My children: A new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? ... Will you not defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government!
Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla
16 September 1810(1)
Chiapas, one of the three poorest states in Mexico, has been called a "rich land with a poor people."(2) Hydroelectric stations in Chiapas produce 55 to 60 percent of the country's electricity, yet 35 percent of the people living in Chiapas do not have access to electricity. Twenty-one percent of Mexico's oil and 47 percent of its natural gas comes from Chiapas. The southernmost state in Mexico, Chiapas yields more than half of Mexico's coffee crop. It is a rich land, yet 42 percent of its inhabitants do not have running water. Sixty-two percent of the people of Chiapas have not finished primary school.(3)
Early in the morning on 1 January 1994, some of the poor people of this rich land, calling themselves Zapatistas (after the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata) and covering their faces with ski masks or bandannas, entered four cities in Chiapas and posted a manifesto which proclaimed, "Today we say enough is enough..."(4) When Mexico's president Carlos Salinas de Gortari received a message about the uprising in Chiapas, his plans for Mexico's economic, social and political transformation were rudely interrupted. The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas radically reshaped the political and economic reality of Mexico. How did indigenous revolutionaries fit into the political and economic framework of a country striving toward parity with two first-world trading partners, Canada and the United States?
In their urgency to locate the source of the uprising and stabilize the political and economic situation, the government and economic elite in Chiapas accused the Catholic Church of inciting the rebellion.(5) One of the bishops of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, and "his" catequistas, or lay preachers, were identified as responsible. Luis Pazos, well-known Mexican academic and author of the bestseller, [??]Por que Chiapas? (Why Chiapas?) put it this way:
[T]he declarations of the indigenous members of the frente zapatista, (Zapatista front) who explained that they were persuaded to participate in the struggle by the catequistas, cause us to conclude that there are activists shielded in religion behind this insurrection.(6)
The rapidity with which the church was declared culpable raises a number of questions regarding the relationship of religion and politics in Mexico.(7) This was not the first time the church was linked to the political process in Mexico. What are the historical roots of the relationship between religion and politics in Mexico? What is the nature of the work of the Catholic Church in Chiapas which made this accusation possible? Is the accusation plausible?
Given the breadth and depth with which social scientists have studied the relationship of the Catholic Church to political development in Latin America, the dearth of work focusing on Mexico is striking. Staunch anti-clericalism, adopted as official state policy in 1857 and later underscored and strengthened in 1917, has reinforced the notion that the church has played little or no important role in Mexico's political development. Perhaps giving more weight than is merited to official policy and constitutional mandates, most observers ignore the church and examine other institutions and forces in their study of the Mexican political system. Yet the importance of Catholicism in Mexico should not be underestimated. Between 89 and 95 percent of the Mexican people consider themselves Catholic.(8) Catholicism is a key component of Mexican national identity and has been for almost 500 years.
The man credited with providing the initial spark for the Mexican independence movement in 1810 was a priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. He assembled his parishioners before dawn and invoked the name of Mexico's indigenous saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, as he asked those who had gathered, "Will you free yourselves?"(9) Hidalgo's haphazard army worked its way south to Mexico City, taking, and often pillaging, towns along the way. After winning a battle on the outskirts of Mexico City, Hidalgo decided to retreat rather than attempt to take the capital.(10) Six months later rebel leaders, including Hidalgo, were captured. Hidalgo was stripped of his religious orders and executed.
Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon, a mestizo (mixed race) parish priest and former seminary student of Hidalgo, quickly took Hidalgo's place. As priests, both Hidalgo and Morelos had been well-educated. Both were inclined to question the existing social and political mores and their vocation afforded them access to like-minded intellectuals, as well as to their indigenous parishioners. They were able to draw on the institutional structure of the Catholic Church (Hidalgo secured the involvement of approximately 400 priests in the independence movement and, as noted above, initiated the independence movement by assembling his own parishioners) and the authority evoked by the use of religious symbols.
More measured in his tactics than Hidalgo, Morelos managed to isolate Mexico City. He then held a congress with Indian, criollo (Mexican-born Spaniards) and mestizo (mixed race) representatives, to settle the terms of independence. The tide turned against them during the congress, however, as the Spanish rallied those who thought that the independence movement was becoming too far-reaching in its demands. In the fall of 1815 Morelos was captured, brought to Mexico City, defrocked and executed. The wars for independence continued until 1821 when the Spanish crown, weary of fighting, recognized Mexican independence.
The period following independence was marked by political conflict in which proponents of liberal and conservative political philosophies attempted to assert their dominance. Political scientist Roderic Camp describes Mexican liberalism as "a mixture of borrowed and native ideas that largely rejected Spanish authoritarianism and tradition, and instead drew on Enlightenment ideas from France, England and the United States." Political liberty, increased citizen participation in government, freedom of speech and support for small landholders were components of Mexican liberalism. Mexican conservatives, on the other hand, pursued a strong central executive, convinced this was imperative to maintain order and encourage economic development. They emphasized industry, rather than bolstering the small-landholder class, as the way to achieve economic prosperity.(11)
The position of the church within society emerged as a key point of contention, the liberals attempting to diminish the church's power and the conservatives attempting to sustain it. Independence left Mexico with a fragile, insecure state and a wealthy, organizationally solid Catholic Church.(12) The church was Mexico's largest latifundista (large landed estate holder).(13) Besides the wealth generated by its property, the church ensured a steady stream of income from sacramental fees. The church was responsible in large part for education and oversaw its own legal and intricate patronage systems. Liberal opposition to the privileged status these various elements afforded the church was vehement.
