Chiapas

The Heart of Liberty

Visitors to the highland community of Oventic in Chiapas, Mexico, are greeted by a spectacular series of murals. Their brilliant colors cover the community food store and storage building, the health clinic, the elementary and secondary schools, and a rambling old cattle barn that has been converted into a community center.

Clearly, there is a new generation of artists in Chiapas who are continuing the legacy of Mexican mural painting revolutionized by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The visual symbols of these masters fill monumental walls of government buildings as well as schools in rural and urban communities. They present the seesaw of history from the pre-Columbian and colonial past to the recent pride in Mexico's indigenous roots, cultural heritage, and stubborn resistance to exploitation. The muralists' vibrant brush strokes of color and form engage the hearts and soul of both the nonliterate campesinos and urban elites. The revolutionary Zapatista murals in Chiapas can be serious, symbolic, and humorous. They vary in style from stark black outlines to a brilliant blending of colors.

Across a newly constructed interior classroom wall in Oventic stretches a mural that emphasizes the importance of education for women. "Education should train students to think for themselves," Oventic's school coordinator told a group of visitors, "to understand the reason for our struggle...to unite our voices against the globalization of poverty." The mural portrays a dream-like image of a young girl holding a book. One side of the book portrays the brutality of colonization; the other depicts the determined resistance of campesinos.

 

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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Are You a Terrorist, Too?

Sister Antonia Anthony is a 74-year-old Franciscan nun who raises funds for the poor of southern Mexico. Recently she saw her ministry described differently, thanks to the Denver Police Department. "I have seen my spy file," Anthony told the Rocky Mountain News. "I was listed as part of the Chiapas Coalition, [described as] a criminal extremist group. I suppose when I first read that, it just seemed to me to be ludicrous." As part of her file, the police cited Anthony's belief that "global financial policies are responsible for the uprisings in Chiapas, Mexico," according to a deposition viewed by the Rocky Mountain News. It said she sought to "overthrow the Mexican government."

Anthony, who lives at the Marycrest Convent in Denver, co-founded the Chiapas Coalition in 1996. The group is dedicated to helping indigenous people in Mexico's southernmost state. Because of this work, the Denver Police Department—operating, it appears, its own Red Squad—marked Anthony for investigation. Anthony is suing the Denver police. In 2002, Denver's mayor admitted that the police department over the last three years has kept files on about 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2003
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That All May Be One

All Catholics are Zapatistas, all evangelicals are paramilitaries, and Jesus is a member of the PRI party—to many involved in the struggle for land, food, and religious freedom in Chiapas, Mexico, these pseudo-verities provide all the justification needed for armed conflict. Religious divisions already present have been exacerbated by misconceptions such as these under a strategy of low-intensity warfare.

Creatively seeking to induce further strife among indigenous groups, and using "religious divisions" as one label on which to pin responsibility for current problems, the Mexican government has systematically fanned flames of unrest between churches. Doing so has allowed the government to further justify its military presence as a "peace-keeping force." Scriptural manipulation further complicates the melee: The government often cites Romans 13 to keep evangelical paramilitaries under its thumb. Tensions exploded in the highland community of Actealin in 1998, when a predominantly Presbyterian paramilitary force slaughtered 45 men, women, and children, all members of the Mayan Christian pacifist group Las Abejas.

But into this maelstrom has blown a calming zephyr. Seeking new ways to foster peace between churches in a conflict that is often Christian fighting against Christian, several United Church of Christ missionaries joined hands with the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal to create a space for ecumenical dialogue. With its first course on conflict resolution in 1998, the Ecumenical Bible School was born.

The school began with the idea of bridging Catholics and Presbyterians, but soon Baptists joined the mix. "And then," said Eduardo "Lalo" Rodriguez, a Mennonite pastor teaching at the school, "something funny happened—Catholics and Protestants started reading the Bible together." Once these ecumenical weekend Bible studies began, old divisions and misunderstandings began to crumble away.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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Chiapas' New Bishop

As Bishop Samuel Ruiz, liberation theologian and champion of Chiapas’ indigenous peoples, faced mandatory retirement at age 75, many feared what would come next. Would pressure from the Mexican government and cardinals opposed to liberation theology result in a more conservative replacement?

Rome’s choice of Felipe Arzimendi—with his reputation for being theologically conservative but socially progressive—seems something of a compromise. "I will continue in the line of Samuel Ruiz," Arzimendi said. "I come not to compete or to destroy, but to complement."

Reports by the Mexican press and human rights offices indicate that paramilitary violence has increased in Chiapas in recent months, and the Mexican army continues to harass and intimidate the indigenous population. "Let the Mexican army respect human rights," said Arzimendi in his installation address, "and let no one be deceived by those who encourage the formation of paramilitary organizations. Do not accumulate more arms, and never raise your hand against your neighbor. Keep in mind the divine command: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’"

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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A Collaboration Against Hatred

The struggle for peace in Chiapas has taken some ugly twists in the past two years. Paramilitary groups backed by the Mexican army and the Chiapas state security police are attacking civilians they perceive to be supporters of a four-year-old guerrilla movement, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation. Among the most recent victims were two lay catechists wounded last November while traveling with Catholic Bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raul Vera.

The Zapatista uprising began in eastern Chiapas on New Year’s Day in 1994. Initially, it led to negotiations with the federal government, but also to increased militarization in the largely indigenous states of southern Mexico. Events in Chiapas attracted global attention, as indigenous people in Mexico’s poorest state took up arms on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Their spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, eloquently expressed the Zapatista call for health care, housing, education, land, and respect for human rights. But negotiations ended in mid-1996 because the government refused to implement agreements on indigenous rights reached earlier that year.

North of the original conflict zone, related strife threatens the lives of thousands of indigenous farmers. This conflict polarizes communities along both political and religious lines. According to the International Service for Peace (SIPAZ), more than 4,000 people have been displaced from their homes and 300 killed in the past two years. In this new example of low-intensity warfare, the government and its armed forces create paramilitary groups (armed civilians) to provoke conflict, and then use the conflict to justify repression of groups that press for social reforms. In northern Chiapas, the major paramilitary group is called "Paz y Justicia" (Peace and Justice).

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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