Friday, May 15, 2009

"The Bees" - Suzanne Sanchez

I had a great trip to the state of Chiapas, Mexico this past week. The change in my blog background is in honor of the group "Las Abejas" or "The Bees" we visited in Acteal, Mexico. This sleepy little village outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas (our base for the week) was the sight of a brutal massacre of 45 men, women (5 of them were pregnant), and children on December 22, 1997.

The attack started at around 10am while many were praying in a small wooden church. Men with Ak-47s and other large weapons surrounded the village and started shooting. People rushed from the church to a small ditch trying to hide. Those who survived were buried under the bodies of thier dead neighbors and relatives, and many have permenant injuries requiring medical attention.

When the violence started, calls immediately went out to human rights organizations in San Cristobal who then called bishops and other authorities, but no aid was sent until 6pm, despite the fact that Mexican police were stationed less than 200 meters away. This fact, coupled with the fact that no one has ever been brought to justice, has lead many to believe that the Mexican government was involved or even the intellectual author for this heinous crime.

It was a very emotional experience to be there in Acteal. We sat in the small wooden church and saw the bullet holes. We stood on the hillside overlooking the site where the martyrs died. We had the priviledge of meeting with survivors and the leadership of Las Abejas in the mass tomb and the open-air meeting area they built above the tomb as a memorial to these people who's lives were cut so short. Then we asked what we could do from Chicago to help them in their struggle for justice and for their basic human rights (healthcare, education, land, water, etc.) as indigenous Mexican citizens, they told us to please spread the word about their plight and to not forget about them.

Read more on Las Abejas at Wikipedia

Las Abejas on the Acteal Massacre

The Narco News Bulletin

Las Abejas de Acteal (spanish)

"Chiapas and I" - Amrita Hanjrah

In my travels through Chiapas, I have learned that the reality of Chiapas and its people is elaborate and complex. The people are defined by an extraordinary history of perseverance. Since the dawn of Spanish colonialism and the Inquisition, the Mayan people have faced constant economic, political, and social obstacles. These past obstacles have transformed into a new set of contemporary problems and issues for the modern Mayan people.

It is not possible for me to narrow down one source of Chiapas’ problems. The problems range from the internal colonization of Chiapas by the Mexican government, private industry, military and para-military. As we learned, Chiapas contains the majority of Mexico’s natural resources including coffee, beans, gold, hydroelectric power, and oil. However, Chiapas remains Mexico’s poorest state. This indicates that Chiapas is being taken advantage of through the exploitation of their resources and labour by external parties. I feel that this is a common pattern around the globe; countries rich with natural resources are stricken with poverty, while other people get rich from exploiting them. This is one of the most disturbing and unfortunate injustices that I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand.

I have traveled to developing nations before, including El Salvador, Guatemala and India, but only in Chiapas was I able to do so in an academic context, and therefore begin to understand the mechanisms that perpetuate poverty. The opportunity to engage with NGOs, the EZLN, and Las Abejas, contributed to my realization of how layered the problems are. I believe that in order to solve these problems, there must be a collective effort on the part of all of these organizations. They all contribute to fostering sustainable development in Chiapas.

An example of an NGO that promotes sustainable development, particularly among women, is the Kinal Antzetik. ( The Kinal Antzetik is an artisan cooperative that is run entirely by Mayan women and serves as a catalyst for the women’s rights movement in Chiapas. As we learned more about this organization, I became inspired and amazed with their commitment to providing economic relief to their communities. I was also struck by how innovative the organization was and how they utilized their artistic skills to create a fully functioning enterprise. Personally, I felt that the Mayan women of these cooperatives shared an inherent indestructibility in the face of sexism and racism. I cannot help but relate to the Mayan women as a female member of a minority. The women of India are also oppressed by sexist societal structures, and are also subject to patriarchal domination. I would love to see similar resilience to the Kinal Antzetik within women’s organizations in India.

