Indians Deny U.S. Seminarians Access to Their Town
June 19, 2010, Chiapas, Mexico
After seventeen seminarians and teachers from United Theological Seminary in Saint Paul, Minneosta, traveled to the troubled province of Chiapas, Mexico, to learn and share with the people, a local Zapatista community at Oventic turned them away. “We were disappointed,” a seminarian said. “Something was going on in their community,” explained the interpreter-leader.
In the past twenty years, Mexico has developed as the top tourist destination for Americans. Drawn by the beaches and a favorable exchange rate, foreign tourists spent $13.3 billion in 2008 alone. “You can buy anything in Mexico,” a tourist explained. “They are so nice and they will do anything for you.”
But not in Chiapas. After surrendering their passports at the village gate, these Americans were taken to an assembly hall where they spoke with Zapatista delegation of two women and two men wearing black ski masks, a symbol of the Zapatista movement. After a presentation, they were told they would not be permitted to continue their tour to the pretty village of Magdalenas.
This may be the first recorded incident of American tourists being told “no.”
The Zapatistas—named after the leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, who was a mestizo of mixed Spanish and Nahua Indian descent—are a rebel group of Indians from the highlands of this remote province bordering Guatemala. Crying, “Ya basta!” (“We have had enough!”), a force armed with sticks and guns took the provincial capital San Cristobal de las Casas on January 1, 1994. Within days they had taken five towns. After skirmishes with the Mexican army, they retreated to form five base communities in the Chiapan highlands, where they farm and live independently in collectives governed by elected “councils of good government.”
The seminary group returned to their hotel. That night they met for worship and reflection. They spoke of their disappointment, but also of something they had learned. “The world has changed,” a pastor-student said. “I have been traveling to Mexico for thirty years. Never, ever, has an indigenous person spoken directly to me. Never has any Mexican denied any request I have ever made. Today we have encountered poor peasants whom we cannot boss around.”
The prophet Isaiah speaks of a world where the valleys will be lifted up and the mountains will be brought down, where there will be equality between all. This is a vision of God’s intention for the world and for all humanity. Seventeen Minnesotans got a glimmer of what that will be like when their tourist plans were thwarted. Locals in their ribbons and bright clothing went from being quaint objects of tourist amusement to being actors determining the nature and future of their community’s life. And Americans learned that you can’t barge into your friends’ house. Even if you call first, sometimes it’s just not a good time.
- Heidi Vardeman