Dear reader, thank you for your dedication to following us on this journey. It has been difficult, as our hearts have broken every day, and we have wept as our eyes were opened to the horrific truths told to us simply, quietly, by the people who have suffered them. I’m afraid today’s post will continue that trend as I tell you of our visit to Acteal and the people who call themselves Los Abejas (The Bees). But perhaps, when our hearts have broken enough times, they will break open so wide that we will be able to let the whole world in.
We left the hotel earlier than usual because we had a two hour drive through the winding mountain roads before we could reach our destination. We drove from Los Altos (The Highlands) where San Cristobal lies to the edges of Las Canyadas (The Canyons). The views were breathtaking—brilliant blue skies held up by vast green mountains, which plunged together to form the valleys for which the region is named. At one point, I glanced out the window and realized we were on the same level as a low-drifting cloud. Looking up the slopes, we saw plots of land with crops meticulously planted and tended though the incline was nearly vertical. The people here truly have been left to fend for themselves with the corners of the world that the government doesn’t want; no commercial machine could farm the land that these people live on. We were told we had entered Zapatista territory once again. Beauty of the land doesn’t count for much when it means the people who live on it are starving.
We passed through a village just outside of Acteal. The homes lining the road were crudely constructed wooden shacks that most likely would not completely shelter someone from the wind or the rain. However, we were told that this was an improvement since 5,000 displaced refugees made this town their home a few years ago. When they first arrived, it was the rainy winter season, and people were sleeping on the exposed mountainside with nothing but a piece of plastic—if that—to protect them. Food was scarce, and Teresa came to help distribute emergency supplies at that time.
We arrived in Acteal—by which I mean Julio stopped the van on the gravel shoulder of the road near a couple of worn buildings and we got out. By the side of the road was a tall statue stabbing upwards into the sky. The base read “Pillar of Shame: The Old Cannot Kill the Young Forever.” Upon closer inspection, I realized the pillar was carved of human bodies piled one on top of another to a height of thirty feet.
This brings me to the reason for our visit to Acteal. On December 22, 1997, forty-five men, women, and children—plus four unborn babies—were senselessly slaughtered during a prayer vigil for peace. The massacre was authored by several members of the Mexican government, including the President at the time. To date, none of them have been brought to justice; the ex-President is now a professor at Yale.
On the 22nd of every month, the people of Acteal—Los Abejas—host a ceremony of worship to commemorate the deaths. We had the honor of participating in this month’s memorial.
After the elders of the village processed into the open-air amphitheater with musical accompaniment, all visitors were asked to come forward to the microphone and introduce themselves. Professor Chris was asked to speak, and while she and Teresa consulted with one of the elders, the other visitors continued to introduce themselves. They came from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Germany—from all over the world, people have come.
Professor Chris spoke of her memories of a previous trip to Acteal with a group of students from UTS, where the Abejas had invited everyone to come and dance together, for that day they celebrated that they did not dance alone. She spoke in short fragments, because her words were first translated into Spanish by Teresa, and then into Tsotsil (the Abejas’ native language) by the village elder. One sentence at a time, she shared her story and told the assembled villagers that she would always remember them as the people who dance, who celebrate life in the face of death; she told them that their courage would never be forgotten.
When she returned to us, she told us that the Abejas had asked us to sing a song for them. Another group of visitors was up front, presenting a collection of framed pictures to the Abejas, showing the event they had held back in their country to tell their people what the Mexican government had done to the Abejas. I assumed that when that group was done, we would come down and share a song.
But when the group had finished, the Abejas went on with their service of worship, and I wondered if Professor Chris had somehow been mistaken. The worship included the eucharist, and our group went up to receive a wafer from the worn hands of a short, elderly Abajas woman. She looked upon each person with such a tender smile in her eyes, blessing them silently in a language that needed no words.
The elders announced that we would all then process down into the tomb where the martyrs of the Abejas were buried. With music playing—flute, guitar, drums, harp, all hand-made—we solemnly filed out the side of the amphitheater and down some winding stairs. We entered a doorway in the side of the amphitheater, and I suddenly realized the entire structure where we had been worshipping had been built over the tombs of the dead.
We filed inside the tomb—a surprisingly open, empty place, with plaques on the walls naming all those who had died and showing their ages: 40 years, 22 years, 4 years, 1 year, 3 months, unborn. Everyone crowded inside, shoulder to shoulder, dark and light, short and tall, old and young, native and foreign. We stood on the ground where their loved ones had been buried twelve and a half years ago this day.
And then the Abejas asked us to sing.
So we sang. In the dim cement tomb, surrounded by people who did not speak our language we sang: “We shall overcome…we shall overcome…we shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.” Our words echoed back to us faintly, and every person in that room understood. After we left the tomb, I heard one man singing the same song in his native language.
Over the lunch hour, we visited a fair trade coffee cooperative. Then we returned to meet with the council of elders in Acteal. As I looked out at the breathtaking view—majestic mountains, warm sunshine, colorful blossoms, children playing futbol, mothers chatting—I found it so difficult to believe that this place is also the place where such an atrocity took place. How could the soldiers be met with such beauty and still fire their weapons into a crowd of unarmed villagers?
The village elders met with us in their administrative building, as they have met with many foreign groups who wish to hear their words. I will tell you the words they left us with:
One of the catechists who was killed had a dream before he died. He told us that he dreamed something beautiful was going to happen in Acteal. He saw many kinds of cultivations growing here, all kinds—corn, squash, beans, fruits. And now people come to Acteal from all over, like a garden of many cultivations, taking our message and spreading it to the world. In coming here, you fulfill our brother’s dream, because Acteal is for everyone. It is a beautiful thing.