Las Abejas was a group where my heart and soul was connected to the people of Acteal. These people have suffered and continued to suffer since the massacre by the para-military on December 22nd, 2006. I struck by their ability to channel all of their grief and anger into an organization like Las Abejas. Las Abejas fights to ensure that political justice is maintained throughout Chiapas. I was surprised to learn that this civil society sympathizes with the EZLN but does not support their cause entirely. I found this to be true among other organizations as well as with the people of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The experience as a whole was enlightening academically and spiritually. As I learned from the people of their struggle for basic human rights, I was humbled and inspired. I felt that more than anything, each organization wanted us to spread awareness of their cause and the plight of Chiapas when we returned home. The things I learned on this journey will remain with me for all of my life.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Question of Identity

I came to Chiapas with a certain set of expectations, thinking that my experience would be similar to prior study abroad trips to Central America. I expected visits to fair trade coffee operations and meetings with local nonprofits, and consider them to be an important piece of the sustainable development puzzle. However, I was quickly surprised by the influence of the local Mayan culture in conversations surrounding development. I found its presence in the Catholic Church to be remarkable, unique, and indeed rare.

I will admit that my perception of the Roman Catholic Church is skewed. It has always struck me as a religion out of touch with the world in which it operates. In Central America, for example, the progressive views of the poor and liberation theology were wholly unsupported and ignored by prior and current popes. I believe this to be a reflection of the Church’s inflexibility, an institution focused on exporting its religion and enforcing its culture.

However, this narrative is not reflective of Chiapas, a place that has experienced a renaissance in identity. The influence of Bishop Ruiz in this region ushered in dramatic changes. Healing churches such as those in San Juan Chamula, the prolific Mayan cross, and increased community participation are clear divergences from traditional Roman Catholic practices. Most noticeable are the physical changes inside the churches, such as floors lined in pine needles, the presence of multi-colored candles, and benches pushed to the sides of sanctuaries. These are all signs of the blending of Mayan and Catholic beliefs and practices. According to Tavanti’s book, Las Abejas, this is the unique combination of inculturation and liberation theology, or indigenous theology. It is the recognition of the importance of identity and the tremendous role it plays in the health of its people.

Being witness to the indigenous cultures in Chiapas led me to reflect on my own father’s difficult and degrading experience with religion. Growing up on Turtle Mountain reservation he, like so many other native children of his generation, was forced to go to an Indian boarding school. Specifically, he attended St. Michael’s Indian Mission in North Dakota, a Catholic institution. At that time, it was a place intolerant of indigenous cultures, designed to fracture native communities.

Up until the era of self-determination in the 1970s, The Bureau of Indian Affairs focused on assimilating all North American tribes. Boarding schools were efficient/effective tools in this process of separating children from their families and communities, requiring uniforms, and forbidding indigenous practices including native languages. My dad described this time in his life as one of the worst, a humiliating experience.

What kind of impact would St. Michael’s have today, and in my dad’s life, if it had chosen a different path? Would I better understand my own culture and people if the school had embraced diversity instead of attempting to abolish an entire culture? Would area reservations be thriving, more prosperous and healthy?
A common theme throughout the meetings and discussions in Chiapas was the role of indigenous cultures. So often, culture is framed as a hindrance or an obstacle to development. The assumption being that indigenous cultures have little to contribute to the field. Governments and organizations alike feel the pressure to adopt imported projects that have little relevance to those it seeks to help, such as the World Bank or IMF. If true sustainable development is to be achieved, value must be seen in all cultures. Thus, successful projects are those that are framed in terms of sustainable indigenous culture instead of economic growth or environmental progress.

The health of any people is their identity. It gives them direction, community, and a life’s mission. If development projects do not first recognize this is as a basic human right, there is very little chance of sustainability. This is the type of leadership Bishop Ruiz provided in his community and church, an idea that can extend beyond Chiapas. It is both a lesson and philosophy that I hope to embody in my own life and work.

Kim Christensen's Blog

Cited Works:

Tavanti, Marco. Las Abejas: Pacifist Resistance and Syncretic Identities in a Globalizing Chiapas. New York: Rutledge, 2003.

