Lebron, the Man of Steel, and Zinacantán

David Feurerbach was a Natik intern during the summer of 2016, between his junior and senior year at Denver University, in the International Studies Department.  His job was to document all our projects in Guatemala and Chiapas through photographs and videos. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with all of Natik’s programs…




As I walked through the market, past the fruit and vegetable vendors, past the row of stands selling chickens, the chickens, recently plucked and gutted, resting upside down with their necks dangling over the side of the counters, resembling the toy, rubber chickens that we used to play with as kids, and past the shops selling artisan textiles, I thought about the week ahead of me in Zinacantán. I had arrived in Chiapas one week earlier to start my summer internship as the photographer and videographer for Natik, and was beginning to adjust to my new life in San Cristobal de las Casas, which is an old colonial city with an interesting mix of tourism and local culture. But now I was heading to Zinacantán to spend the week living with a family, I was unsure of what to expect.

Zinacantán is a small, indigenous town, hidden in the mountains outside of San Cristobal, that retains its traditional culture and way of life. The main language spoken is Tzotzil and many of the inhabitants, including the men, continue to wear the traditional clothing. Zinacantán is a different world from the one in which I grew up in, and so I was unsure if I would be able to find ways to connect with the people.

I emerged from the market and arrived at the transport station. I climbed into the van and greeted the others already aboard. After waiting for about 20 minutes for more passengers (the local transports here generally don’t have a schedule; they leave when they are full), we headed out for Zinacantán.

After about 30 minutes, with my knees jammed into the seat in front of me (the disadvantage of being tall), we arrived. I headed for the house of Doña Magdalena, where I would wait for the family where I would be staying for the week to pick me up.

I arrived at the house just before lunch, and found Doña Magdalena and Xunka seated in the kitchen next to the wood stove chatting in Tzotzil. When I entered, they greeted me and found a chair for me to sit, and then resumed their conversation. I sat for a while listening to the rhythmic flow of the indigenous language, every now and then picking up on a Spanish word that was integrated into their conversation. After a while, Teresa and her husband, Juan Miguel, arrived with their two kids who they had just picked up from the school. Gabriel, (6), and Rogelio, (4), were both full of energy. As Doña Magdalena finished cooking lunch, they ran around the kitchen chasing the cat and the chickens which occasionally wandered in from outside.

Doña Magdalena asked me if I was hungry as she handed me a bowl of vegetable soup, (which made the question more rhetorical than real). That was certainly not a problem for me, as I am always ready to eat. I sat with the family around the wood stove eating the soup and tortillas (meals are always served with a giant stack of tortillas), listening to the conversation in Tzotzil and not understanding anything. The kids occasionally took a break from playing to eat a few bites before returning to their fun. Occasionally one of the members of the family would ask me a question in Spanish to which I would respond, and then the conversation would switch back to Tzotzil.

After lunch, I left with Teresa, Juan Miguel, and the kids to go to their home. I had just set my backpack down when Gabriel and Rogelio burst into the room.

“Let’s watch a movie!” Gabriel enthusiastically said in Spanish.

I agreed, so Gabriel climbed up onto the dresser to start the DVD player. Then, seated on the bed with our backs against the wall, we waited for the machine to read the disc. I was curious to discover what movie I would be watching here in the small, quiet town of Zinacantán, and was surprised when I read the the words on the title screen – “Superman: Hombre de Hierro.”

Gabriel and Rogelio jumped on the bed during the parts that they didn’t find interesting, and explained in great detail the parts that they did find interesting. After the movie, Gabriel asked me if I wanted to watch another. I was content watching another movie, and so Gabriel, Rogelio, and I searched through their collection of three movies. Due to scratches and imperfections, none of the other three movies worked, so we started watching “Superman: Hombre de Hierro” for a second time.

About halfway through the movie, Teresa called to us that dinner was ready. Glad that I would not have to watch the entire movie a second time, we headed to the kitchen to eat.

For dinner we ate eggs with a tomato salsa, and, of course, tortillas. I was thrilled, as I love eggs, and usually eat them twice a day back home in the States. (I may have discovered the only place where the people eat as many eggs as I do!). The dinner conversation was about half in Tzotzil and half in Spanish. When the kids finished their meal they ran off to play, and I stayed in the kitchen talking with Teresa and Juan Miguel.

During our conversation, I learned that Juan Miguel had actually spent a couple of years in the U.S. working as a migrant laborer, sending money back home to Zinacantán to support the family. He had worked in Florida and a couple other states in the Southeast, so we shared stories about the differences between that part of the U.S. and Colorado, where I have spent the majority of my life.

As Juan Miguel and I continued chatting, Gabriel entered the kitchen full of excitement. He ran up to us to report that the white team was winning by two and therefore was going to win. Curious to discover what game he was talking about, I left with Gabriel to go to his parent’s room where he and Rogelio were watching the game. As I entered the room, Lebron James was in the process of getting fouled as he drove into the paint. Gabriel and Rogelio were watching Game 5 of the NBA finals!

I had watched some of the conference finals games with my friends back in Colorado, but had not had the chance to see any games of the finals since arriving in Chiapas for my summer internship. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the first game of the finals that I would be able to watch would be in the quiet, indigenous town of Zinacantán. I sat on the floor and watched the game with Gabriel and Rogelio.

Later, Juan Miguel and Teresa joined us. By the end of the third quarter, Teresa and the kids had fallen asleep, but Juan Miguel and I stayed up to see the outcome. Having lived in Florida, he had watched Lebron, who at the time was playing for the Miami Heat, and played a lot on TV. So we talked about Lebron. And then we talked about how great the Warriors are, and about the shooting ability of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Eventually, our conversation included other topics also.

As I laid in bed waiting to fall asleep, I reflected on my first day in Zinacantán. When I had walked through the market that morning, thinking about the coming week, I had certainly not expected to watch Superman and the NBA finals on my first day! I guess this is what my International Relations professors are referring to when they talk about the cultural effects of globalization. However, I do not see this as a negative consequence of globalization, as many scholars would argue.

The idea of cultural homogenization, the idea that Western culture is a dominating force that will lead to a world in which local cultures are replaced by Western culture, has become a prevalent idea in the field of International Relations. But I do not see it this way. Parts of Western culture have certainly found their way into Zinacantán. Yet, at the same time, Zinacantán retains the majority of its traditional values and customs. And it is true that the culture of Zinacantán has changed over the years, but this is true of all cultures. Cultures are constantly evolving and adapting, Western culture included. I do not believe that globalization is leading to one, homogenized culture. On the contrary, I believe that globalization is opening the door for different cultures to connect in more profound ways.

For me, even though it was something as simple as watching a movie with Gabriel and Rogelio, or talking about a sport with Juan Miguel, having something in common allowed us to share in the similarities between our two cultures. It also opened the door to discussion and reflection on the differences. Ultimately, it made us realize that even though our two worlds are very different, we can still share a meaningful connection.