Understanding Resistance, Feeling Compassion
Rachel Engelman ’04 and Miranda Siegel ’04
This summer, for the third year, a group of students traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, to attend conferences, strengthen relations with the indigenous people, and better acclimate themselves with the culture. The interest in our relations with the indigenous female artisans of Chiapas should be apparent from the growing popularity of Mercado de Paloma, a project in which the women send their crafts to us, Oakwood sells them for higher prices than they would have been sold for in Mexico, and the profit is sent back to the women.
Undoubtedly, you have seen the displays of decorative skirts and intricate bracelets occasionally set up for sale in the old senior lot. You may have even visited the downtown location where the Mercado operates every weekend. What began as a tiny operation is expanding beautifully.
So, too, the first trip to Chiapas consisted of only one student. This year, there were sixteen of us, and although bus rides were slightly crowded and we ate more as a group than anyone could have possibly imagined, the larger size made the experience more productive and unquestionably more entertaining.
The trip took off the moment we landed in Mexico. We were immediately introduced to our most important connections in Chiapas, Niki and Hilary. These two women were our guides, mentors, interpreters, and friends. Niki–a former student at Oakwood–and Hilary have been in Chiapas for a number of years, working with the indigenous women, establishing themselves in the communities, and acting as the essential messengers between Oakwood and Chiapas.
We piled into two buses and soon arrived at our home in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Although the city has tourists from every corner of the world, it still retains its gorgeous native character. The street corners are crowded with vendors, artisans and unfortunately, military soldiers stationed for the sole purpose of intimidation.
As we passed through the residential areas, we saw that every wall or gate was painted in strikingly bright colors, leaving nothing plain or bare. The weather changes from densely humid to serenely cool to pouring rain and then back again. You can experience every season in a couple of hours.
The content of the conferences we attended ranged from human rights violations, to women working to provide healthcare, to the often-disregarded female population in Mexico. At each meeting, we were greeted with earnest hospitality, communal respect, and genuine kindness. The meetings were incredibly personal, sometimes taking place in the home of the speakers themselves. Most conferences emphasized the struggle of the Zapatistas, the indigenous people fighting against the corrupt government, and the history of their resistance.
Though many attempts have been made, and many battles fought, the government continues to mistreat the people of Chiapas and ignore the voice of the Zapatistas.
The first meeting we attended was hosted by the Chiapas Media Project, a group determined to generate knowledge about the indigenous people by documenting their struggle through video cameras, VCR’s, TV’s, and computers. The Media Project has supplied the Zapatistas with equipment and training to enable them to document their revolution and perspectives. Through these videos, the Zapatistas can continue to spread awareness of their cause.
The next day, we attended two meetings focused on the Chiapan economy and its decline. We learned that Mexico has sold itself out to corporations and in the process, has started to threaten the culture and individuality of Chiapas. The unique businesses in Chiapas which gave Mexico its character in the past are disappearing because of the government’s support for huge corporations that wipe out anything in their paths.
Mexico has traded its culture and personality for mass production and profit. The growing of corn, which used to be a greatly successful business among indigenous people on family farms has been seized by the government. They have put financial regulations on corn, so that only large factories can make any kind of profit. The large population of indigenous farmers are now without jobs, money, or hope.
It is impossible for any individual to compete against the international corporations that produce products of poor quality at cheap prices, and have stripped countless citizens of their jobs. Many of the unemployed farmers and artisans are forced to take low-paying jobs working manual labor at the factories that destroyed their private enterprises. At this, our speaker shook his head and said, “It is not possible for indigenous people to get out of poverty on their own. There is a fixed path.”
The poverty rate in Chiapas is growing rapidly, and there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent the hopelessness these people have been subjected to. The government has turned its back on the individuals of Chiapas and stands behind the mass-production enterprises that have destroyed the originality of the country.
As we sat listening to how the lives of the indigenous people have been made so miserable, someone asked what the point of resistance was in this seemingly impossible situation. Our speaker responded that you must always have faith, because giving up is just an easy escape from something that demands fighting against with all of your will.
One of our most moving experiences was meeting that night with the Chiapas Community Defenders Network. This predominantly male group is composed of villagers who have volunteered to serve in defense of the countless human rights violations in Chiapas. Since the Zapatistas first collectivized, the police and military forces have violated human rights to intimidate and suppress the growing indigenous resistance. Police and military have committed rape, murder, kidnapping, assault, and destroyed property, while the government has supported paramilitaries that specialize in terrorizing and often killing Zapatista villagers who stand in their way.
As we sat in the room, it became apparent that the members of this organization were putting themselves at great personal risk by simply speaking out against these heinous acts.