Additional References:
Berryman, Phillip. Stubborn Hope: Religion, Politics, and Revolution in Central America. New York: The New Press, 1994.

Bodley, John H. Victims of Progress. 5th ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2008.

Gedicks, Al. The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Trip to Chiapas and journery to the deep ends of the self

Disclaimer. This document, more than a reflection about my experience in Chiapas is an attempt to unload my emotional load and give some rest to my soul from my current existential crisis.

Chiapas hit me with a syncretism of excess, contradiction and a bad case of Moctezuma’s revenge. San Cristobal is a microcosm where creativity is seen and felt for those looking for a revolution, redemption, a better world, Indian crafts, good tequila, authentic Mexican food and world class cuisine, hallucinogen fungi or an European hook up. It is in this space where the indigenous and poor people learn to survive and coexist with the first world. They build cheap houses, sell crafts, rise up in social movements and attempt to escape from modernity’s spell.
The Dutch girl playing guitar and asking for money, while a five year old tries to sell me cigarettes seems a little out of place. Yet, I have to remind myself that a world where many worlds fit may not always please me. I ask myself, where do I fit? Where does a little DePaul trip really goes? Should I go to a bad tequila bar and drawn my consciousness in cheap beer and Mezcal? Should I wander through the streets and become an Indian vigilante? Maybe join the coffee table revolutionaries?
I am sincerely confused, by the things I hear about indigenous struggles and their achievements and what I had seen in my previous visit in 1994. Many believe that indigenous people have been dignified in Chiapas and Mexico. Cynically, I ask myself, how much of this change is real, how much dignity is here? Is Chiapas an optical illusion of indigenous freedom and earned respect for first people’s rights? Are the San Andres accords being respected? As I try to eat my dinner with my friend at a bad tapas place, a guy harasses a Tzotzil kid shinning a German woman shoes, her and her husband have to endure a speech by a self proclaimed Indian hating Mexican, he yields that Indian Poverty is nothing but a myth in Chiapas and all of Mexico. I almost gave him a piece of my restorative hiking boot but he left. At least San Cristobal shows some tolerance in the eyes of visitors, the realities that I see later on this trip while in DF are drastically opposite, the same occurs as I walk trough my hometown in Queretaro where I know of and have witnessed many abuses towards the first peoples. There, I see a pretty colonial town that proclaims to be proud of its indigenous roots, but there are no Indians and they are not allowed to walk in downtown, the Mexican version of gentrification is taking place.

Going back to Chiapas, as we visited various communities and travel through “Sancris” outskirts I start to witness the silent realities away from the tourists view. When coming back from the Mayan medicine museum and our cab takes a different route, we encounter a new camp of displaced people occupying a piece of land by force. These people are holding a meeting as we go by. My classmate jokes about being around to witness something new and exciting. I am too cynical to join the conversation. Sadly, two days later, I find myself skeptical, even more cynical and scared by the larger police presence on the streets and the news on TV showing the same site and the same people I saw being removed by force by the federal police. I feel uneasy of how easy is to sense things brewing here. This I start to think is just training for something else. My diagnosis of Mexico is that of a country under extreme stress. Every conversation that I have with people by inertia goes into the topic of the militarization of the country and the de facto war against selected drugs cartels and even more selected activists trough the Plan Merida. This initiative’s inconvenient truth is that following a doctrine of national security the victims of human rights abuses do not have access to the institutions that impart justice. The courts to deal with these issues are military not civilian. This plan is the perfect opportunity to send the social leaders to maximum-security prisons, the same places where high profile drug dealers like famous drug lord Chapo Guzman can walk out whenever they feel they can be extradited to the US. Sadly, this is not a new reality for states like Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas; it is just a justification of the status quo, this time under the umbrella of fighting crime. I can’t avoid going back to the people I saw settling by force and marinating in the images of them being beaten and their makeshift houses burned down.

