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“Clash of civilizations” in Chiapas village

17 April 2007

The Mexican Constitution seems to be a progressive document. Articulo I grants personal rights regardless of national or ethnic origin, gender, age, financial status, sexual orientation, physicial condition, religion, personal opinion or marital status (and, adds for good measure… “any attribute used to depreciate or discriminate against personal dignity”).


On the other hand, in August 2001, the Fox Administration pushed through a change in the constitution at the behest of the Zapatistas. Article II, Secc. A gives indigenous COMMUNITIES the right to self-determination. This “settled”, at least temporarily, the Zapatista uprising. It was part of a negotiated settlement, brokered mostly by Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas. And, it illustrates the two currents that have run through Mexican though for at least the last 200 years: modernity and tradition. Respecting the rights of the individual is modern. Community control is traditional.


Modernity is not necessarily progressive – peonage and neo-colonialism were the result of Porfirio Diaz’ “cientifico” modernization program, and the economic disaster of the 1990s was the result of applying “modern” solutions to perceived problems. The traditionalists may not be reactionary: Lopez Obradór was calling for a return to the traditions of the Revolution… which were, for the most part “modernist” ideas drawn from the anarchists and socialists of the early 20th century.


I’ve said before that my problem with the Zapatistas is that they are “traditionalists” and, by definition, are repressing individual rights. I’d like to believe that the right-on liberal ELZN directives to accept women as equals and to not discriminate against sexual minorities would apply to all Mexican, they don’t. By insisting on the rights of COMMUNITIES to determine their own “usos y costumbres,” the Zapatistas (and the conservatives that supported the constitutional amendment) are permitting communities to discriminate and abuse non-conformists… or drive them out of their homes.


We like to simplify the situation in Chiapas as just something involving “poor Indians” fighting outsiders who ride roughshod over local traditions. But, sometimes the local traditions are repressive (like childhood marriage) or the “poor Indian” is a non-conformist. But, by law, “usos and traditiones” are the law in Indigenous communities. Which leaves the minorites where?


The Mexican press reported yesterday on an attack on an Evangelical church in San Juan Chmula, Chiapas . The Tzotzil community is overwhelmingly Catholic Traditionalist (which is an independent organization from the Roman Catholic Church). According to the article in Jornada, the Traditionalists made a decision at a Saturday meeting to drive the Evangelicals out – and attacked the Iglesia Evangélica Pentecostés Independiente Tzotzil with machetes, bats and picks. The building was destroyed and two people were arrested. The news reports do not say which of the two congregations the arestees belonged to.


Iglesia Evangélica Pentecostés Independiente Tzotzil is affiliated with the Alas de Aguila sect. The American evangelical news service, Compass Direct News, has more details of ongoing persecution of the sect’s members:


Juan Mendez Mendez became a Christian in a village outside of this city in Chiapas state on April 7, and two days later local authorities put him in jail – for leaving their religious blend of Roman Catholicism and native custom.

A catechist or doctrinal instructor in the “traditionalist Catholic” church in the village of Pasté (pahs-TEH), the 25-year-old Mendez was released on Tuesday (April 10) after spending the night in jail. The previous Easter Sunday, political bosses in the Tzotzil Maya village noticed him missing from a church festival involving what Mendez considered to be idolatrous rites; they summoned him that evening.

The town leaders threatened to jail Mendez, and the following day they summoned him again after consulting with villagers, including other catechists. Mendez verified to them that he had heard the gospel in another community and now wanted to become part of an Alas de Aguila (Eagle’s Wings) church in Pasté, he said.

The report goes on to cover Pastor Antonio Vasquez’ history with the larger Tzotil community:

Vasquez, whose church has grown to 60 to 80 mainly Tzotzil- or Tzeltal-speaking people since he began it in 1996, is no stranger to area persecution from traditionalist Catholics.

In 1998, local political bosses (caciques) put him in jail for 24 hours without food. In 2000, he was released from jail only after the intervention of Chiapas Religious Affairs officials – who promptly demanded that he contribute to and participate in the traditionalist Catholic religious festivals, which the pastor said amounted to a denial of his faith.

An attorney from the government told me, ‘You know what? I’m a Christian, but you have to do what we say,’” Pastor Vasquez recalled. “And I told her, ‘As an authority you cannot obligate me to deny my faith, because, as you know very well, that goes against the constitution. Secondly, as a Christian, you cannot obligate me to deny my faith and all the things that my faith requires.’ So she was left something ashamed.”

The state religious affairs ministry had more success forcing his congregation to commit to participating in the traditionalist Catholic rites, which bring caciques not only festival fees but alcohol sales income. The congregation subsequently abandoned him, Pastor Vasquez said.

They said to me, ‘You like to get into trouble, and we don’t want trouble, so we’ve signed the agreement with the government,’” Pastor Vasquez said. He was going to leave the area, but he said God told him two things: “Cowards flee,” and “Cowards have no part in me.”

Hence he signed the government agreement, which allowed him to continue preaching as long as he contributed to and participated in the traditionalist Catholic festivals – something “very painful,” he said. The church grew so much, however, that by August 20, 2000, the caciques again jailed him, his father and his two brothers – and burned down his house.

Lyn, back when she was writing here (COME BACK, LYN!), criticized Evangelical missionaries for “stirring shit up” in Mexican traditional communities. I agree, and add that Catholicism, for all its faults, made more sense. Evangelicals, after all, believe in personal salvation… and that carries over into the sense of economic and political “salvation”. Catholics, since Saint Augustine, have talked about community, Civitas Dei (the City of God). The traditionalists rejected much of the Catholic reforms of the 1960s, and adapted others to their own community’s traditions.

This is a particularly sensitive issue in Chiapas, where about a third of the people are Evangelicals or Pentacostals.  I have no statistics to back me up, but my sense is that the Evangelicals, being more attuned to personalism, are the most likely to emigrate. And I’ve met Traditionalists selling religious objects in Mexico City who were part of a Stalinist collective (a political community, and one that incidentally is about as opposed to Roman Catholic hegenomy as one can get).

I can’t just pick a side… this isn’t my fight (and none of my business, really). I’m too much a modernist and cranky gringo to ever think that the community has a right to tell me what to think or believe. On the other hand, the Evangelicals are the outsiders who threaten community cohesion. The only thing I can do is note that the troubles in Chiapas are never as simple, nor as black-and-white “good guys v bad guys” as we would like.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. el_longhorn permalink
    19 April 2007 12:25 pm

    Damn, man, you are on a roll! Criticizing the EXLN…sacrilege!! But it has to be done. The pre-colombian world was not this happy, perfect world until the Spaniards came along. It had its own issues.


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