Tuesday, May 5, 2009

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.