I struggle constantly from having my heart open during this trip. I feel energized by the people from Otros mundos and their initiatives, CIEPAC informational work as modern jugglers and the coffee coops. I feel so much humility in the presence of the people keeping alive the memory of those who died in Acteal. I grow hopeful when I walk trough the Zapatista caracol and see community work alive. I finally lose all my sanity when I witness what I call the most beautiful display of wisdom and strength in my life. Mujeres Unidas Para el Desarrollo is having its international woman’s day event and our friend and guide Marina has been invited to speak. Over five hundred women are gathering to share on topics such as their sexual and political rights, they follow indigenous protocol and acknowledge the elders, they make sure that everyone gets to share on some water and drinks and show special forces efficiency when forming columns. This is all done in Spanish and two indigenous languages. Being there brought healing to my core, I saw my grandma among all the “Jefas” and cried both of joy and by acknowledging that what I see corroborates what my heart has always known, that amazing things occur when people have in mind not personal interest but the health, well being, and happiness of their community. As I talk with my friend Naomi about this experience, I become very present to the concept of solidarity. This simple idea cannot only be motivating to others but very healing and liberating for the self.

However, if I allow my cynical self to flow, my anguish is bare-naked. I can’t hide my lack of patriotism. Mexico feeds my soul and fucks me up. It drains my energy and gives me hope. It numbs my feelings, yet it makes me grow. The aftermath of the wave of feelings takes me to the following conclusion; The Mexican state doesn’t like what it sees. It wants to protect markets and interests. Chiapas is just a microcosm of what happens in the rest of the world and the powers that be want to turn it into a controlled tourism zone where even revolution is part of the tourist packages.
And out of being present to the enduring beauty of the people in Chiapas, embodied by the kid selling chiclets in the plaza and the gringo making earth blocks at the Zapatista community, the five hundred women in council talking about their rights, the French woman finding joy in playing capoeira in front of the churches and the fiery conviction of youth, that something occurs in me. I can finally see that the wool skirts and embroidered shawls are more beautiful than any corporate suits. That posh and candles are stronger than presidential declarations or military operations, and that passion, life and love can’t be traded in the market. In this developing cultural pluralism that is Chiapas today, in this developing Mexico with bourgeoisie dreams, in this evolving world all I can do is to listen and pay attention to other’s efforts devoutly with my heart, to then share myself and share the dream of a new tomorrow, of a great everything, de un gran todo…

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Never Stop Fighting" - Felicia Byrne

In the southernmost state of Mexico, a world exists in which communities struggle on a daily basis to have their rights recognized and to be given the opportunity to live as they see fit. Having just returned from Chiapas and receiving the opportunity to listen to and learn from these remarkable fighters, I have gained a greater understanding of what it means to persevere despite the odds. Specifically, Las Abejas (The Bees), the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), and those involved in the struggle for the rights of indigenous women, have shown me that even in the toughest of circumstances, to make use of what you have and to never stop fighting.
To begin with, we met with the Board of Directors from Las Abejas, a pacifist civil society organization that is opposed to neoliberalism and seeks peace, justice and indigenous human rights (such as land, education, health care, etc.). The group does not see violence as a solution or even a means to an end. Unfortunately, despite their proclamation of nonviolence, extreme violence was used to quiet them on December 22, 1997 when 45 members were massacred by a paramilitary group supported by the government in a church in Acteal. Among the victims were 9 men, 15 children and 21 women (of which 5 were pregnant). There were a few survivors who only lived to tell of the tragedy because they were hidden under the bodies of their loved ones. Visiting this site, sitting in the church, seeing the bullet holes in the walls, walking amongst the graves, and realizing that the families of those killed still live, work, and continue their struggle on the same land and in the same place as the massacre was truly a moving experience. These people are faced with a constant, daily reminder of the costs of their struggle for rights and could have easily abandoned their fight and gone “under the radar” to avoid further persecution or harm. However, they have continued to fight against all odds and want all those who meet with them to spread the word about their situation and to never forget them. In fact, a few of the people who went on the trip are currently developing a website for Las Abejas so they can further inform people about their plight and garner more support. Las Abejas is truly one of the most remarkable groups of people I have ever met and their example of persevering despite being brutally attacked will stay with me forever.

