Subject: Re: Chiapas
Sent: 2/11/97 6:03 PM
Received: 2/11/97 8:31 PM
From: Miguel Rolland OP,

I just finished this and am sending it around. I did another piece called "Walking with Domingo" for Missionaries in Action, the Mission Newsletter for the Western Province. Things are growing worse here. Dialogue is nearly dead. So we pray, for peace, and work it.

Your brother,
FEBRUARY 10, 1997

By Fr. Miguel Bartolomé de Las Casas Rolland, O.P.

He was an extraordinary man, someone you meet only by chance really. How often does one ever get to meet a millionaire. I have been lucky enough to meet some other wealthy personalities like Oliver Stone and Edward James Olmos who have recently been to Chiapas not just to "shine" as Stars so often like to do, but to let their light draw focus upon the very serious dilemmas of the indigenous people who continue to suffer under the crushing injustices perpetuated by the Mexican State -- a darkness largely left unseen for people in the United States. Luminescence, I suppose, is good. For we need light in order to see. But this man was not a Star from Hollywood, just a businessman with a profound understanding of Economy. He had been born and raised in midwest farm country, but fell in love with New York City, and eventually made his way to an advisory team at the Nixon White House (before the Fall). Ultimately he acquired his fortune through hard work at a prestigious investment firm in Los Angeles, where until recently he was President. But now he was retired, and at 61 finally free to persue his heart's desire, which because of a mutual contact in Mexico City had brought him to a land of tremendous conflict. Chiapas: far away from his beloved home and wife and daughter, he was here like some missionary from another planet, sitting with Fr. Pablo Romo and me, conversing as friendly strangers at a restaurant in San Cristobal de Las Casas.

When we picked up our new friend at his hotel we did not know what to expect other than that he was a friend of a friend who has long been supportive of the Dominicans. On our way to dinner he could not help notice so many young "hippie" and/or new age tourists walking the narrow streets of this picturesque highland colonial town. "I've heard alot about the war here, some of it seems true, but alot strikes me as so much BS . . ." he suddenly announced to us from the back-seat of the car! Then he frankly inquired if the troubles here might not be connected to the fact that "a lot of what I would call your romantic revolutionaries seem to be wandering around the town." Fr. Pablo and I looked at each other, bewildered as to how to respond to such an observation, wondering what he had been reading and what manner of thinking possessed him. It is an ongoing frustration as to how the highland town of San Cristobal attracts all manner and type of tourist, yet how far from the truth are such "tours" in contrast with the suffering and anguish of the indigenous people whose communities surround the city.

Over dinner our strange new friend told us of his recent trip to Bosnia and the ravages of war and ethnocide that he had witnessed there. Although not Catholic, and raised a fundamentalist Baptist, our visitor confessed that he really had more in common with popular historian Will Durant than he did with Billy Graham, for his true passion was not religion but humanity. He was visiting Chiapas to see if maybe he might not sense some of the deeper currents of history, and perhaps in some small way lend a helping hand.

We discussed the meaning of the vicious low intensity warfare that currently plagues the poor of Chiapas, but he remained convinced that no matter how sincere and determined, a vulnerable army of Indian Rebels could never make a real difference for Mexico. Then I was able to explain to him that all the indigenous organizations involved in this struggle claim that Chiapas is not some isolated regional problem, and that in order to solve the problems of Chiapas the economy and politics of the Nation as a whole must radically change. He became enthusiastic about this point, grasping the full implication that Mexico's authoritarian One Party dictatorship would eventually have to give way to authentic, dynamic forms of civil society and democracy, or die.

Unstable weather prohibiting a small plane trip to tour the distant Maya ruins of Bonampak, our inquisitive visitor called us up the next morning at Santo Domingo Church. Fr. Pablo was out visiting an indigenous community all day and so we decided that I would meet him at his hotel and then walk to where Fr. Pablo Romo spends most of his time: the Human Rights Center, "Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas". My guest already knew that famous Dominican name as belonging to the great Defender of the Indians from the 16th Century, the first Bishop of Chiapas. What he did not know was that Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, the current Bishop who very much embodies the spirit of Las Casas, was the founder and President of the human rights center. The Diocese began this effort in 1988 in order to document and decry the innumerable abuses against poor campesinos and indigenous communities.

