Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Six

Today we went to Acteal, site of a 1997 massacre of forty-five mostly women and children who had met for prayer one night in the mountains of Chiapas. The survivors still await justice, resolution, closure. On the 22nd of every month, the people of Acteal hold a mass to commemorate the deaths of their loved ones. Today we would join them.

The taxi ride out into the mountains was like the winding trip to Oventic, but longer. This time I thought ahead: I brought my headphones and closed my eyes, and that seemed to work pretty well for the carsickness. Every once in a while my eyes fluttered open to reveal the green forest surrounding us, the valleys opening up far beneath us, the chilly sky whose clouds didn’t seem so far above us anymore. Once my sleepy eyes opened just in time to glimpse another autonomous Zapatista community, recognizable from its ESTA ES NUESTRA (THIS IS OURS) thumbprint sign (see the Oventic photo gallery for an example) and the two ski-masked guards leaning over a chain link fence at the entrance. It wasn’t five minutes down the road from there that I saw barbed wire and barracks: a military base, no photography allowed.

We found the village of Acteal about ten minutes later. The village actually lies down the slope, but above it, only a few feet from the road is a tall black sculpture called the “Pillar of Shame.” According to the plaque on the sculpture, one Pillar of Shame is placed each year in a particular spot in the world where a crime against humanity has taken place. The Pillar at Acteal is one of only five in the world.

We made our way down the cement staircase leading to the center of the community. The ceremony wouldn’t begin for another twenty minutes, but there were a few people milling about. Some wore what I can only assume was traditional dress: for men, short white tunics with black wool ponchos, for women, colorfully embroidered blouses and shawls. When we arrived, we were the only white people there, and we stood around awkwardly, not entirely sure what to do.

Soon it began: A group of maybe twenty men in slightly more elaborate traditional dress lined up in front of the church, accompanied by a priest and a deacon, both of whom also appeared to be of indigenous descent but who wore white albs and other familiarly catholic liturgical dress. They filed into a tiny church. No one else followed, so we didn’t either. Soon the group of leaders re-emerged carrying crosses in the blue Chiapas style and large banners of Guadalupe and San Pedro Martir. As the group passed us, the priest paused, turned to us and explained that they were going up the hill for part of the ceremony. Then he said these words: Les gustaría acompañarnos?

Would you like to accompany us? The words were spoken as if they had only their present meaning; he was inviting us to accompany the community on their walk up the hill. But a depth opened up under his words, and the sound echoed through the last three months. Since the beginning of this Mexico Semester Program we have been talking about accompaniment in ministry, accompaniment with humanity, accompaniment with those who suffer, accompaniment with the poor. Now here was a community of the poor, whose wives, daughters, sons had been killed on this very land, pausing to turn to us and ask: Would you like to accompany us?

Shaken and filled with a wrenching feeling I barely understood, I joined the line of people heading up the hill. I wanted to cry, but didn’t: this moment did not belong to me. But the emotion, within and without, was overwhelming. It is difficult to write about, even now.

At the top of the hill we reached the Pillar of Shame, and then the padre explained the next part of the ceremony, in which we would walk around the Pillar three times, like a caracol (seashell), in a manner consistent with Mayan spirituality. The first time around the Pillar, he told us, we were to meet the world. The second time we would meet ourselves. And the third time we would meet God.

I don’t know how it happened, but it happened. The first time around I saw the people walking in front of me, beside me, behind me. I saw the sculptured faces in the Pillar of Shame and felt with a physical ache an overwhelming sorrow over what had happened here. How could there be any hope?

The second time around I was going to think about myself, like we were supposed to, but all I could think about was how awkward I felt, being there, my white skin making me feel conspicuous, a visitor unsure how to act. And then I realized that that experience of awkwardness, of oddness, of discomfort, was exactly what it meant to meet myself, truly, in that moment.

Then the third and last time around the Pillar I noticed for the first time a cross, about the size of a person, planted roughly in the dirt a few feet away, the valley opening up behind it. I thought of the military base not far from here and I thought of the paramilitaries who inflicted such awful violence here and I thought of the powers of the world, large and small, fighting each other over land, or over something that comes from land (for what, ultimately, does not come from the land?) And then I remembered that tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday. And then something clicked, and words flew through my head, barely achieving coherence…


With a cross planted in the dirt God stakes her claim: ESTA ES NUESTRA. That claim resounds through the universe, piercing it like a sword in a sacred heart, tearing open a space of faith, hope, and love that no army can close up – though they continue to try, flailing away, trying to reassert their power over land, over us, trying to claim what they still think is theirs, not realizing that the war is over. The Zapatistas say another world is possible. But this cross planted in the dirt says even more. It says, it announces, that another world has already begun. Viva Cristo Rey…


We made our way back down the hill to a little amphitheatre seemingly constructed for this purpose. Behind the amphitheatre the valley lies open like a gaping wound, but it is green, so green…creation is all around us.

As the service begins, the presider asks visitors to introduce themselves. Kim, our program director, introduces us. Upon learning that we are seminarians, the presider asks if there are any pastors among us, and invites them to say a few words, and to help lead the service. Kim makes a little nod of his head, as if to gather strength, thoughts, faith? I don’t know. But as he strode to the front to take his place as a fellow presider, I saw in Kim what I saw earlier this year in Dave and Steve, what I saw in years past in David, in Lyle, in countless others at different times in my life: a pastor, a glimpse of what I might be in years to come. Mentoring can take place in months or even in just one moment…

The presider says a few more words. He speaks in Spanish, and I’m not really understanding what he’s saying now. But Quinn, one of my classmates, suddenly cracks a forced smile. Through her teeth, she whispers: They want us to sing a song.

We have not prepared anything, and we have no hymnbooks. None of us are trained singers, by any means. But of course, we cannot say no. After rapid-fire discussion we decide to sing the first verse of Amazing Grace, which, it seems, is the only thing all of us can sing off the top of our heads. Back in my seat, I resolve to learn more songs by heart.

The mass proceeds. It is spoken in both English and an indigenous language – Tzotzil, I think. There is music made with guitars and violins, the instruments clearly made by hand out of wood and completely unvarnished. Their stringed sound reminds me of rough, unpolished Appalachian music, the kind you can hear in old recordings that haven’t been cleaned up too much.

After the sacrament of holy communion, in which we visitors are invited to participate, everyone is invited forward to pick up a few flowers. We take them down a set of cement stairs that descend around and below the stage of the amphiteatre. We enter a large, dark room, with a cement floor. On the walls there is a picture of each person who was killed. On the floor there are names. The dead are buried here.

We hold our flowers and gather together. The priest calls out names of people, of groups of people – martyrs, innocents, surviving citizens, even us visitors – and after each we all yell “VIVA!” We lay our flowers at the foot of a cross around which are photos of those killed.

We walk quietly back upstairs, each at our own pace. When we are gathered again, the priest announces that the close of the service is a traditional Mayan dance. You don’t need to know all the steps to join in, you just dance.

And so we danced.

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