The second group we met with that continues fighting despite the odds is the EZLN, or the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The EZLN made their presence known to the world on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA was signed, with their First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which has resulted in armed clashes with the Mexican military. The EZLN is an armed group fighting for autonomy and rights for their communities of indigenous, mostly Mayan people to govern themselves and their land in their own ways and want the Chiapanecos to receive a greater share of the benefits of the plentiful natural resources in Chiapas. They are opposed to neoliberalism/globalization and the social inequalities that it has created. Although the EZLN has many of the same ideas and goals as Las Abejas, the EZLN has taken up arms and has used violence in their fight. As a result, support for the EZLN can be polarizing within Mexico. Yet, despite the odds against them, the EZLN has been able to use the resources available to them and to persevere for over 15 years. They have been able to garner support from around the world through the use of the Internet and continuously spreading information about their fight. In addition to learning about never giving up, I have also witnessed the enormous power and potential of the internet to bring the world’s attention to even seemingly small groups.

Given the fact that the EZLN is an armed revolutionary group, meeting with them was extremely intimidating at first. We all had to show our passports and go through a sort of registration process because just as the Mexican government has given us permission to be in Mexico, the EZLN must also give permission to whoever wants to enter their communities. All of the EZLN members that we meet with had their faces covered to conceal their identities, but were all very nice and welcoming. After meeting with two separate groups of EZLN officers, it was apparent that this is a highly organized group that does not plan on giving up their battle anytime soon. They have successfully managed to garner the support of many different members of the international community and when you meet with them, they are very passionate about what they are fighting for and are able to articulate their message very clearly. It has now been over 15 years since they surged onto the international scene, although they have been around for much longer. I do not know if they will ever be able to fully realize all of their goals. Professor Marco Tavanti noted that the EZLN know that the Mexican government will never forgive them for the “embarrassment” of their arrival on the day that NAFTA was being signed. Despite this and the fact that their demands are extremely ambitious even for a recognized political party, they keep on fighting for what they believe in. This is one of the most admirable qualities in a person, or group of people, that I can think of and the EZLN has done nothing but persevere despite the odds.

Finally, the group of people that we met that are campaigning for the rights of indigenous women, also strengthened my belief in perseverance. All of the women we met, Isabel, Blanca, and Rosalinda are some of the strongest women I have ever encountered. These women spoke about the three types of discrimination indigenous women experience: being a woman, being poor, and being indigenous. These three women, as well as many other women out there, fight against the three-fold discrimination and seek to empower women. However, for me, although I do greatly appreciate and admire the work that these women are doing, what is the most moving aspect of their work is the fact that although there are so many institutionalized or culturally founded impediments to the advancement of women, the women we met with will not give up. In fact, the most soul shaking comment that I heard came from Isabel when she said that she knows that she will not see the fruits of her labor, but rather she is working for the rights and future of her future granddaughters. The fact that she is working towards a goal she knows she will likely never be able to enjoy, but instead she is working for the future, really touched me and helped me realize that some things are worth fighting for regardless of whether or not you get to experience them. This idea was also echoed at the book release event for Los Espacios Conquistados: Participacion y Liderazgo de las Mujeres Indigenas de Mexico (Conquered Spaces: Participation and Leadership of the Indigenous Women of Mexico) at which the authors talked about the gains that indigenous women have made politically and socially, but that they are still very far from being treated as equal and must continue fighting.

Meeting with all three groups of people mentioned above, and hearing their stories, really made me think about things that I have given up on in the past because I thought it was too hard or insurmountable. But after meeting with the people of Chiapas I have found a new hope that I will be able to continue pursuing my goals and fighting for what I believe in.

