Friends, it has been a very long day. For those of you who followed Mr. Melcher’s posts from El Salvador in March, you will be familiar with his euphemism: Traveler’s Digestive Issues (TDI) have assaulted members of our group today, including yours truly. As a result, even though we had the evening to ourselves, I spent my time getting medicated and retiring early, rather than catching up on the blog as had been my intent. However, Cipro came to the rescue, and I (and the others) are feeling much more the thing now.
A New Meaning for “Ecumenical”
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, with which this trip is affiliated, is an ecumenical seminary. This means that people of all faith backgrounds are welcome, and we all learn together in the same classroom. I’ve told people that it’s an incredible opportunity to learn how to express myself in an interfaith dialogue while still in my formational process as a minister. It teaches me how to avoid stepping on other people’s beliefs while still honoring and expressing my own.
But today we walked to an ecumenical school here in San Cristobal where interfaith dialogue has a much different meaning. This school is not for ministers-in-training. This school is made up of a small, dedicated staff who have committed themselves to healing the deep division between Catholics and evangelical Protestants in Chiapas—a division that has fostered suspicion, fear, hatred, and even violence.
Chiapas has a long history of religious conflict, originating with the arrival of the Spanish 500 years ago. When they arrived, they found the Mayans, who already had an old, deep spirituality. All efforts to violently impose Catholicism proved insufficient to completely uproot the native spirituality and cultural organization. The Chiapan rainforest made things even more difficult for the Catholic missionaries, because villages were far-spread, and to this day it is still impossible to put a priest in every village chapel. Therefore, indigenous Catholicism developed its own “face.”
This is a phenomenon referred to as “religious syncretism,” when supposedly disparate belief systems merge to form a seamless whole. The director of the school, Hernesto, acknowledged that many people say that syncretism is something that happens to a particular people, but he sees it as a form of resistance. Rather than completely adopting the new belief system (in this case Catholicism), the indigenous people refused to surrender their traditions, and instead found a way to incorporate them into Catholicism. Thus, they had the appearance of compliance so they would not be subjected to further violence, but they did not have to completely give up their cultural traditions.
A very important aspect of this interfaith conflict is that indigenous communities have a very different way of viewing social structure than we do. In the United States, we prize individuality—being your own person, making your own way in the world, inventing yourself. Indigenous people here prize the collective over the individual; the good of the whole community comes before any one individual person’s desires. This form of social organization has been in place for centuries. When Protestantism began to take root in Chiapas, the Protestants did not want to contribute their money to Catholic festivals for the saints. However, the indigenous communities had never before separated church from state; the festivals were both sacred and secular. So when the Protestants were refusing to contribute, this was seen as civil disobedience, and traditionally the elders of the community would assign punishment. A person could either comply with the punishment of declare themselves in rebellion. The Protestants, of course, did not comply with the punishment, and so the conflict within the communities escalated until entire groups were expelled from their communities, creating deep rifts along religious lines.
These are the centuries-old wounds that this ecumenical school is trying to heal. They do not act as intermediaries; rather, they offer a safe place for Catholics and Protestants to encounter one another, so the people of Chiapas can learn to live together in respect and tolerance.
“It is important to recognize the validity of the perspective of our brothers and sisters,” Hernesto said. “When a bond of fraternal relationship is formed, our hearts are filled.”
When people first arrive at the meetings held at the school, they are scared to realize that “the others” are also present. The school will frequently not tell them in advance, because otherwise they would not come at all. When we asked how they got people to start talking to each other when the tension levels were so high, Hernesto smiled. “We begin by playing games. Once they have laughed and touched each other, they realize they are brothers and sisters.”
And to think, one year ago, on June 15, 2009, I admitted to Professor Barbara Anne Keely in my entrance interview to UTS that I didn’t know what the word “ecumenical” meant. Even after a year of seminary, this conversation made me realize there was a depth of meaning to the word that I had not yet realized.
Social Recreation in Chiapas -by Jerilyn
The World Cup is all the rage here. It is amazing that San Cristobal can even function when Team Mexico is playing a game. Rich and poor alike stop what they are doing and gather around any available television set. Our group ate lunch together in the back room of Tierra Adentro (a natural foods restaurant sympathetic to the Zapatista movement). Diners exploded in excitement when goals were scored. Some of us jumped up and ran into the main dining room each time in order to catch the replay. The restaurant floor was covered in pine needles – a traditional festive touch for such celebrations. When victory was declared, the streets filled with revelers. Cars drove around the town center and honked their horns for hours. We spotted one man wearing a red, white, and green curly wig, dancing in the street. As we were walking down the sidewalk (in the pouring rain), a car pulled up beside us, rolled down it’s window, and shouted “Mexico, Mexico!”
Several hours after the conclusion of the game, Cecilia and I ventured out—she in search of the perfect flan. I was in search of the perfect Man, for Cecilia. “Futbol” fans were still reveling. We stumbled upon an impromptu street dance, complete with a donkey, several musicians, and male and female dancers in authentic costumes wearing masks with exaggerated expressions.
We were surprised to see so many citizens of Europe, Canada, and the U.S. enjoying the night life. Lots of people with back packs and dreadlocks, reading Lonely Planet guidebooks, searching for wireless internet connections while sipping Mexican hot chocolate. We stepped in to a bar as “Material Girl” was playing (a very appropriate NAFTA anthem, we thought.)
