Saturday, July 24, 2010


At first blush, "getting lost…intentionally" may seem the quintessential oxymoron.  By my lights and Paul Theroux's, however, it's the only way to travel.  It is the difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim.
The pilgrim, the true pilgrim – for many "pilgrims" are but spiritual tourists – cuts her ties to all that is familiar and loses herself among strangers, opening herself at every turn to God's serendipity.
That is how I traveled last fall to Oaxaca and Chiapas, the southernmost heart of indigenous Mexico.  Unsure of what I would find, I wanted to test the validity of what I had read against the reality the everyday lives of the indigenous people there – the Mayans of Chiapas and the Zapotecs of Oaxaca.
 Every story requires some context.  The story of the Maya in Chiapas and the Zapotecs in Oaxaca is one of survival – of economic survival in the face of modernization and globalization and of cultural survival in the wake of five hundred years of colonization.  It is what the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas have called the "war against oblivion."
It is not a short story, nor a recent war.  From the start – the arrival of the conquistadors in 1519 – the history of the indigenous people of southern Mexico has been one of economic exploitation and racial discrimination - a continuing tale largely unchanged by the Revolution of 1810, essentially an enterprise of the Spanish-descended elite and the majority mestizos.
 It is a story that, by and large, has revolved around land reform – the ability to remain on and eke out a living from ancestral lands – and the dignidad of self-rule in self-defined ways on those lands.
To be sure it is not an uncomplicated, black-and-white story.  Many of the intrusions made by the Mexican central government upon the autonomy of its indigenous peoples have, for example, been well-intentioned efforts to expand the availability of modern health care and education and to redress social inequities in areas such as women's rights.
However well-intentioned, the effects of these modernizing efforts have been socially destabilizing and, to the extent that they have disrupted traditional forms of communal land ownership and sought to impose global economic patterns that favor international corporate interests, they have wrought economic havoc on the unprepared, disoriented Maya and Zapotec peoples.  Understandably, this has generated resistance. 
Descending from the dark mountains of central Mexico into a bright southern sunlight, the oblong valley of Oaxaca looked every bit as lovely as Shangri-La.  Up close, however, political shadows quickly impinged.  One could not escape the heavy presence of the black-uniformed, heavily armed Federal Police – the Federalistas – and the occasional but ostentatious army convoys which gave downtown Oaxaca very much the feel of an occupied city.
The memory of the 2006 "days of rage, when Oaxaquenos rose up against their hated Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, remains palpable.  That revolt, precipitated by a massive teachers' strike, brought together the various strands of years of discontent – the teachers, the indigenous communities, the working poor of the city – and drew strength from the Zapatistas in neighboring Chiapas and from the national electoral campaign of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.  For five months – from June to November 2006 – the city and much of the state was a "government-free zone," with daily life organized by a very spontaneous Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca or APPO.  The experiment was crushed on November 25 in a bloody crackdown that left 17 dead and 140 wounded.
During my week in Oaxaca, however, I learned that the APPO is very much alive, providing a defiant alternative framework for social life.  But, on my first night, such lessons were yet to be learned as we met up with our local leader, Juan de Dios Gomez, a kind and gentle anthropologist
After a breakfast next morning of salsa-soaked beans, eggs, and tortillas, we were briefed on the demography and culture of the area.  About 30% of Oaxaca's 3.5 million people are, we were told, indigenous – mostly Zapotecs, some Mixtecs - and 85% nominally Roman Catholic.  Nearly 20% are illiterate and per capita income hovers around $4,000, less than half the national average, in an economy heavily dependent on agriculture (agave, coffee, and, of course, corn or maize), handicrafts (weaving and wood carving), and a tourist industry severely damaged by the tensions and violence of recent years.
Soon enough we were introduced to some of the victims of those tensions – leaders of the Zapotec community of San Augustin Loxicha in the Sierra Sur.  Juan Sosa, only recently released from a high security prison, spoke eloquently about being hunted by the federal police that occupied his and other communities to enforce central government control and about the para-military squads that still surround them.  Jorge Hernandez, who had just been released a few days earlier after eleven years imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement, appeared to be suffering PTSD, staring into space in silence, as his wife Laura spoke of raising two children on her own.
In the next few days, south of the city and in the Sierra Sur, we learned about the efforts in indigenous communities such as Ocotlon, Zaachila, Sola de Vega, and Chapulin to maintain traditional self-rule and to develop economic self-help projects that might keep young people from emigrating.  Particularly moving were Adnan Lopez Santiago, a teachers' union activist and director of Radio Zaachila, a source of alternative news; and Noemi Gomez Bravo, a member of a United Nations working group on the rights of indigenous women, who, while she spoke with us about those rights, lovingly nursed her infant daughter.      
