Volume 5 Issue 3
Spiritual Journey in Chiapas by Shirley Way
It is Sunday, July 16, 2000, and day three of Christian Peacemaker Team’s delegation to Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, a state at war with its indigenous people. I journal, “I am feeling great peace, a sense of doing what’s right — what’s right for me at this moment — and I am joyful.”
Our team is a group of eleven, three Canadians and eight from the U.S. Before going to the countryside, we heard from representatives from eight organizations and six individuals. The organizations and individuals are working for peace, for the rights of indigenous women, to establish cooperatives in indigenous communities, to establish free and fair elections and to provide a voice for the voiceless.
During my journey to Chiapas three years ago, I felt threatened, frightened and overwhelmed by the enormity of the war, the poverty and the despair. Now, though I am disturbed by what I hear, and though the situation has not changed significantly, I am confident and calm. I know I cannot end the war. I can only be present and listen — listen to the stories that the indigenous must tell and listen for the Spirit within to guide me.
One by one they come forward to stand before us, to tell the stories of their lives. They speak of how their lives have been transformed before and since the massacre of forty-five of their pacifist community, the Abejas (“the Bees”) on December 22, 1997, by a paramilitary group. The community was fasting and praying for peace at the time of the massacre. (See PTNv3i2, PTNv5i2.)
“We have been displaced for more than two years,” a sister from Los Chorros said. “We are victims of crimes in our communities because the PRI [the ruling political party of the past 71 years] began to persecute us in our communities. That is why we are obligated to flee and come live here, waiting for a justice which has not yet come. In these years that we have been waiting and each day it is a little more painful. Thank you for coming from where we are not sure but thank you for coming.”
“More than two and one half years we have been living here. We left for fear of our lives after the massacre at Acteal. We are living here with so much pain that we carry with us. The pain is a daily one. The rain breaks our roofs. The posts of our houses are rotting and we have no more trees to cut. At times, there is no water.” The sister from Yaxhemel pulls at her reboso to cover her tears. “We are living in pain also because of poor nutrition. The trees on the land before we came are gone. So we must go further and further to get firewood. So we come before you hoping that you will pray. May your presence somehow help to bring about a solution.”
It is Thursday, July 20, 2000, and day seven of the delegation. This morning we traveled about two hours by Volkswagon bus to the municipality (county) of Chenalho. We passed through two checkpoints, the first manned by Mexican immigration officials, the second by military personnel. Our group chose not to present our passports at the military checkpoint as the military do not, under Mexican law, have authority to request passports. After a few minutes of interrogation, the two officials let us pass.
We then hiked a few miles to the village of X’oyep (pronounced Shoy-ep), passing a military base. The Mexican government claims the military in Chiapas (one soldier for every 17 civilians) are necessary to keep the peace between the warring indigenous groups. In reality, they fuel the war by providing the paramilitary with funding, weapons, ammunition, military training, and narcotics (a CPT team member said he has been asked what the white stuff is that the army gives the paramilitary that makes them aggressive.) Villagers may be threatened if they do not participate in the paramilitary groups.
In X’oyep, we are seated at the front of the pavilion that serves as the church and assembly for this community of displaced. A crowd of about 250 has gathered. Women in long, dark braids and traditional dress, sit on small chairs or stand on one side of the pavilion; the men, on the other. Some women nurse children, others embroider hand woven huipiles (blouses). Sisters, some only a few years old, carry babies in rebosos. This is for most of us our first visit to a temporary camp in the Chenalho municipality. We listen attentively. Some of us weep as well.
“Thank you for coming to visit us in this encampment,” a brother from Puebla said. “We want to tell you what has been happening since 1997. In 1997 the paramilitaries began making threats against all the communities of the Abejas. We saw that the paramilitaries were organizing against the people of their own communities. [The paramilitary are indigenous people often from the same communities as the Abejas.] The paramilitary forced us to pay fees for their ammunition. But we did not agree to pay. We are Catholics and read in the Bible that it is not right to kill. This was how it was in each community and after that, in 1997, the paramilitaries went and massacred forty-five people in Acteal. When we heard about what happened in Acteal, all of the other Abejas in other communities left so that there would not be any more massacres. In Puebla we left on December 29th. The Red Cross provides food every two weeks but it doesn’t last two weeks. This is why we want you to spread the word of our situation, so that… [His voice trails.] Gracias.”
Prior to the fall of 1997, X’oyep was a village of about one hundred. Now it is home to eleven hundred people. All of the new arrivals have been threatened and frightened from their homes by paramilitary groups. An original resident of X’oyep spoke of the fall of 1997, when the displaced arrived. “One family was away for a few days and returned home to find seventy-three people living in their home. The family invited them to stay and fed them all of the food they had stored for the winter.” I am aware of my lacks: my lack of faith, my lack of generosity, my lack of community.
Another of the original residents explains, “We have brought complaints [about the needs of the refugees] to the municipal authorities but nothing has happened. The only thing the government wants to do is to tire us out. They want to eat us alive.”
Now it is our turn to speak. One by one we rise and introduce ourselves and say where we are from. For some, English is translated into Spanish, which, in turn, is translated into Tzotzil, the native language of this indigenous community. When it is my turn, I manage to recall the few words of Tzotzil a group of women taught me that morning. It means ‘here you are women’ which is how one says ‘hello’ in Tzotzil. The women’s half of the pavilion erupts in laughter. What fun.
Later, as we walk through the milpa or field of corn, beans, peanuts, squash and chilies, campesino, Jose Vasquez Perez, proudly speaks of the production from his small plot that supplies food for his family. Jose’s two daughters, ten-year-old Claudia and older sister Camela, accompany us and proudly and joyfully sing a song of peace for Chenalho. During the four-hour mass the following day in commemoration of the monthly anniversary of the massacre, the community rejoiced in three baptisms.
This community has suffered the unspeakable: threats, psychological tortures, theft, extortion, being forced to abandon their homes, fields and ancestral lands and the loss of friends and family members in the massacre. And yet, young and old, the emotion expressed the most is joy — joy towards us and joy towards each other.
“One thing I have noticed is that the people here have suffered but at least they have smiles,” Allan observed. “The army doesn’t have any smiles. I may not be able to learn much here but at least I can learn that.”
In truth, we have all learned a great deal, and seemingly every moment we are challenged to learn more. This day I have learned about faith, about the strength and resilience that faith can bring, about freely experiencing suffering and freely experiencing joy and that the two can co-exist. When we allow ourselves such freedom, how full our lives can be! I’ve learned about my own strengths as well: to be fully present and to receive and share in the grief as well as the joy, to trust that being fully present and prayerful in the moment is the most I or anyone can do, and to trust that as I am able to process all that I’ve experienced, the Spirit will guide me. This day I’ve learned so much. And I’ve so much to learn.
For more on Las Abejas see PTNv6i2, Summer 2001.