For more information on the battles being fought in Chiapas and the groups mentioned above, please look at the following websites: (Spanish) (Spanish)

Sarah Chakrin's Blog

My answer to the question, “How was Chiapas?” has consitantly begun with the same three words: Amazing. Intense. Humbling. Following those, I rotate in accounts of different people, towns, and ideas that affected me from one day to the next. Throughout each of the events of that week ran the idea of the strength and spirit of Mayan culture in Chiapas, and prominent themes therein. They are the power of the ancestors and the idea of the duality that balances out our existence – life and death, day and night. Healing comes from this duality, the idea of wholeness, and undying faith. The power of community as seen through shared values, keeps this ancient culture alive.

We began the week with a discussion on the background of Chiapas, from invasion by the Spanish through the agrarian reforms of the twentieth century, the Zapatista uprising, and to the present-day state. Much of the history of the region is revealed in its architecture. And even beyond those churches in San Cristóbal de las Casas, every structure in the region, every road, every tree, every mountain has a story to tell. They tell them through the people with whom they share their land. We were lucky enough to meet some of these people and absorb what knowledge we could from them in the brief time we had.

Chamula was the first place we visited where it was clear that the living and the ancestors share the same space here. The ancestors were there, in the cemetary, and in the ruins of the old church, watching over the town and the Church of San Juan. They were inside the church, too. They were with the woman who had come to be healed, and the other, who was calling upon them to do so through her. What I found so powerful was the energy that came from a people’s intense belief in their ancient faith.

I thought a lot about the power of their faith that week. Not specifically religion, but faith in the continuation of their traditions and their culture. In spite of the poverty, the sickness, the bloodshed, the centuries of injustice inflicted upon a people who appeared to be seen as a nuisance by their government - they were strong, and kind, and they possessed unfaltering determination. The injustice is devastating. But change takes time. Sometimes it takes lifetimes. I think it must take the strongest of wills to work as though change must come tomorrow, and accept that it may take a lifetime.
There are organizations in Chiapas, doing fascinating work. They help to empower people in poor, indigenous communities to identify what they need and work towards achieving it in a sustainable way. Representatives from CIEPAC, SIPAZ, and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas were among the people who generously shared their time with us. They helped expand our understanding of the history of the region and the most pressing current concerns, such as the continuing social and political repression of the indigenous Mayan population, land rights, health care, and clean water. I was particularly interested in Otros Mundos, and their efforts to train elected community members to create sustainable water collection and storage systems.

From left to right: Isabella, Marina Patricia, Blanca, and Marco.
It was the strength of the women we met, which struck me the most. We were lucky to meet Isabel and her colleague Blanca, from Mujeres Unidos para Desarrollo (Women United for Development). Isabella works at the community level to organize women to play active roles in community and society. She also travels to speak to academic groups like us, various other organizations, and serves as a consultant for government agencies. She was there, at the talks for the San Andreas Peace Accords. She is history, and she is hope; a reminder of what is wrong, and how to make things right. She is inspiration.

Isabel had traveled for two days, from her village, to be with us. She felt that the message she had to convey was that important. And it was. The importance of her words, her work, and her journey were not lost. Here was a woman who had defied societal expectations and stepped out of the role handed down to indigenous women through generations. She gives her life through her time and her words to blaze a trail for other indigenous women. It is a path of strength, dignity, independence, and equality.

A close-up section of a sculpture memorializing the victims of the Acteal massacre. The inscription on the bottom reads: “lo caduco no podrá eternamente aplastar la nueva hierba,” (“What is already fallen cannot replace what is new”).

The idea that history is conveyed through much more than just words on a page was nowhere more powerful than in the town of Acteal. Members of the pacifist indigenous rights group Las Abejas welcomed us into their town and told us of their work, their beliefs and their goals. They also told us of the 1997 massacre, in which paramilitary forces came down from the mountains, invaded the town, and murdered forty-five people. Many of the victims had been inside a church, praying, as the troops surrounded the structure and closed in. Among these victims were children and pregnant women.

The idea of remembrance of December 22, 1997 is evident everywhere in that small town. The mountains, and the trees, and the churches all bore witness that day. The blood of the victims remains in the soil there, and those victims tell their story through the living. The people of Acteal have not left their homes. They continue to live in the location where these events happened. This choice is just one of many ways in which they honor their families and friends who lost their lives.