In the north, we heard similar stories.  At the University of the Sierra Juarez Professor Aldo Gonzalez told us about the disastrous inroads of North American corporations on the local economy – about the destructive impact on local maize production of Monsanto's trans-genetic corn, Coca Cola's plans to privatize local water resources, and Syngenta's efforts to patent centuries-old strains of Mayan maize.
In Capulalpam, we stayed at an idyllic eco-tourism facility built by hand by community members.  As we surveyed the lush Natividad valley below, we learned that a Canadian company had just bought the "underground" rights to the community's land and planned to re-open a long-closed gold mine - an operation that would pollute the valley and the river that ran through it.
Back in Ciudad Oaxaca, our thoughts returned briefly to the on-going festivities surrounding the Dias de los Muertos.  I must admit, however, that I found myself turned off by the rush of tourists – Mexican and North American – in the cemeteries we visited All Saints evening.  I felt like an intruder on so many private griefs.
And in the zocalo, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in the tug of current tensions.  In the midst of another teachers' demonstration "under the arches" where dozens were killed three years earlier, I felt the still palpable rage…and, for a brief moment, fear.    
But, before I left, I felt also the dignity of those who face that fear with courage.  On our last night in Oaxaca, we gathered in a gallery in an outlying neighborhood with artists and musicians to celebrate the continued vitality of the APPO.  We smiled and danced and sang…with some abandon.  And on my wall at home now hangs a black-and-white print of dozens of Day of the Dead skeletons defiantly carrying a banner which reads: Nuestros muertos seran vengados como APPO – Our dead will be avenged by the APPO.  Leaving Oaxaca, I had the sense rather that they will be vindicated…by life.   
The trip to San Cristobal de las Casas started with a pleasant one hour flight to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the mestizo-dominated, lowland capital of Chiapas.  After an only slightly longer taxi ride into the clouds on a newly constructed super highway, San Cristobal revealed itself through a cut in the mountains – a smaller, urban Shangri-La perched at nearly 7,000 feet. 
My base there – for close to two weeks - was the Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar).  Originally built as a seminary, it was the long-time home of Trudi Duby Blom, a Swiss-born photographer-anthropologist and her Danish-born husband, Franz Blom, an archaeologist.  The purpose of Na Bolom and the foundation the Bloms established is to make Chiapas and especially the isolated Lancandons they befriended respectfully accessible.
San Cristobal is relatively prosperous, incredibly clean, and now very much tethered to Tuxtla Gutierrez and the central government.  Unlike Oaxaca, however, there was not a Federalista or soldier in sight.  And, mixing comfortably with the pizzerias and up-scale galleries, weavers from surrounding villages peddled their wares around the Santo Domingo church, as did adherents from Zapatista communities to the south and west. 
Around the huge cross on the cathedral plaza young men of the Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization (OCEZ) routed from their southern communities by federalistas and paramilitaries had set up a tent encampment to protest their expulsions, the murder of two of their brothers, and the imprisonment of others whose treatment had earned the attention of Amnesty International.  Behind a rope barrier, they cooked soup over wood fires and accepted bread handed over the ropes.  I still treasure the "Gracias, amiga" I got when I handed over several bags of bread from a local bakery.  Typical of the "Mexican standoff" that persists throughout the state, there was no attempt by the authorities to interfere with such assistance or to dislodge the protestors. 
In the northern villages, too, there was a notable absence of police or military.  San Juan Chamula, a strange and fiercely independent Tzotzil community of 70,000, remains very much in the hands of the local caciques or bosses who have worked their way up the "cargo" system pecking order. 
Still higher in the mountains, I found Zinacantan – the "Place of the Bats" – obscured in the clouds and a chill drizzle.  Most of its 20,000 inhabitants earn a living weaving and selling hot house crops and have a reputation for being entrepreneurs.  At one weaver's home I got a taste of that entrepreneurship and the more-relaxed Zinacanteco hospitality, enjoying tortillas right off the fire while shopping the distinctive purple and black huipiles.
Traveling east and south of San Cristobal, however, one quickly runs into a pronounced military presence astride the main roads.  There are, for example, huge Mexican Army bases where the road from the city forks toward Comitan to the south and Ocasingo and Palenque to the east and at Tonina, just south of Ocasingo, on the edge of the Zapatista-controlled canyons.
