosa were tobacco farmers and the Zinacantecs made amber.

One day a group of Zinacantecs went to inform the cacique of the town that they were going to take a trip to Villahermosa. "Sir," they said, "we have come to inform you that we want to travel to Villahermosa in search of tobacco."

"Very well, go then, but I ask this one thing of you; that you cut your hair and dress neatly so that they don't do you any harm there."

"Yes sir, we will carry out your orders," answered the travellers. After asking permission they went to cut their hair and clean themselves up.

The next day they set out for Villahermosa, carrying their walking sticks to defend themselves. When they returned, they went to the cacique. "Honorable sir," they said, "we have now returned from our trip. All the people in Villahermosa are tobacco farmers. Here, we have brought you a little. Try it; you can see our trip was not in vain."

"Very good, thank you," answered the cacique. "You obtained the merchandise you were seeking. What was that place like? Are they good people? Did they bother you?"

"Well, the place is all right, but it's very hot there. The people are very honest. When we arrived, we asked to whom we could speak, and they told us we should speak to their cacique. We asked him who planted the tobacco. 'Oh, is that what you came looking for?' he asked us."

"'Yes, sir, we came to trade our amber and feathers,' we answered."

"'Well, all right, we'll show you who has planted it,' he said to us. Then they took us to show us who the tobacco planters were, but it was getting late. When we got there, we asked the owner of the tobacco crop if he was interested in trading it for amber and macaw feathers. 'Why not, how much do you want?' he said to us. There, inside their house, they had the leaves of tobacco laid out. Then we arranged our loads for the return trip. We asked where we could sleep because by then it was getting dark. 'Don't worry, you can sleep here,' they told us. So we slept in the house of the tobacco farmer. The next day we set out on the road back here, and we have just arrived. It was a lot of work. Thank God we arrived safely."

"Bah! It's pretty far. How many days did it take you to get here?" asked the cacique. "Oh, yes, it is far," they answered. "It took us six days to get there, and the same time to return," "Gracious, it took you a long time," said the cacique. "Yes, sir," they said.

Some time afterward they went to talk to him about going on another trip: "Honorable sir, we have come to tell you of our plan to leave the day after tomorrow on a trip to Guatemala to sell our merchandise. We have come to you to inform you of our intentions, in case something happens to us." "That is fine, do not worry, we will be waiting for you," he answered.

Two days late, they started on their trip toward Guatemala to sell their merchandise. But, unfortunately for them, they didn't know what the Guatemalans were like, and didn't return from there.

The cacique of Zinacantán was very upset when he saw that the travellers hadn't returned, and he gathered together all the townspeople to explain to them that a group had set out for Guatemala. "Fellow townspeople, listen to what I have to say: some of our fellow men went to Guatemala to sell tobacco, but we are wondering what happened to them because they left several weeks ago and they still have not returned. What do you think we should do? In my opinion, the best thing would be for some of us to go and see what has become of them" said the cacique of the town. "Good idea, sir, the best thing is for some of us to go to see what has happened to them," the townspeople said.

So some of them went to see what had become of the other merchants. When they got to Guatemala, they, too, were taken. One of them, however, managed to get back to Zinacantán. He was the one who told them what had occurred in Guatemala. "Dear friends," he said to the townspeople, "I have returned alone, while all our fellow merchants remain imprisoned. The Guatemalans, it turns out, are very fierce. My companions ended up being put together with those who went first. I was able to escape because I turned myself into a green fly. I stayed stuck to the wall, and watched what they were doing."

"What crime did our fellow merchants commit?" the cacique of the town wanted to know. "They put them in prison for no reason, and in addition they have castrated them and fattened them up because they want to render their fat. When they saw that one of the prisoners was missing, they went to inform their cacique. He quickly called together all his people, but I couldn't hear what they said," the Green Fly told them.

"Well, we had better send for Señor Lightning, to see what he suggests," said the cacique. So they sent for him, because he was the strongest man among them and knew how to turn himself into a bolt of lightning. Lightning arrived and spoke to the Green Fly. When he heard what had happened in Guatemala, he immediately had four other people sent for, and when all of them were gathered together they began to discuss the situation. "So, my friends, now that we are all gathered here, I would like to hear what you think we should do about our fellow merchants who went to Guatemala? They have been imprisoned and castrated, and the Guatemalans have fattened them up because they want to render their fat," said the Lightning.

"Because I managed to escape, the people there are furious," said the Green Fly. "Well, if there's nothing more to be said, each of us can tell what he is," they said. "Very well, I would like you to know that I am Lightning," said the strongest of them. "And I am Whirlwind," said the second. "I am Mist," said the third. "I am Hawk," said the fourth. "And I am Butterfly," said the fifth. "Very good, and with Green Fly, that makes six of us. Now we won't have any problems. Let's go find our friends," they said.