The massacre happened just over eleven years ago. I noticed that there were no children in the town who appeared to be eleven, or ten, or even nine years old. But there were many younger children there. And they seemed to me to be reminders of the idea that life goes on. After the horror, and although it took some time, life went on in Acteal. The people there honored the memories of their loved ones with words, with photographs, with art, and ultimately with life. Those children will surely know what happened there before they were born. But their lives are symbols of healing, and the beginnings of a new legacy for the people of Acteal and for Las Abejas.

They asked that we tell their story to others. They said we were now their voice, and I wondered who in the world I was to be a voice for them. It seemed an honor and a responsibility none of us could be worthy of. But I imagine that we will all tell what we know, and do our best to honor these amazing people. We will try to pass on the words they gave us.

The Zapatistas allowed us into their community, Caracól 2, and spoke with us about their experience. I felt as though we were meeting with living legends, given what I had already read and heard about the Zapatista movement. The representatives who spoke with us were patient and informative, as well as careful, and community-minded. They made clear that as representatives of their entire community, there were certain questions of ours they could not answer without consensus from their peers.

Caracól means “snail,” and it is an image prevalent in Zapatista artwork and other references. The spiral shape of the snail shell is representative of their search for a new path. An independent bookstore owner and activist described to some of my friends and me an image of a gathering he once attended: People stood in a spiral formation, holding unlit torches, as Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the EZLN, moved through the spiral and lit each one. Eventually it was ablaze from individual flames come together in this formation.

The reality of Chiapas, to me, is one of tremendous injustice. It is the marginalization and repeated attempts at extermination of the indigenous population through economics, politics, manipulation, coercion, and blatant violence. All this is at the hands of a government and corporations who seem to consider themselves inconvenienced by their existence.

But there is another reality as well. It is that of a people who are strong in conviction, faith, determination, and will. They demand basic needs. They demand respect. They demand justice. They demand life.

"Never Forget" - Diana Hochman

Honoring the victims of Acteal
It was 10 years ago as a high school student that I first heard the words "Never Forget". I was told by past Holocaust survivors to "Never Forget" what happened to the millions of people who were innocently slaughtered for no reason. Those words have echoed through my mind ever since that journey to Poland where I saw millions of names on burial grounds. I vowed that I would never forget and I truly believed that hatred like this would never occur again. I guess that was my idealistic view as a naive 18 year old that the world could change.

However 10 years later, the words "Never Forget" would be spoken again by someone across the world who had experienced a different massacre but the same hatred against his community. This time, these words came from Sebastian, the President of Las Abejas in Acteal who wanted us to "Never Forget" the 45 victims who were massacred in his community on December 12, 1997. Before this trip to Acteal, I had heard several times that we could be most helpful by spreading their message and by telling others across the world what happened in Acteal. Before I met any of Las Abejas, I knew I would want to spread their message. However, it was not until I heard their stories, met their wives, husbands and children did I realize that I not only wanted to spread their message, it was my duty to get their message across to everyone I encounter.

As we walked around this community, Sebastian pointed out the banana tree where many of the victims were murdered. Just being inches from where a massacre like this occurred was devastating to me. I thought I had prepared myself for this by reading all about Acteal, however there was nothing that could prepare for listening to the stories of survivors and standing in the spot that many men, women and children were brutally murdered. My most vivid memory of that day was walking into their community church where Sebastian pointed out to us the bullet holes in the church. I will never forget how he told us that some people survived because the bodies of the deceased protected them. As we walked out of the church into the sanctuary to honor those victims, I remember looking at all the pictures of the victims. All of those faces will stay with me forever, however it was the pictures of those 5 women who were pregnant that will be the reason I continue to spread their message for those babies who never had a chance to have a voice. I will be their voice.

While their was deep sadness in hearing what had occurred on that tragic December day in 1997, there is definitely hope. These members of Las Abejas see their experience as an opportunity. An opportunity for growth. An opportunity for indigenous rights. An opportunity for women's rights.

