San Cristóbal de las Casas was Asheville’s first Mexican sister city. The relationship dates back to 1994—a difficult time for both the city and the southeastern state of Chiapas in which it lies. That year, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation used San Cristóbal as one of the staging points for its rebellion against the Mexican government. The fighting largely subsided years ago, but the region remains among the poorest in Mexico.
That history and the accompanying challenges for the area’s women caught the attention of Yancey County resident Sarah Delcourt. In the 1990s, Asheville Sister Cities delegates had established connections with a woman doctor who’d organized a training program for local midwives and another woman who was running a shelter and education program for pregnant women who’d been raped, abused or kicked out of their communities, says Delcourt. The women’s shelter—the Hogar Communitario Yach’il Antzetic—offers prenatal care and job training, she explains.
For three months in 2006, Delcourt volunteered in such programs in San Cristóbal. With her background in domestic-violence programs here and her experience with Western North Carolina’s Mexican population, Delcourt knew she wanted to get involved. “It’s an amazing experience, developing personal connections with the people and helping these women become self-sustaining,” she notes.
Asheville Sister Cities has also helped the town complete a year-round, reliable drinking-water system serving about a third of its residents. Donations have included six wheelchairs for the town’s basketball team for physically handicapped residents and refurbished computers for schools that had none, says Delcourt.
There have also been cultural exchanges, such as an Asheville Art Museum exhibit of Trudy Blom’s photos of the Lacandon Maya and an international art show, titled “Me and My Family,” inspired by San Cristóbal artist Kiki Suarez and featuring the work of Asheville students.
But there’s another element. Kitty Boniske, one of Asheville Sister Cities’ original organizers, remembers a San Cristóbal trip that included a visit to a nearby Mayan ruin. After all the other tourists had gone, her group lingered as a rainstorm passed, the sun set and howler monkeys started their evening cacophony. “That was a magical moment,” she recalls.
Info: Asheville Sister Cities Inc., 33 Page Ave., Asheville NC 28802 (firstname.lastname@example.org).