"You, Whirlwind and Mist, come with me," said Lightning. "The other three will do as we say." "Yes, sir," they said. "We have to tell the cacique to gather together all the townspeople to explain to them that we are going to rescue our brothers in Guatemala," they said.

The next day, when all the inhabitants of Zinacantán were assembled, they told them: "Fellow citizens, we want to tell you that tomorrow the six of us are going to go to rescue our friends who have been imprisoned in Guatemala. We request that if we have not returned in three days, you will send the man with the strong hand to rescue us," said the six old men.

"All right, go ahead and fight them. And don't worry, if something should happen to you, we will alert the man with the strong hand right away," said all the inhabitants.

After the meeting the travellers got ready to leave. "Tomorrow we will leave at 3 in the morning so that we will have time to look for a place to sleep," said the six old men.

The next day they set off early for Guatemala, but they didn't reach the capital and had to find a place to sleep in a cave close to the city. After they were settled into the cave, the Lightning said, "Butterfly, go and see what the Guatemalans are doing." "All right," answered Butterfly. So he went to see what their enemies were doing. Butterfly returned very soon with this news. "I have returned, Mr. Lightning. The Guatemalans are happy, and our friends are still in prison." "Oh, damn!" exclaimed Lightning.

"Now, Hawk, it's your turn. Go steal some chickens for our meal. Bring me the best ones you can find," said Lightning. "Yes, sir, Mr. Lightning," said Hawk. And he went in search of the biggest chickens he could find. The Guatemalans were very surprised to see Hawk carrying off their big chickens; they didn't realize that it was the work of the enemy.

With everything Hawk brought them they prepared a good meal and ate well. After the meal. Lightning made another command. "You, Green Fly, go and see what the Guatemalans are up to."

Green Fly went to see what the Guatemalans were doing; after a while he returned and told them what he had seen. "Mr. Lightning, I have returned. When I got there, they were all sunning themselves in front of the prison. There were some cooks on one side of the prison. While they were cooking, I put worms in the food. When they saw the worms, the cooks went to tell the cacique. 'It isn't possible! Maybe the enemies have arrived - our food is full of worms,' they told him. The cacique went to see the spoiled food and became very angry. Then he went to meet with the townspeople, and they were gathering when I left," said Green Fly.

"Oh, curses! All right, if they are all gathering together, we will kill all of them there. You, Butterfly, Hawk and Green Fly, go up there to the top of the hill; from there you can watch what we are doing. If they try to catch you, escape with the wind. We three will go alone to kill the Guatemalans," said the three old men.

"All right," answered Butterfly, Hawk and Green Fly. Then they withdrew to the hilltop and from there watched what their three companions were doing. The three strong men arrived in the city dressed as if they were merchants; but it was a trick. They weren't selling anything. They went directly to the front of the jail, trying to find out where they could sell their wares, and they spoke to the Guatemalans. "What do you want here," asked the Guatemalans. "Nothing, we have come to sell a little tobacco." "Oh, all right, you can sell it here," said the Guatemalans.

Then the old men saw their friends locked up there, and they went up to greet them. "What happened, friends. Why have they put you in prison?" asked the three old men. "For no reason, they put us in prison, and they have castrated us and are fattening us up to render our fat," said the prisoners.

"Oh, so they hurt you! But don't worry. We have come to get you out of here. Wait and you will see us destroy this jail and beat these accursed Guatemalans," said the three old men. "Good, do that for us," said the prisoners.

Then those three strong old men, while they were talking to their friends, were treacherously grabbed and thrown into the prison, where they were given rum to drink. The Guatemalans didn't realize that these Zinacantecans were very strong. The Zinacantecans drank the rum until it was all gone, but they didn't feel anything, they remained the same as before. They were given another carafe, but they didn't get drunk on that one either.

The Guatemalans were very surprised to see that they didn't get drunk. They said, "But, why don't they fall to the floor? Maybe they have some secret, but let's give them another carafe, and see what happens." So they gave them another. The old men decided to fall to the floor, even though they weren't really drunk, just to fool their enemies. Then the Guatemalans came to castrate the Zinacantecans who were lying on the floor. The next moment it became cloudy. When the castrators had the men's testicles in their hands, a bolt of lightning suddenly struck, destroying the prison. The castrators and their companions died. Half of all the Guatemalans died.

The Whirlwind began to blow and whirl the people up into the air, tossing about all their belongings. In that way, the prisoners got out, and returned together with the six powerful elders.

So ends the story of the Zinacantecan elders about how the first merchants travelled in those times.

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