In Chiapas, Death and Defeat Are Never Final

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Juana Galvan’s parents, poor Indios in Mexico’s state of Chiapas, sell her into marriage at 14 for the price of a mule. Juana becomes a beast of burden. Her babies are stillborn. Her husband abuses her. She runs away, an insult to his male pride, and is caught and beaten; next time, she knows, he will kill her. So she escapes into the Lacandona Jungle and joins the rebels who are preparing for the 1994 Zapatista uprising. Life as a guerrilla transforms her; she becomes a leader.

The young Quintin Osuna grows up on a vast coffee plantation where his people have lived in near-slavery ever since the Spanish conquest. The owner, Don Absolon Mayorga, is offended by Quintin’s friendship with his son, Rufino, and sentences the boy to life in a jungle logging camp, brutal and dangerous work that few survive for long. Quintin kills an overseer and escapes, renaming himself Orlando Flores. Years later, discovering that Don Absolon, now dead, murdered Quintin’s parents as punishment for their son’s crime, Orlando takes revenge by killing Rufino, who has become a tyrant like his father. Orlando, too, joins the Zapatistas.

Adriana Mora, a Los Angeles-born photojournalist, is haunted by nightmares. When she was 4, her mother killed her father, then committed suicide. Adriana remembers being locked in their apartment with the two corpses for days before neighbors found them. Later a foster mother burned her with boiling water. But Adriana’s most terrifying dreams--of being chased by fierce dogs through a forest--don’t seem connected to her own life. In Chiapas, however, where Juana persuades her to document the rebellion, a Lacandon tribal shaman, Chan K’in, offers clues to the mystery.


The world Chan K’in reveals--the world of Graciela Limon’s fifth novel--is one in which people’s lives “repeat.” In tales handed down over the centuries, women who look like Juana and Adriana have figured in previous revolts against Spanish conquistadores, plantation owners and Mexican government troops. (In one of these stories, Huitzitzilin, the Aztec heroine of Limon’s 1996 novel “Song of the Hummingbird,” puts in an appearance.) In a past life, Adriana did indeed flee man-killing dogs. Dreams can also be windows on the future: Orlando foresees details of his own execution.

Limon, a professor emeritus of U.S.-Latino literature at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, won an American Book Award for “In Search of Bernabe.” She is particularly interested in the post-conquest history of Mexico’s indigenous people, and in “Erased Faces”--the title refers to the masks Zapatista insurgents wore--she makes a convincing case that the 1994 uprising was the result of nearly 500 years of oppression and misery.


On the mystical level, the long view this novel takes is an affirmation that death and defeat are never final. Orlando is killed in the uprising. Juana is killed in the massacre by right-wing death squads at Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997. Adriana, who has become her lover--the ultimate transgression in a hierarchical, male-dominated society--departs, mourning, for the States. But all of them expect to return and continue the struggle.

It’s too bad that this deeply felt, ambitious novel is so clumsily executed. Limon’s exposition and dialogue are wooden, her transitions jarring. Her narrative is clogged by flashbacks. Her characters--the long-suffering poor and the arrogant rich--have a socialist-realist one-sidedness; they lack the shading and subtlety that would make them believable. None of her scenes, however dramatic, quite achieves its potential effect.

“Erased Faces,” with its emphasis on individual lives, especially those of women, is a good introduction for those who know little about the Chiapas revolt, but its strength as moral vision is offset by its weakness as journalism. The contemporary context of the revolt--Mexican economics and politics, the military odds, sources of support for the rebel movement and conflicts within it--is as murky here as the historical justification is clear.