Guatemala Reconquers the Cute Lid

“Cute Lid City” might be what U.S. truckers would name Tapachula if they drove down this far. Why? Well, a tapa is a lid, and chula means cute. Long before truckers existed, the city was called the Pearl of Soconusco. You may or may not agree with this labeling. But if you are reading this, you have probably been to Tapachula, or you will go sometime. And if you are like me, you are stricken with the presence of this isle of prosperity surrounded by a sea of blighting recession.

Each time I visit—which is often—I learn more of the secret of Tapachula’s success. Most recently, this happened when I absentmindedly made a purchase with a Q20 bill, instead of a 20-peso note. The change was in pesos, but it seemed that the cashier had given me too much. When I pointed this out, she did not give me an “oh-thanks-for-catching-the-mistake” look, but a “what’s-your-problem-and-can’t-you-see-I’m-busy” look.

“You gave me Q20, right?” she asked. Yeah, I wanted to say. But aren’t we in Mexico? “Oops,” is what I really said. “Never mind.”

This took place in a big store with an obvious appetite for Guatemalan currency. But small stores, hotels, taxis and internet cafés also take it. Even beggars seem to know how to put your quetzales to work.

I have come to think of Guatemala, rather than Tapachula itself, as the thing that is chula. Not that this city itself is not chula; it kind of is. But it is also the lid that federal Mexico puts on Central America. This is why the immigration officials at the border want to know where you are going. Just Tapachula, or some point beyond? If only the former, then you need not fill out a tourist card if you are from, say, the U.S. or Belgium or Australia. Guatemalans must do a little paperwork, but not much, considering they are entering a country that makes extreme efforts to keep the tapa on Central Americans who would go north, sneak into the United States, and compete for jobs there with Mexican nationals.

So that is why my friend Raquel Eunice Barrios, when asked if she has ever traveled abroad, responded, “No. I’ve only been to Tapachula, nada más.” She is only the latest Guatemalan to tell me this. But going to Tapachula really is legally going abroad, if not by much.

Owing to Mexican pragmatism, Tapachula has been put within reach of everyday Guatemalans. The Guatemalans can set foot in another country, and maybe buy something there, without going farther or—as it were—leaking from the “lid.” For them, it is a token foray into something mildly extraordinary.

In parallel fashion, my own father-in-law (also a Guatemalan) discovered years ago that he could experience a boat ride for a nominal fee. He was past 80 and had never been on a boat, but for Q5 he could enjoy a 23-minute lancha pública cruise that crosses Panajachel’s small bay and back. This is day tourism in Lake Atitlán, designed expressly for people like himself. Well, now he’s been here, done that.

So it is, then, with visits by Guatemalans to Cute Lid City. Maybe I will take my father-in-law there, too.

But the perception that Tapachula is Guatemalan—in the sense that going there is not quite going to Mexico (or not quite leaving Guatemala)—goes deeper than wiping one’s feet on the welcome mat put out by Mexican pragmatism. Tapachula is, or once was, itself Guatemalan—sort of. And Guatemalans are today reclaiming it.

The city is de facto capital of a region of Chiapas State called Soconusco, a slab of territory, about half the size of El Salvador, in the extreme southeast of Mexico.

Following the war of independence from Spain in 1821, all of Central America was briefly part of the Mexican Empire. But only Chiapas was ultimately absorbed by Mexico. Yet Soconusco, via plebiscite, attempted to annex itself from Chiapas (and Mexico) to Guatemala in 1824. Guatemala accepted this, but in another plebiscite in 1840, Soconusco reverted to Chiapas.

Guatemalan teachers still tell kids that the voting was irregular, and thus Soconusco was wrongly wrested from their country. Possibly all true. And yet Soconusco, conquered province that it might be, is today one of the most prosperous parts of Mexico. Indeed, it is a counterpoint even to the rest of Chiapas, which is consistently near the bottom among Mexico’s 32 states in social indicators. Kind of like Mississippi in the U.S., Sicily in Italy, or Mecklenberg in Germany.

The focus of this prosperity is, of couse, the region’s pearl, Tapachula. Unlike so many border cities, it is a draw for reasons other than its siting. I have always found ports and border towns to be grubby places, full of people you would like to avoid: smugglers, pimps, petty thieves, corrupt officials. But Tapachula, though its tourism assets remain limited, is a city with clear skin and nuclear-family domesticity.

It is also, due apparently to the same official pragmatism that allows Tapachula to be open to Central Americans, a place where very many Guatemalans actually find long-term work, without being pursued by the local Migra. As near as I can tell, the rules for Guatemalans who work there are just as lax for Guatemalans who visit. So it is that reclamation is under way. There will never, obviously, be another plebiscite, much less a political secession for Soconusco. But reconquest, on subtler levels, is under way.

A juice bar that my sons and I always visit is staffed solely by Guatemalan women. We know their names, and they ours, and they know what to make for us when we order “the usual.” They always ask us about things “back home.” One thing I tell them is that jobs there are not, for the moment, easy to get. They nod in a way that tells me that they will not soon be returning to Guatemala.

Then again, maybe they have never really left.

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