Tzeltal women participate in their community’s assembly in Chiapas. Enrique Carrasco, SJ

Mexican Indigenous seek a new path

  • November 22, 2019

When the Zapatista Army rose up in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas and captured the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas on New Year’s Day 1994, the Jesuits understood their frustrations and their hopes. But they had their doubts, too.

It was “a revolutionary movement,” Jesuit Fr. Arturo Estrada told The Catholic Register in a Skype call from Mexico. “A very big movement that made the Indigenous rise up and say, ‘Hello! We are here.’ ”

The Jesuit community has been supporting Indigenous communities in Mexico for hundreds of years. At the Bachajón Mission in Chiapas, where Estrada is based, the Jesuits have been living and working wth the Tzeltal-Mayan Indigenous people for the last 60 years. 

They know about Indigenous poverty. They know the history of Mexican governments ignoring Indigenous interests and parcelling out their land to others. 

Estrada is visiting Canada for a series of talks sponsored by the Canadian Jesuits International, the fund-raising arm of the Jesuits that supports projects around the world. His stops include St. John’s, Nfld., Ottawa and Toronto, where he will be at the Mary Ward Centre (70 St. Mary St.) Nov. 26 at 7 p.m.

He will explain the practical business of supporting traditional, Indigenous communities in Mexico through the Yomol A’tel coffee co-operative that gives Tzeltal-Mayan people a livelihood they can control.

His visit comes as the plight of Indigenous communities has become a renewed focus in the Church following the Synod on the Amazon at the Vatican last month. 

“That synod can be an opportunity to open the Church doors, to be able to walk through to a different kind of way, to build a different Church,” said Estrada. “We have here in Chiapas a native Church, which is different. That kind of different Church can be a model for our society.”

The Zapatista revolution began the day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force — an agreement Mexico’s Indigenous people were never asked about but which required a change to the Mexican constitution transforming their communal lands into private property.

Enter Subcomandante Marcos on horseback, wearing a ski mask, smoking a pipe, wearing a watch on each arm, bandolier of bullets across his chest and an ancient-looking automatic rifle tied to his back. 

It was the beginning of resistance to globalization and Marcos was the defining image of a resurgent, revolutionary left.

“At the mission, we never agreed with all that weaponized movement,” said Estrada.

To the Jesuit mind, the Zapatistas were right about the problem. But neither the guns nor the manifestos corresponded to the concrete issues of land and human rights for Indigenous people in Chiapas (one-quarter of the population in that state). The Jesuits had a different strategy in mind.

“We actually helped people to recover their lands. That was the main problem, that they didn’t have access to the land,” said Estrada. “After that, we started with the human rights movement. We started our ecological movement to make things work in the land.”

The Zapatista revolution, coming just as the Cold War ended, suddenly recast the idea of revolution. 

Instead of class warfare, it was a revolution on behalf of minority cultures — the nations that never benefited from the invention of the state. As a way of attracting global media attention, the Zapatista uprising was incredibly effective. As a way of gaining control of the state, it was much less so, said St. Francis Xavier University political scientist Yvon Grenier, who specializes in Latin American politics.

“Revolutions are usually not successful. If poverty and exploitation and inequality caused immediately revolutions you would have revolutions everywhere in the world,” he said. “It was very successful in the media, but Marcos never became the president of Mexico. They (the Zapatistas) were completely dismissed by political parties. They didn’t support elections anyway, even when Mexico became more democratic after 2000.”

But Estrada notes that electoral politics don’t seem to be producing great democracies even in North America and Europe these days. With the rise of populists, white nationalists, anti-immigrant parties and others, Estrada sees us mired in the age of “fiasco democracy.”

“Down here in Chiapas, we are having frustration about democracy,” he said. 

Estrada believes a true democracy should produce a democratic result, rather than a dictatorship of the majority. The communities where the Jesuits are active are experimenting with “election by customs and not by parties.”

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