On top of the physical attacks, Zapatistas are subjected to undeniable discrimination of justice in court. They are often arrested for protesting and resistance, and are then denied proper defense in court to fight the allegations. They are then placed in horrific prisons where their only ticket out is to admit to crimes they did not commit and affirm their guilt. Yet members of the organization said they would prefer to suffer the hardships of jail and blatant injustice than accept a pardon from a corrupt government that went against everything they are fighting against.
There was a man in that room who had been unlawfully accused of a crime and put in jail after refusing to sign a statement that he had committed crimes against the government–though he was completely innocent. We felt immense respect for this innocent man who sat before us, who had suffered in jail when he was completely innocent, left his life behind, and was denied a voice.
He could have ended the suffering at any time by accepting the pardon, but he did not. He rode out his sentence, kept his dignity and denied the government the opportunity to trample over another innocent individual. He is now fighting a profound injustice.
You cannot possibly understand our feelings as they told us of the complications their lives have undergone because of their resistance. I could never imagine a person could have such deep and unfaltering devotion to a cause. They put resistance before themselves, and were willing to endure oppression by the legal system in the hope that they could possibly make a difference.
When the organization told us how much they respected us for coming to listen to their cause, it seemed ironic; here were individuals who had had their homes destroyed, family members killed, and forced to suffer unjust prison sentences and countless other hardships, telling us how much respect they had for our group, which had simply listened to them. I could have never imagined that such utter devotion, courage and selflessness could exist in such a world of undeniable injustice.
After a long (six hours), grueling, bumpy ride into the jungle, our excited group prepared to forge a shallow river and enter into a Zapatista camp. Once we got out of the stuffy van and had our feet in the refreshing river water, we were on our way to experience something that could never be duplicated.
When we first entered the Aguas Calientes, built by the Zapatista communities (EZLN) for meetings, instruction, and celebration, and saw all of the native people living their lives as they would any other day, I felt a little out of place; but once we were there for a little while, things began to feel a lot more comfortable because the people were so friendly and inviting. We were able to see where the indigenous people were schooled and organized into the Zapatista movement, otherwise known as EZLN.
The individuals here were strongly resisting the government’s corruption and thus putting themselves at personal risk of persecution. The buildings that created the Aguas Calientes were covered in bright, colorful murals of heroes such as Emilio Zapata and Subcomandante Marcos. One of the murals that touched us the most was of a white dove wearing the trademark of the Zapatistas, a ski mask. This mural stood out to us because it showed that real peace could only be accomplished through the Zapatista movement.
Once we were finished with our lunch, we were taken into the village next to the Aguas Calientes. We were able to visit a bread-making collective and sample some of the bread. Women of all ages were doing their part to get everything done. We were also able to talk to a representative from a garment-making collective. Reflecting the modest role of women in Chiapan culture, they were incredibly shy when addressing our group, constantly covering their mouths when they laughed, and speaking almost completely in whispers.
Everyone we spoke to, young or old, was very friendly to us and appreciative towards what Oakwood does for some of the women’s collectives in Chiapas. Many of the workers in the communities were the same age we are, if not younger. Although their lives lacked the luxuries and comforts we seem to depend on, they seemed unbelievably spirited and grateful for all that they had. The indigenous people of the community had an undeniable bond and devotion to their land, and to their fellow members of the organized resistance.
In a nearby town, we stopped to hear workers in a women’s health clinic. The clinic is free to indigenous women who otherwise do not have any sort of health care available to them. In this clinic, women always come first, and depending on the donations to the clinic, they are able to be treated for various types of diseases and ailments.
Many women who suffer habitual domestic abuse, complications in pregnancy, and other ailments are often left to fend for themselves because proper medical attention is not available to them within their communities, and because indigenous women tend to avoid hospitals because of the cruelty and disrespect they are subjected to by the doctors.
Unlike other medical facilities, this clinic was warm and accepting towards their female patients, and a member of the clinic accompanies women in need of the further medical attention to the hospital to insure that they are treated justly and not taken advantage of. Another essential and often unaddressed issue that this clinic attends to is the use of psychotherapy and legal counseling-especially targeting divorce– to women in need. Learning about the amount and significance of the work that was being done at the women’s clinic, my heart was filled with admiration for the women who devote their life to helping other women in need of help.
Although we could not mention every conference we attended, all were touching and inspiring. It is impossible to grasp the magnitude of spirit, courage, and strength that the indigenous people possess. Though they have seen their country torn apart time and time again, their faith never fails and their devotion is never absent.
Many of the speakers, as well as the students, were moved to tears, silence, and the deepest admiration. This experience has completely opened and altered the perspectives of every person on this trip. In Los Angeles, it seems almost too easy to become completely jaded and self-involved: you tend to forget that there is more out there.
It was truly an experience to witness the people of Chiapas, whose lives revolve around resistance rather than themselves, and have to fight with all their will for the justice that we are simply given. It is amazing that just a plane ride away, there is a world so completely different from our own.