Street life in this cosmopolitan Colonial town is fascinating. Wild, well-behaved dogs monitor one another while artisans approach tourists with their wares. In fact as I write this (on David’s lap top in a restaurant called “La Lupe”) we are eating dinner at 10 p.m. A ten-year- old boy named Juan has just approached our table, trying to sell us figurines. He seemed extremely lethargic and not at all interested in taking the clay animals out of his plastic bag and placing them on our table one-by-one. “Girafe, gato, perro, tigre…” he says, with exhaustion in his eyes. Cecilia asked, “Tienes sueno?” (Are you sleepy?) to which he replied, “No.” That was surprising. A few minutes later, even younger children approach our table with the same figurines. They are trying to make money for their families.
- Jerilyn Dinsmoor
A Businessman’s Perspective on the Zapatistas -by Heidi
The most surprising interview so far was with our hotel manager, Sergio. (I do not remember his last name.) The 40-something son of the owner, he is the manager of our small but lovely hotel. Wearing small wire-rimmed glasses, business shirt, tie and sport coat he was the definition of debonaire. A good guess: he studied in France. His daughter lives there now. When Mexico played France in the World Cup, he cheered for Mexico, his daughter for France.
We asked him to talk about the situation in regards to the Zapatistas. This is a paraphrased synopsis of his words:
The situation is a contradiction. The business community was originally against the Zapatistas. “Get them out!” “They are lawbreakers!” But what happened was a contradiction. But after the uprising, the federal government invested a lot of money in Chiapas. It also brought in many foreigners and Mexicans. Since people do things according to their self interests, what happened is that after the Zapatistas, there were many more business opportunities. The Zapatistas have been very good for business!
For example, before the Zapatistas, tourism was controlled by very few families catering to wealthy tourists. But when so many journalists came in 1994, they needed so many places to stay. The tourism game was now open! It was good for my family, especially since we lived in the central (historic) part of the city. We opened a hotel. We have been in the business now for 16 years and doing well.
In regard to the social situation in Chiapas, I must admit that it is difficult to change customs. There has been some improvement. Before the Zapatistas, it was acceptable to be racist, to mistreat the indigenous people, to say terrible things. But that has changed. But the economic situation has not changed that much. You can see who the business owners are. There are few indigenous owners.
Mexican law, in theory, is very good. For example, the labor laws. But too many owners do not respect the labor laws, and they are not enforced. Workers are given no day off. Their schedules are not regular. It is common in all the states of Mexico that the political structure is in cahoots with the business community. Those who have money are in the “in” group, and that group is quite large. IMen have much more privilege. The patriarchal system does not respect the principles of democracy.
What is impressive about the Zapatistas is that they have great hope, courage, equality between men and women and they respect the law. They have also been very good for business! What a contraction!
You have asked my opinion about NAFTA. Let me tell you. It could have been a good thing, but the people who negotiated for Mexico did not seem to know the Mexican constitution. Emiliano Zapata proclaimed, “The land belongs to those who work it.” Article 27 of the Constitution provides for those who work the land to join together in a collective — an ejido — in which the land can be owned collectively. Ejido land cannot be sold. But this was thrown out with NAFTA. The government completely disregarded the constitution to allow for the ejido land to be sold and owned privately. This completely changes the spirit of the country.
NAFTA has been hard on all the Mexican farmers, because they are now in competition with U.S. farmers. The Mexican government does not provide any support for farmers, no subsidies or anything. But the U.S. government does provide subsidies and other support for farmers. How then can the Mexican farmer compete with the American farmer. It is no surprise who loses.
I left the interview with a spinning head. I had not expected this sympathetic, even admiring attitude—but then I remembered that Mexico is very different from the United States. The attitudes of the bourgeoise are different. There is a collectivist-socialist element that I had forgotten.
- Heidi Vardeman
Environmental Challenges in Chiapas - by Jerilyn
This evening, Gustavo Castro shared the complexity of the causes of environmental destruction in this area. He is the coordinator of an environmental advocacy group which advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples.
Chiapas is particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of NAFTA, since this state provides much of the water, hydroelectric power, oil, gold, and other minerals in Mexico. Of particular concern is the devastation caused by the mining of gold in the region. Four Canadian mining companies have annihilated the sacred lands of the indigenous peoples in this region. The mining of gold is messy, utilizing enormous amounts of water, and 6 to 15 tons of cyanide daily. The forest is clear cut, disrupting the integrity of the soil, resulting in mud slides and destroying villages. The Canadian mining companies promise to adhere to environmental standards and reclaim the land, but they do not. Locals are told that the mining will bring much needed jobs to the region, but very few people are hired.
Mariana was a good friend of both Gustavo and our guide Hector. Mariana was becoming quite successful at convincing the Mayans to reject the offers of mining companies. This did not suit the local government officials, who then invented charges against him and threw him in jail. After a public outcry, Mariana was given the opportunity to be released from jail if he promised to refrain from any community organizing. Mariana refused. He completed his jail sentence, returned to defend the rights of his people, and was assassinated soon after.
Currently Canadian mining companies are pursuing mining all over Central America. 24% of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and 26% of Chile is being set aside for mining.
Gustavo also took time to explain the absurdity of carbon credits. Corporations such as Monsanto lease land from the Mexican government that will supposedly be re-forested to offset the carbon pollution that Monsanto spills into our atmosphere in other parts of the world. Instead they plant soy, or worse, African Palm and profit on their carbon credit land.
By the end of our 90 minute lecture, deftly translated by our guide, Teresa, the dry erase board was filled with diagrams and lists clearly explaining the multiple ways that the indigenous people of this region are essentially victims of genocide.