Erasing Borders in Chiapas
I’ve just returned from a week long stay in Chiapas, the southernmost State of Mexico. I went with six other adults from my Peace Christian Church (United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ) in Kansas City. We did not go to “help” those who hosted us in any substantial, tangible way. On what can be best described as a “decolonizing mission” pilgrimage, we went to learn about the legacy of Spanish seizure of land, suppression of indigenous culture and the native resistance to the foreign presence and influence in Chiapas. These all remain sources of the multiple conflicts Chiapas has experienced in recent years. In tandem with the oppression of the indigenous people, religious differences have been used by the Mexican State, foreign corporations and the cartels to stir conflict among the indigenous Mayan peoples and others in the State.
One of our partner agencies in global mission today hosted our delegation and introduced us to how they work for inter-religious and inter cultural understanding, reconciliation and peace. The INESIN staff represent and interpret well the diverse cultures of the Mexican State of Chiapas. There is jPetul, a former Catholic priest of Lacandon Mayan origin, who instructed us in the meanings and practice of creating a Mayan sacred altar. His spouse is a former nun led us one morning in moving through the Catholic daily meditation on “the liturgy of the hours”. In his welcome and introduction to the history of INESIN, the director told us he serves too as pastor of a Protestant church in the Chiapas capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez. We worshipped there on the Sunday of our week long stay.
We learned about the sources of the multiple conflicts in Chiapas after the Conquest through three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule from another partner of our denominations’ “Global Ministries”. Sipaz (https://www.sipaz.org) presents workshops designed to free and protect the population from Chiapas’ cycles of violence while other programs aim to educate and encourage advocacy among foreign visitors. The Sipaz director for the past 20 years is a woman who described recent political and economic developments as well as Chiapas’ historical context.
Marina noted that the trafficking in migrants through the State of Chiapas and on to the U.S. is now largely controlled by leading Mexican cartels, formerly primarily engaged in the drug trade. Lax security and immigration enforcement at the Guatemalan border reflects Mexican Government border policy, funded by the U.S., of interdicting undocumented migrants on the roads of Chiapas. The immigration attorney among our pilgrims had prior to our trip discovered that the Guatemalan State and one of the country’s leading banks have profited from their fellow citizens’ migration. Failure to repay loans for the U.S. journey results in loss of a Guatemalan migrant’s land.
Another grim aspect of the situation is the targeting of older children and youth in recruitment by the cartels and local militias. We observed the third of our denominations’ partner agencies in San Cristobal working with poor children, of Mayan families, who are encouraged and trained by Melel Xojobal (“true light” in the Tzotzil Mayan language) to value their earning potential outside the cartels’ grip and to defend their human rights. Melel Xojobal (https://www.melelxojobal.org.mx/ ) meets and organizes groups of children at the markets. A recent series of protests by Melel children won expansion of bathroom facilities in the City’s largest markets.
With a crammed schedule on little sleep, I took a break mid-week and missed the trip to the Guatemalan border with stops at two Precolumbian centers of Mayan culture and religion. The recently excavated ruins were built and flourished during what some scholars refer to as the “Dark Ages” in Europe. Between the third and tenth centuries A.D. the Mayans made their most significant contributions to the advance of our species. Viewing the vestiges of the Mayan legacy in the early 1500’s, and judging them as “pagan”, the Spanish missionaries and soldiers destroyed all they could identify as Mayan. Of the hundreds of books written on scrolls of bark by Mayan scribes, only three remain to instruct us on Mayan civilization.
Oppression of the Mayans under Spanish colonialism and decades of discrimination have led to speculation, even at present, that the magnificent Mayan temples, observatories and stone sculptures were created by members of Atlantis’ lost continent or another fabled people. Sadly there are Mexicans who still hold, along with their neighbors in the U.S., demeaning views of the indigenous people of their country. Anyone today who spends time in Yucatan or Chiapas or one of the four Central American nations inhabited by Mayan peoples today cannot question the resemblance of the figures depicted on the ancient sculptures and the indigenous people around them.
After visit of a great Mayan city of the past like Palenque in Chiapas, one is moved to think that the capacity of over 5 million Mayans to have survived centuries of exploitation and genocidal attack is in itself a remarkable achievement. The leading U.S. scholar of Mayan history and culture, Michael Coe, attributes the endurance of the Mayan peoples to three factors. In the ninth edition of his book The Maya he writes,
“What has kept the Maya people culturally and even phsically viable is their hold on the land (and that land on them), a devotion to their community and an all-pervading and meaningful belief system.” Coe then comments, “It is small wonder that their oppressors have concentrated on these three areas in incessant attempts to exploit them as a politically helpless labor force.”
I had in a 1980 journey through Chiapas been able to spend a day at Palenque which is touted by many visitors as the most dramatic and beautiful of the Mayan centers revealed to date. Our hosts advised against a visit as there is now a relatively insecure and substandard 200 km. plus route from San Cristobal to Palenque. Comparable in my mind to the majesty and achievement represented by the French cathedrals of Mont St. Michel and Chartres, an experience of Palenque insists that we revisit our stereotypes of the Mexican people and the Mayans of Mexico in particular. After taking in Palenque one cannot fail to be amazed and moved that the waiter serving you dinner or the woman cleaning your room comes from an ancestry that created such monumental beauty.