As we left our meeting with Sebastian and our reflection session, I immediately went over to the group of women and girls who were smiling waiting for us to sort through their hand-made products. My desire was not to purchase these products just to add to my collection of items from my travels, however it was my way of showing support to this cooperative by spreading their knowledge and wisdom. It was for that reason that I bought several bookmarks. No matter what I am reading, I will remember their story and spread their message. While giving a bookmark may seem like a small present to some, that was my first step in fulfilling their wish to spread their message to everyone that sees the bookmark. I will "Never Forget" and I will help others around the world to "Never Forget".

After returning home from this journey, I wondered how I was truly going to be their voice. It was simple. I needed to start with the people who were most interested in my trip. While many of my friends and family knew very littel about Chiapas in general and even moreso of Las Abejas, this was my first step in fulfilling the wishes of Sebastian and his community. While it is often difficult to explain everything that has happened in Chiapas with regards to indigenous rights and how politics have played a role in this, I found it empowering, yet challenging to be the voice for this community. While I know that my voice can only go so far, I know that by telling their past, present and future lives will hopefully bring them the peace they deserve. While this blog can only go so far, my hope is that it will help others to never forget the strength that the members of Las Abejas possess.

Laurie Couch's Blog

It’s the first day of our NGO panel and I can’t believe how cold it is here. The fourth speaker of the day is a woman named Isabel from Mujeres Unidos para Desarrollo, which means or Women United for Development. Her organization works to organize and empower women to take an active role in community development. Sitting in the conference room of the Hotel Mision Colonial, listening to Isabel speak, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Beverly several months earlier.

We both work in the labor movement. She is Mexican. I am on a tirade about something or other – likely the pervasive and hypocritical sexism in our office. This becomes a conversation about feminist theory. She says she has a problem with organizations that send white feminists into non-white communities and tell women how to live their lives. I’m not sure. In a way, I agree. On the other hand, I think some violations of women’s rights are so egregious that they have to be stopped and who cares where that comes from? Ideally it would come from within the communities but some ideas about masculinity and femininity are just wrong and the fact that they are ingrained in a particular culture doesn’t make them any less so. Why should we be sensitive to beliefs that are oppressive and intolerant? She listens to me go back and forth like this for a while. That’s what organizers do.

Listening to Isabel brings me back to this conversation because she is talking about walking from village to village, talking to other indigenous women and telling them they have rights. Most of them listen. Some are too scared to act on it but some of them do. She does this, she says, because women are belittled and abused in many of these communities. Some traditions, she says, are just bad. I think that too. But when she says it, it really means something.

I’m making connections. Between what Isabel is saying and what Beverly said. I think about how little it would mean for me to knock on the door of a house in Zinacantan (for argument’s sake, let’s pretend I speak Totzil) and tell the women to defy their husbands and fathers, shed their shackles of domesticity, and go to college. And it’s not just that it would be culturally insensitive. It’s meaningless because we don’t share experiences. For me, getting an education and a job was relatively easy compared to the battle it will be for indigenous women, so how could I expect to inspire them? When Isabel asks them to take risks, or tells them what they can accomplish with hard work and courage, she is speaking from experience – experience they can relate to.

Isabel doesn’t talk much about herself, but she does say she wishes she had gone to school. The most humbling thing about everything she is saying is the fact that she figured it all out on her own. I am a feminist because I have had the benefit of higher education and because I stand on the shoulders of strong American women who came before me. Isabel is a feminist and an organizer without any of those benefits. I can’t imagine the strength it must have taken to recognize injustice and fight it without the support of my family or community – and without formal education. But that’s what she did. And she is still doing it. And she is successful because she is an activist within her own culture, reaching out to women who recognize her struggle as their own.

I’m in awe of her. And I understand in a way that I didn’t until this moment why real change – specifically the empowerment of women – has to come from within communities.

Women United for Development does not have its own website. Links to several other indigenous women’s organizations that work in Chiapas are posted here.

K'inal Antzetik, A.C. (Land of Women)

Jolom Mayaetik