SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Flor de María López had a rough childhood. “Bad friends, bad companions, bad advice,” she says. López grew up in San Juan Chamula, a town in the central Chiapas highlands in southern Mexico where many Tsotsil people live. Throughout middle and high school, she felt unmoored. To cope, she started drinking.
These days, López, 21, expresses herself through painting and singing. “It helps you feel good. It distracts you … keeps you from going down dangerous paths,” she says. “How I would have liked to know this when I was 12 or 14.” López is part of a new orchestra in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from her hometown. Created in 2022, the orchestra is an initiative of a group of young people at the Centro Cultural de la Zona Norte, a community space that provides cultural programming for young people in the city — many of whom have no other creative outlet.
The Peace Orchestra is comprised of local indigenous youth, many of them Tsotsil like López. This fills her with great joy. “It’s like you’re being hugged to prevent you from going down those paths,” she says. “As if you’re being told, ‘Come with us, don’t go there — there’s a place for you here.’”
Unlike San Juan Chamula, which is inhabited and administered entirely by Tsotsil men and women, about a third of the more than 215,800 residents of San Cristóbal de Las Casas are mostly Tsotsil and Tseltal. Six out of 10 of them live in poverty. Many are relative newcomers to the city. Some relocated to the outskirts of the city due to clashes between Catholic and Protestant groups in the 1970s — San Juan Chamula was particularly affected by religious conflict during this time. Others migrated due to increasing land scarcity in the rural parts of the state, causing them to set their sights on cities for greater economic opportunities.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
“This is an area of forced internal displacements, so there’s already stigma and social rejection simply for being indigenous, by the population that lives closer to the city center,” says Yolanda Pérez Hernández, who is involved with various youth nonprofits, including Casa de la Cultura, where López performs.
Young people lack spaces where they can exist without judgment, Pérez Hernández says — especially in the northern part of the city, where the Tsotsil and Tseltal communities are concentrated. This is where the cultural center is located, close to the city’s busiest market, amid carpentry shops and local bus terminals, housed in a previously abandoned building. Its six rooms host dance classes and orchestra rehearsals, and an outdoor space will soon become a vegetable garden.
In Chiapas, a staggering 97.5% of indigenous children live in poverty. According to a 2021 report by the Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México, a network for children’s rights, 8.1% of children in the state are at risk of recruitment by organized crime due to their vulnerable social and economic status. Across Mexico, per the report, the number of children conscripted by criminal groups rose from 30,000 in 2015 to 460,000 in 2018.
In some ways, however, the perception of criminality exceeds reality in recent years. For instance, the image of the so-called motoneto has gripped popular imagination in San Cristóbal de Las Casas and beyond. The term refers to young men supposedly from San Juan Chamula who speed through the city on motorcycles, “spreading terror allegedly at the behest of politicians and narcos. Any young person commuting on a motorcycle, especially if they belong to an indigenous community, is now a source of fear and distrust — leading to further ostracization,” says Leonardo Toledo Garibaldi, a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
The social ruptures caused by the coronavirus pandemic have also left many young people feeling adrift. “Now that the pandemic and quarantine have come to an end, there’s a need to open up spaces so we can spend time with one another again,” Pérez Hernández says. “We need to heal so we can create new dynamics besides those that grew out of the trauma of familial loss, young people who … had to work and stop going to school.” According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, more than 5 million young Mexicans did not enroll in school due to the coronavirus or a lack of resources. Some found online classes unhelpful or lacked access to a computer, phone or internet, while others were dealing with upheaval at home, such as a family member or guardian losing their job.
“This orchestra is meant to be a tool for social integration,” says Jorge Guillén, 25, member of a youth nonprofit called Sociedad en Acción and a driving force behind the initiative. Orchestra classes take place on weekday evenings, with various other workshops, such as music therapy and conflict resolution, sprinkled throughout. The goal, Guillén says, is an orchestra of 150 young people: 90 on instruments and 60 in the choir. “We currently have 46 students and daily activities with close to 100 daily participants.” The group’s first official performance took place last August.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
Gil Valentín Pérez, 10, had never sung before, but he joined the choir anyway. “I really like the way it sounds,” he says. “I like how it combines with music. I feel happy when I sing. It feels freeing.” When Tania Cristal Pérez López, 12, joined the orchestra, at the encouragement of Flor de María López, her aunt, she had been playing the keyboard for nearly five years. She likes how close the cultural space is to her own home — she fears being robbed or kidnapped in San Cristóbal de Las Casas if she ventures outside her neighborhood. “It is unsafe, even if it is beautiful,” she says of her city.
But at Centro Cultural de la Zona Norte, she can set those worries aside, if only temporarily. “Art can relax us,” she says. “It really is like a medicine.” She likes to play all kinds of music, but her favorite melody is the Mexican national anthem.