Sunday, July 5, 2015

Slowing down social inequality: the role of speed bumps in Chiapas

A stray dog sleeps on a speed bump, or tope.
In the United States, a speed bump is a nuisance, which has the sole purpose of forcing cars to decelerate at locations that seem reasonably justifiable to do so. However in Mexico, speed bumps, known as topes, may have a more social component because they give oppressed people a voice. This phenomenon is widespread in the highlands of Chiapas.

For many years, the Maya of Chiapas have been marginalized and forced to plant their crops on patchy hillsides, equating to heavy erosion and high yields. This subjugation reached its boiling point in 1994 when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), headed by former professor Subcomandante Marcos, declared war on the Mexican government. After making strong statements by capturing several cities across the state and freeing every prisoner incarcerated in the prison of San Cristóbal de las Casas, it was quite evident the Maya were ready to take a stand.  This movement was the first time that the indigenous people of Chiapas were able to attempt to create ripples of change and stand up to their perceived oppressors.

Twenty years later, this culture has continued its strong-willed attitude in order to grasp onto perhaps its only chance to have direct control. Families and business owners in the small Maya towns that line the sides of roads throughout the region construct topes to stop cars from zooming past.

But there is much more to this story, for the motivation does not simply stem from the level of safety that is achieved as a result of a speed bump. There are resentful intentions fueling this construction, at least in part, due to the feelings evoked by the Zapatista Movement. Although this may seem like an insignificant victory from a “big-picture” perspective, it is pivotal for these people because it is a situation they are able to absolutely control. Moreover, they take advantage of the commercial opportunity presented as cars slow down. Topes are often built right outside of tiny shops selling sodas and snacks to travelers.  The passionately indignant nature of some modern Maya stems from the centuries of oppression imposed on them.
A scenic view on the way to San Cristóbal de las Casas.
On the drive from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas there are an enormous amount of topes. After driving this road once already this season, we decided to perform a miniature study on our second trip. Joining us this time was Dr. Christopher Duffy, a hydrologist from the Penn State College of Engineering. Behind his painstakingly comprehensive recording, we were able to determine there are 295 topes along this stretch of highway. Additionally, we have developed a thorough typology in order to to categorize and label each individual type of tope. For example, flat-toppers are ones that have a width similar to that of a crosswalk, mountaintops are narrower with a more dramatic incline, and vibradores (the name used on signs alongside the road) are several small speed bumps in a row to slow the car over a greater distance. These are the three of the types we experienced with the greatest frequency throughout the drive.

The next steps are to take measurements such as width and height and also to examine the geographic locations of the various types of topes. This would mean we would be able to solidify the categories we established in the typology by utilizing measurement-based parameters. Further, creating a geospatial distribution map of these speed bumps would aid in determining which villages have the highest incidence of tope construction.  From there, the inhabitants who built the topes would be interviewed to determine their motive for doing so.

As is evident in this preliminary research, the actions taken to combat social inequality can take many different and sometimes unexpected forms. When a person from a non-oppressed social group is observing this type of rebellion, it is difficult to understand the yearning to have a voice that exploited people experience. This study could shed light on the oppression that the modern Maya of highland Chiapas are still enduring today. 

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