Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting Ready for Chiapas

In the 1930s, in Mexico´s southernmost state of Chiapas, a little girl travelled to her family´s ranch for the holidays. She made the journey as generations of the state´s white landowners had done, and as at least one generation to come would still do, sitting on a chair strapped to the back of an Indian. Her mother travelled on the back of another man, her little brother on the back of a third, perched for days on their mounts, up rainforest-covered elevations and down steep ravines, in the suffocating heat of the dry season or through drenching rains. In Chiapas, long after the Mexican Revolution had brought the idea of equality, at least, to the rest of the country`s citizens, the owners of the state´s most productive land continued to use the destitute indigenous majority as beasts of burden, and considered this the rightful order of things. In the particular case of this little girl, however, several exceptional things occurred: as she grew up she came to understand the twisted nature of the relationship between her family and the people who served them; she remembered what she had seen; and she became a writer. In due course she wrote the novel we now have before us in a fluid and powerful translation whose English title is stunningly apt: The Book of Lamentations.

-from Alma Guillermoprieto`s introduction to Rosario Catellanos´1962 novel The Book of Lamentations, which I have been reading these last few days.


On Monday morning the Mexico Semester Program leaves for Chiapas for a mini-course within the program called "The Prophetic Role of the Church." Now, I think sometimes in the larger church we overuse the word "prophetic" without really understanding what it means. But it`s hard to speak of Chiapas without feeling like a cry for justice is desperately needed. I have already included a few Chiapas links in an earlier post, but the Wikipedia entry here is especially helpful.

I´ve been spending much of the last week reading up on the recent history of the Chiapanecos, mostly in a book called The People`s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas and Why He Matters by Gary MacEoin. As the title indicates, MacEoin goes into detail about Bishop Ruiz and his ministry of accompaniment and empowerment among the indigenous peoples surrounding San Cristobal de las Casas.

But MacEoin also goes into detail to show that the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 was no aberration, was no bizarre blip, was in fact more than just a part of some raucous Rage Against the Machine video. The living indigenous of Mexico have always been treated as a second class, even as their history and handcrafts are lifted up as part of the Mexico`s glorious national story. Many indigenous do not speak Spanish but indigenous languages - languages spoken before the European conquerors arrived - like Nahuatl or Tzotzil or any other of the 62 indigenous languges spoken in Mexico.

This is always a stunning thought experiment for me: People are always saying immigrants to the United States should learn English. For pragmatic reasons this probably makes sense. But imagine that you are not an immigrant, imagine that this is the land of your ancient ancestors who have lived here for thousands of years and who have spoken the language that you now speak. But now that language no longer counts. Now that language isolates you, marginalizes you, makes it impossible for you to participate fully in the life of your country. You have to learn a foreign language to live in your homeland.

But the language problem is small compared to another problem: an insidious racism that says native Americans are not as perfect, not as human as those with European blood. As recently as the 20th century elaborate (and insane) hierarchies developed in which Spanish (or, more often in Chiapas, German!) landowners were at the top of society; those of mixed descent, of Spanish and indigenous parents, known usually as mestizos (or in Chiapas as Ladinos) who now make up most of Mexican society, were somewhere in between; and the "purely" indigenous were at the very bottom. While awful traces of this continue to exist throughout Mexico, Chiapas remains even today one of the worst places for it, in part because of the state`s mountainous isolation.

But even these atrocities might be overcome were it not for brutal economic oppression. In the 1930s President Lazaro Cardenas travelled through Mexico, enforcing land reform rules that returned ejido land (click on that link! it´s very important to understanding this!) to its original owners and made Mexican society just a little fairer. He was Mexico`s FDR (same time period, too, which I don´t think is a coincidence). But Cardenas´reforms didn`t reach Chiapas. It was too isolated, too far south, too far into the mountains, its wealthy landowners too entrenched and too unwilling to give up their brutal power.

Still, for decades poor Chiapanecos hoped that one day the equalizing laws would be enforced. Then, in 1991, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari changed the law, effectively ending the ejido system. It was necessary, he said, for Mexico to be accepted into NAFTA. At that point, the Chiapan indigenous realized their fate. Signs sprang up all throughout Chiapas that said it roughly painted black letters: "NAFTA=a death sentence for the indigenous of Mexico." Of course, nobody in the national government much cared what they thought. And so some Chiapanecos saw two options: Die, or fight. On January 1, 1994, armed masked rebel fighters took over San Cristobal de las Casas and five other municipalities within Chiapas.