Ocasingo, the site of a particularly bloody massacre on January 2, 1994, remains a surly crossroads of traffic and rebellion and pretty much under a government-lockdown.  Just east of the town, our mini-van was stopped at an army checkpoint.  After showing identification and opening bags, we were waved on our way past a sign in perfect English wishing us a "Good Trip."  A few miles further east, another sign - this time in Spanish - announced that we were entering Zapatista territory.  It was a kabuki dance repeated again as we left the main road to drive the mile to Agua Azul, a beautiful national park of cascading waterfalls.  There, we were halted at a roadblock manned by federalistas, before arriving, a few hundred yards further on, at the park entrance where we paid the obligatory fee at a shack bearing the red star and logo of the Zapatistas.  Go figure!  But, I thought, at least they're not shooting at each other.
Ocasingo, the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, and the ceasefire that has obtained since then all bear the stamp of Samuel Ruiz, the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Cristobal from 1960 to 1999.  The story of that involvement – very much a spiritual journey by "Don Sam" – strikes me as an appropriate place to end this story of my journey.
Samuel Ruiz Garcia, a middle class son of central Mexico, was a very conventional cleric when he was appointed bishop in 1960.  Soon after arriving in San Cristobal, he began his journey – literally – travelling by mule to the Mayan villages of the diocese.  Those trips were life-changing.  In the beginning, he said, he was "like a fish that sleeps with its eyes open," not seeing the "cruel oppression" all around him.  Soon, however, he found himself actively siding with the poor good people he met, learning their languages, dispatching catechists into the canyons, and vowing to integrate the indigenous into the life of the church.
It was a vow reinforced by his experience at Vatican II and his being drafted in 1974 to organize a first national indigenous congress on the five hundredth birthday of Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Chiapas' first bishop and outspoken defender of the Mayan peoples.  It was envisaged by the governor who appointed him as a feel-good folkloric event.  Ruiz, however, invited the villages to appoint their own representatives to the Congress to voice their real concerns in what became a very political affair.  Its motto said it all: Nunca mas un Mexico sin nosotros – Never again a Mexico without us!  Against the predations of mestizo ranchers and timber companies and their own caciques, the indigenous poor at the congress adopted a platform that stressed the need for "land to belong to the man who worked it" and a plea for honest counselors to teach the poor their rights and how to speak.
Within a year, Bishop Sam declared the diocese's "option for the poor," and began to raise up indigenous deacons who might be those "honest counselors."  In 1976, 34 deacons - in Tseltal, tuhuneletik, "servants of the community" - were nominated by their communities and ordained by the bishop.  Three years later the canyon communities south of Ocasingo elected a "deacon of deacons" – a 24-year-old – to preside over an increasingly organized opposition to their exploitation.  The seeds of resistance had been planted.
This is not the place to revisit the subsequent history of how the Marxist Zapatistas grafted themselves onto this existing organization or of the precipitate events that led to the violent uprising of New Year's Day 1994.  I hope you will make that the stuff of further reading.  Suffice it to say that those events included the Mexican government's mid-1980s reneging on land reform and its acquiescence in the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, which treaty has since destroyed the maize economy of Chiapas.  Indeed, it was the entry into force of that treaty on January 1, 1994 that provided the occasion for the onset of armed hostilities under the Zapatistas' cry of Basta Enough!         
Suffice it to say also, that Bishop Sam sought to head off the violence that claimed 120 lives in those first twelve days of 1994, spoke forcefully against it when it occurred, and worked tirelessly in the months afterward to hammer out the ceasefire that still holds.  At least, as I've said, they're not shooting each other.  The indigenous poor, moreover, have learned their rights and have learned how to stand and speak with dignity.  And, as Bishop Sam said in pastoral letter of August 6, 1993, "A Silent Cry of Sorrowful Warning:"  "This particular local church, deeply stamped with the Gospel faithfulness of Fray Bartolome de las Casas, has opted in these last decades to take its place at the margins of society and with the poorest."
May we too.                                                      
Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996)
Nancy Davies (ed.), The People Decide: Oaxaca's Popular Assembly (New York: Narco News Books, 2007)
Diana Denham and the C.A.S.A. Collective (eds.), Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca (Oakland: PM Press, 2008)
Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor (eds.), Gertude Blom: Bearing Witness (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1984)
Selma Holo, Oaxaca at the Crossroads: Managing Memory, Negotiating Change (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004)
Gary MacEoin, The People's Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996)
Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act (New York: Nation Books, 2009)
Michael Tangeman, Mexico at the Crossroads: Politics, the Church, and the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995)
Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Fiend (New York; Mariner Books, 2001)
Ziga Vodovnik (ed.), Ya Basta: Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising (Oakland: AK Press, 2004)
Henry Raup Wagner, The Life and Writings of Bartolome de las Casas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967)
John Womack, Jr. (ed.), Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader (New York: The New Press, 1999)

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