by Karen Larson • We have been in Chiapas now since late Monday. The city of San Cristobal de las Casas makes itself known to us privileged ones as bustling and colorful, historic and friendly, with good food and comfortable beds. With the guidance of our more connected group leaders, however, we are starting to scratch beneath the veneer to the real lives of Chiapas and its people.
The TC Daily Planet has a variety of blogs. One of them is called “World Views.”World Views” publishes stories, reflection and analysis with an international perspective and a Minnesota connection. This blog post comes from the United Theological Seminary trip to Chiapas, Mexico in January 2008.
By all measures, this is Mexico´s poorest state (except when Oaxaca earns the distinction) and, not coincidentally, its most indigenous population. The native people have been pushed to the edge of the land and the edge of society for 500 years. Fourteen years ago this month, many of the native Mayans rose up in the Zapatista armed rebellion to say ¡Basta! — enough! With ski masks and bandanas hiding their faces, they finally became visible to the rest of the world. Now, while their armed brothers and sisters maintain military strength in their jungle strongholds, the people go about their daily lives with a reclaimed dignity and a commitment to communal life and autonomy from the Mexican government (meaning they accept no government services at all).
Yesterday, we visited two zapatista villages in the mountains and were given the gift of an hour or more of time from the junta, or council, of good government. We learned that all important decisions of the community are made in meetings of the entire community– men, women, boys and girls. Decisions are made by consensus; in other words, discussion continues until an agreement is reached that all members can live with. Leaders are chosen this way, as well, and all members have their turn at leadership. A sign on the edge of town proclaims that this is a place “where the people speak and the leaders listen.” (!) Cooperatives from weaving to farming create what the community needs, and all is shared collectively. We were treated with great hospitality, including a meal of chicken and potato soup with lime, tortillas, salsa, rice and coffee, cooked over a low fire and served to all 24 of us squeezed around a table in a house with a dirt floor.
Today we visited the University of the Earth on the edges of San Cristobal. There we were moved by the philosophy of its brilliant director, Ramund Sanchez, who dreams with the Mayans of “a world where all worlds fit,” a world where there is room for the Mayans and all people. The work of the University is counterintuitive for anyone raised on capitalism and neoliberalism. Everyone is welcome to study and can choose any course from tailoring to electronics to theology to agro ecology (organic farming) to philosophy to weaving to … well, you get the idea. All is free, including room and board, and students are encouraged to take what they learn back to their communities, not to sell their skills on the open market. The University recently awarded its first (and only) degree — Doctor of Liberation — to Andres Aubry.
The University of the Earth, like the zapatistas, owes much of its philosophy to the liberation theology of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Now retired as bishop of San Cristobal, Ruiz came to save souls and stayed to listen to the indigenous people and be changed by them. Liberation theology move from the bottom up, seeing God present among the poor and the gospel as a gospel of liberation from oppression. With them, Ruiz and others struggle against the local landowning elite that would deny the people their land, against the national self-preserving interests of the political parties, and against the international powers that would roll right over them with actions like NAFTA that worsen the plight of the poor.
Our little group of students, teachers, activists and fellow travelers is gelling as its own community, listening and learning from these people as much as we can given our context and our limited time here. It is tiring, and, while often the struggle seems futile, more often the hope is tangible. For me, the tears have come from hope more often than from sadness. These are not a defeated people. Not any more.