Was it too extreme a response? I don´t know. We´ve seen what extremely "free" trade has done in the US: It has funneled wealth from the bottom to the top. The rich have become richer, raisin the GDP, but the poor have only become poorer. Wages, adjusted for inflation, have not risen - they have dropped. Lots of people are opposed to this neoliberal economic model, but they hardly ever get to have a say, because others see it as a pre-ordained system, totally beyond debate or even explanation. It`s eerily similar to the way some folks talk about their religion.

Well. Enough of that, but it`s important to recognize that perspective to understand why the Zapatistas felt they had no other option. Their "rebellion" wasn`t even so much a violent uprising so much as a publicity stunt to gain attention. I suppose that I continue to think their cry for justice on January 1, 1994, was a positive event, a necessary act to achieve publicity to get the powers to pay attention because they sure as heck weren`t paying attention to these people before.

But is harder. Recently during the 2006 Mexican presidential election the Zapatistas ran "The Other Campaign" which presented itself as an alternative to the other candidates running for office, candidates roughly analagous to a Democrat and a Republican in the U.S. The Other Campaign presented no candidate, but instead Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas, traveled around the country listening to individuals and organizations speak out about their experiences, their hopes, their dreams. But he refused to run for office or to endorse either candidate.

To me this is like Nader in 2000 but worse. Democracy matters! Elections have consequences! And now in late November 2008 I ponder these things with the words of President-Elect Barack Obama ringing in my ears:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Mexico has - or at least says it has - a democracy, too. Better experts than I can judge whether Mexico`s democracy is better or worse than ours. But I don´t understand why Subcomandante Marcos doesn´t just run for office. Last night former Kevin Johnson, former Phoenix Suns point guard and now mayor of Sacramento, was on the Colbert Report. He said he decided to run for mayor because, well, there were a lot of problems in Sacramento and he believed he could do a better job than the current mayor. So he ran. And he won. He makes it sound so simple! But of course, in real life it´s not so simple. And yet...and yet, it is, isn´t it? Obama built an organization, and through a lot of hard work by a lot of people he won election to the highest office in our land. Now he has a chance to make some real changes. Not the chance to fix everything, but certainly the chance to make some real changes. Why not do the same, Marcos?

I continue to wrestle with this problem. But I know it´s not so simple, too. I know context matters. I know the situation in Chiapas is not the same as that of Chicago. People struggle for change in both places, but they face different opposition. Context matters.

In December 1997, nearly four years after the Zapatista uprising, there was a massacre in the village of Acteal in Chiapas. The community had a reputation for being sympathetic to the Zapatistas. In retribution for this sympathetic attitude, paramilitary groups - whom the government knew existed and still refuses to prosecute - attacked Acteal, killing not just men and women but young children and pregnant women. Click on this link and look just at the ages of the people killed. What army could do something like this? Is it any wonder that when thins like this happen people hate their government and sympathize with Zapatistas? In the face of horrors like this, what else can we do but sit in stunned silence, full of grief, anger, and, worst of all, helplessness?

Next week we go to Chiapas. We will visit Acteal. We will hear the stories of the people. And we hope, we pray, we fervently hope and pray that we might begin to discern the role of the people of God in a world like this.

We ask your prayers, too.


Stan Duncan said...

Excellent blog. I'll continue to read your posts.
Thanks for the information on Rosario Catellanos´ novel. I wasn't aware of it. I have, however, read the People's Church. We met Ruiz some years ago when I was leading a delegation in Chiapas and he was back for a special event and celebrating the Eucharist.
Have you Read John Womack's Rebellion in Chiapas? Mainly a collection of readings, but with a fine (and detailed) introduction.

I also very much appreciated your observation that Tsotsil and others in Chiapas are being forced to give up their own ancient language in order to survive within their own homeland. Reminds me of the Native American Indians in the US who were considered foreign because they were unable to speak English.

And finally, I agree with you about Marcos and "the Other Campaign." Just as Nader did here, that protest campaign threw the election, and just as here it ushered in a very, very, right wing reactionary administration. Marcos is unrepentant, but the people he claims to speak for are suffering.

I'm leading a faith-based delegation to Chiapas in January. Keep in touch. I'll continue to watch for your posts.


Stan Duncan

Mike and Beth said...

Thank you, Matt, for thinking,for writing, for caring. You both remain in our prayers.

From Michigan with Love said...

A classic...How'd you get to be my friend!?!?! You are way smarter than I. :-) Praying always...