Although the office was closed on Saturday morning, I became a willing if inadequate "tour guide" and showed off the Center as best I could. I explained the purpose and function of the office for Peace Camps -- where people from all over the world come to spend 10 days or more living in small indigenous communities, offering them some sense of security against arbitrary harassment from the State Police forces or the Mexican Military. And I explained the work of the two full-time lawyers who do their best to seek justice from an authoritarian Government too often characterized by impunity. Legal work, however, is only one aspect of the Center's purpose where the more important task is educating whole communities of poor people what their rights are and how to protect themselves from the "Public Security" police. My guest was impressed by all of it, especially the fact that much information is transmitted via a whole network of human rights organizations linked together in Mexico, supporting and protecting one another via the Internet. Financed by a few churches in Europe and other generous Non-Governmental Organizations, the human rights center seemed to be an "ideal put into practice" for my inquisitive friend. "Do they really make a difference, do they get results?" he asked me impatiently; and my only answer was that in all truth the work of Centro Fray Bartolomé, successful against the system or not, could not afford to stop trying -- for then the Devil would have the last laugh indeed. In Mexico, but perhaps especially in the state of Chiapas, the Devil runs loose and free and dangerous.

After the tour my guest was on his way with some friends from Oaxaca to see the famous Church of San Juan Chamula, a community known to Anthropologists for its abusive political bossism and expulsion of Catholics and Protestants who have refused to buy into the corrupt and alcoholic politics of its "elders." Attractive to tourists as a place "to see Indians praying" with candles, incense, sugar cane liquor, chickens and chants, my curious guest was on his way there when suddenly delayed by a remarkable event blocking the way. Getting out of the Suburban he was able to witness one of the largest protest marches in the history of San Cristobal de Las Casas. Nine Thousand indigenous men, women and children marched down the main street continuously for nearly an hour -- Zapatistas, members and supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). They swiftly marched by in ordered rank and file, replete with sandals, sombreros, traditional clothing and not a few wearing the characteristic ski mask (la pasamontaòa) of the "faceless Indian". They were shouting slogans and demands for Democracy -- but most of all insisting on acceptance of the 12 month old negotiated accords of the San Andrès Dialogue Process. The First Round of Accords were signed to publicly by the Zedillo Government but were now being opposed by the President. Indians throughout Mexico demand these accords become legislation for a Constitutional Amendment which, ultimately, would open up real and substantive change. Our distinguished visitor watched and observed the non-violent river of Zapatistas in awe, for these were no "romantic revolutionaries" but poor men and women, Indian people, peacefully crying out for respect, dignity, justice and above all a new Mexico which would never again leave them out of the decision making process the mestizos call government.

We met again later that same afternoon and traveled to a nearby Chamula indigenous community called Candelaria. This community had once been under the municipal authority of San Juan Chamula, but re-aligned itself years ago with the City of San Cristobal. Celebrating Eucharist and a number of baptisms in the Tzotzil language, then afterward sitting down to the customary chicken soup dinner with rice and tortillas, I was struck by the humility of our guest from the United States. "These are real tortillas!" he exclaimed, delighted to share in this poor supper with poor men: the catechists, elders and authorities of the community. He sat across from my Chamula friend Sebastian. And although he understood none of the Spanish, much less Tzotzil, he later commented how touched he was by what had been communicated to him: the privilege of being in the community for the festive celebration, but most especially in meeting Sebastian. Sebastian's wise humor and warm, generative strength of personality have made him not just a great Catechist, but a conscientious and courageous man who struggles to make life better for his people. And while this was by no means a Zapatista community we visited, it was in every way a community rich in indigenous tradition beset by many of the same political, economic and social crisis found everywhere in Chiapas.

The next day Fr. Pablo and I visited our extraordinary guest at his hotel for the last time, to say good-bye. He carefully asked Fr. Pablo about the needs of the Human Rights Center, and then, without hesitating, wrote out a personal check for $1,000.00. He revealed to us that his desire to help was based in the fact that what he had found in Chiapas was what concerned him most: "real people doing real things." What I find unique is the fact that the chances of a Millionaire ever visiting, praying and eating with poor indigenous people in Chiapas is, without a doubt, one in a million.

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