The pope’s plans to address legacy of violence, discrimination and poverty in southern Mexican state is bound to rouse Mayan people – and the Zapatistas
A woman and child walk past a billboard welcoming Pope Francis in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas state, Mexico. He will visit Mexico between 12 and 17 February. Photograph: Moysés Zuñiga/AFP/Getty Images
David Agren in Acteal, Mexico
The killing began when masked paramilitaries burst into a Catholic prayer meeting and opened fire. Those who escaped the initial attack were chased for hours through the canyons and cloud forests which surround this Tzotzil Indian community of corn and coffee farmers in southern Mexico.
Forty-five people died in the assault on a Catholic activist group known as Las Abejas, or the Bees; 21 were women, 15 were children. The perpetrators were linked to the then (and now) governing Institutional Revolutionary party.
The 1997 Acteal massacre was one of the worst mass killings of Mexico’s recent history, and it remains a potent reminder of indigenous struggle in Chiapas, a state still suffering from widespread poverty, discrimination and political corruption.
“Eighteen years have passed … and we continue denouncing grievances committed against us by party officials, who are manipulated by a government that keeps causing us pain and suffering,” said Las Abejas leader Sebastián Pérez Vázquez.
Indigenous Mexico’s fight for recognition and respect was symbolised by the Zapatista uprising which burst into the open on 1 January 1994, the day the country entered the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – an arrangement the government insisted would vault Mexico into the first world.
Indigenous women of the Las Abejas civil society commemorate the 17th anniversary in 2014 of the massacre of 45 Tzotzil people in the Acteal community. Photograph: Alamy
Later this month, Pope Francis – who has put the poor and excluded at the centre of his papacy – will come to Chiapas as part of his six-day visit to Mexico. He will celebrate mass in several Mayan languages and address the injustices facing indigenous people, who in recent years have departed the Catholic church in droves for evangelical congregations and even mosques started by Muslim missionaries.
Two decades after the emergence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), he will find that the state and its indigenous population remain firmly on the periphery of Mexican society.
Federal government figures show poverty, inequality and hunger rates have remained stubbornly high – despite billions of pesos spent on roads, schools, clinics and a spate of social programmes.
Critics in Chiapas contend that the wave of spending has been as much about controlling rebellious communities as raising the population from poverty.
“The situation here in Chiapas has not changed over the last 20 years,” said Pérez. “Even though the people are wiser to the situation, things have stayed the same.”
Pope Francis will arrive in southern Mexico as a somewhat unwelcome guest. Priests in the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas say the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto wanted the pope go elsewhere, proposing the placid state of Campeche on the Yucatán peninsula as an alternative. The government feared that the papal visit could stir up latent indigenous discontent, the priests said.
“The visit is going to give an opportunity for everything in Chiapas that’s simmering under the surface to boil over,” said diocesan spokesman Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga. “It’s going to again show that the Zapatista movement is still here, that indigenous marginalisation continues, that poverty persists, that [government] health clinics are very deficient. All of this will come out into the open.”
Sources in the federal government say its concerns over the papal visit to Chiapas were logistical, not political.
Churchmen in Chiapas also see the visit as a vindication of the work of the state’s former bishop Samuel Ruiz, who led the diocese for 40 years until his retirement in 2000, but ran afoul of land-owning elites, politicians and the Vatican.
Pope Francis plans to pray at the tomb of Ruiz, who shared a similar pastoral approach. He rode to remote Indian pueblos on mules, preaching in their local languages and organising them into Catholic communities – behaviour seen as a challenge to the rule of local landowners. He trained hundreds of catechist instructors and ordained married, indigenous deacons – a solution to perpetual shortages of priests – as he built a church which incorporated and appreciated indigenous cultures. The Vatican banned such ordinations in 2001, but Pope Francis has permitted the practice to resume.
Some of Ruiz’s catechist instructors and deacons subsequently joined the Zapatistas, though the bishop opposed violence. He was appointed a mediator in the conflict and helped broker the San Andrés peace accords between the EZLN and Mexican government – an agreement the Zapatistas allege was never fully respected.
“The government never understood that the Zapatistas preferred to live with dignity than live with refrigerators,” says Dominican Father Gonzalo Ituarte, a former diocesan vicar. “The problem that we had with the Zapatistas [is that] what they proposed is the same thing we had proposed for many years.”
The Zapatista struggle won worldwide attention, while its pipe-smoking spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, became an icon of the anti-globalisation movement. Thousands of foreign “Zapaturistas” poured into the state, providing a presence some analysts suspect kept any army excesses in check.
Zapatista rebels stand in line during a rally in the early 1990s in the main square of San Cristóbal Las Casas’ cathedral. The Zapatista National Liberation Army launched its uprising on 1 January 1994. Photograph: Reuters
Today the Zapatistas have largely withdrawn to their autonomous communities though they can still mobilise their masses. An estimated 40,000 Zapatistas emerged unexpectedly for a march in five municipalities coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar on 21 December 2012.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a month later, Peña Nieto went to the Zapatista stronghold of Las Margaritas to launch his landmark social program, The Crusade Against Hunger. Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was brought in to lend legitimacy to the launch.
In a New Year’s 2016 message, EZLN spokesman Subcomandante Moisés said Zapatistas settlements were “better than 22 years ago”, but also better than those in non-autonomous communities, which have been supported by government programmes. But some observers say government money has already caused the movement to splinter.
The offers can be enticing for the inhabitants of impoverished communities as government officials and political parties hand out everything from sheep to bicycles to bags of fertiliser – especially at election time. (Mexico’s social development secretariat did not respond to interview requests, though it says in adverts that programmes are non-partisan.)
The social investments have produced some successes. “Thanks to this programme, we were able to study,” said Margarita Martínez, a Tzotzil linguistics professor.
“[But] it’s also a form of control on the part of the government,” she added. “In the campaigns, there are times in which they tell people, ‘If you don’t vote for this party, they’re going to take away your benefits.’ It’s not true, but people believe it.”
And while grinding poverty persists, change of a different kind is slowly happening in Chiapas.
Martínez, 35, recalls coming to San Cristóbal de las Casas as a girl and not being allowed to walk on the sidewalk. Those prejudices persist – when she arrived at her university wearing traditional costume of a woollen skirt and colourfully embroidered shirt, security guards presumed she was a cleaner – but nowadays, more indigenous people have trained as professionals or occupy prominent places in commerce.
Parents are still teaching native Mayan languages such as Tzotzil and Tzeltal to their children, but young people are also using it to produce poetry, rock music and even hip-hop. Parents dress their children traditionally for Catholic events such as baptisms and first communions, too.
Indigenous art is also flourishing. Painter Saúl Kak opened an exhibit in the Casa de la Cultura in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, showing the struggles of the displaced Zoque people. His paintings touch on political topics and including a piece with the familiar Coca-Cola font spelling the words, “toma con conciencia”, (a word play on the familiar slogan, reading, “consume with consciousness”,) to protest mindless consumerism.
“This would have never happened 25 years ago,” says John Burstein, director at Galería MUY, which represents Kak. “There’s no way the Casa de Cultura would have brought in an indigenous artist.”
Back in Acteal, members of Las Abejas say they see some small signs of hope in their struggle, too.
“Many people,” Pérez says, “have stopped selling their consciences for a little bit of money or a sack of corn flour.”