Convinced that such a prestigious and influential church was an obstacle to prosperity and progress, the liberals pursued secularization. They were proponents of personal liberty and therefore set out to diminish the Catholic Church's position as a social institution and to make religion, in the words of noted Mexican political scientist Soledad Loaeza-Lajous, an "exclusively individual phenomenon."(14) But even more compelling was the liberals' belief that private property was the foundation of modern society; hence their intense desire to weaken the position of the church as property owner.
The liberals scored a solid victory when the Ley Lerdo (Lerdo Law) was enacted in 1856. Written by Secretary of the Treasury Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, the law was intended to weaken the political and economic status of the church, which liberals believed provided vital support to their conservative opponents. The law required the church to sell any property not used in day-to-day operations. In the following year, additional laws were passed mandating that all births, deaths and marriages be registered by civil rather than religious authorities, and prohibiting the church from charging exorbitant fees for administering the sacraments. The conservatives, who counted significant members of the church hierarchy among their most committed adherents, actively opposed the anti-clerical policies of the liberal government, creating extremely contentious church-state relations.
The situation changed when Porfirio Diaz assumed the presidency in 1876. Although his political roots can be traced to liberalism, Diaz recognized the church's potentially legitimizing role. Unlike his predecessors, he did not try to limit or eliminate the church. Instead Diaz embraced and successfully co-opted the church. His administration entered into a relationship with the Catholic Church hierarchy that helped to stabilize the Diaz regime. As Loaeza-Lajous points out:
Instead of destroying [the Church], he knew how to make use of it by integrating it into the power structure. once he recognized the value of the capacity for social control Catholicism could exert.(15)
During the two-and-a-half decades in which Diaz held power, the church developed a cozy relationship and a very powerful alliance with the state. Thus, when revolt and rebellion confronted the Diaz government in 1910, the Catholic hierarchy was an early target. At the end of the revolution in 1917, anti-clerical (read anti-hierarchical) sentiment emerged with more vigor -- and violence -- than it had in the nineteenth century. The liberals who regained political control were convinced that a basic problem with the Diaz regime (and one reason it endured, impeding political development, as long as it did) was its alliance with the church hierarchy. They vowed that the church would never again be allowed to exercise its social strength and framed a constitution to reflect this pledge. Article 130 -- perhaps the most severe statement of the 1917 constitution -- included the claim that: "the law does not recognize any personality in religious groupings called churches."(16) According to historian Karl Schmitt, "this article constituted the ultimate punishment, the final restriction: Churches ceased to exist in the legal sense."(17)
The tide changed again after a period of bloody warfare known as the Cristero Rebellion (1926 to 1929): the uprising of a coalition of peasants seeking government fulfillment of revolutionary promises of land redistribution and members of the Federation for the Defense of Religious Liberty defending their religious rights against an increasingly antagonistic government.(18) Following this rebellion, the church and the state entered into another understanding, much like the one Diaz had secured. The anti-clerical laws in the constitution remained, but the government enforced them with "benevolence" as long as the church agreed not to challenge the legitimacy of the government. It is not without significance that this was the same year the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party or PNR), the forerunner of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), was founded.(19)
During this volatile period, the institution of the Catholic Church entered into a quiescent stage and played a stabilizing and legitimizing role as Mexico consolidated the gains of the revolution. The church retreated from social activism and focused on projects like agricultural training for farmers, helping members secure loans and encouraging religious instruction. This began to change during the presidency of Adolfo Lopez Mateos (1958 to 1964), who aggravated the church-state detente when he imposed mandatory use of PRI-issued school textbooks containing material objectionable to the church. His government's support of Fidel Castro in Cuba further increased tensions. Still the church remained on the sideline, encouraging the laity to respond to political issues with civic actions. During this time there was an increasing coalescence between the church and the conservative Partido Accion Nacional (National Action Party or PAN).(20)
Pope John XXIII's call in 1959 for a Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) to modernize the church took the Mexican hierarchy by surprise. During the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) the Catholic Church experienced a dramatic revolution. Pope John XXIII proclaimed he "wanted to open up the windows of the church to let fresh air in from the outside world."(21) Vatican II marked, among other accomplishments, the elimination of the Latin mass and the emergence of a positive, open attitude within the church toward th world. The church was redefined as the redefined as the "people of God." Community and the church as an instrument of liberation were emphasized rather than the hierarchical structure of the institutional church. The church was considered a servant and thus was not aligned with the politically powerful.
In 1968, the Catholic hierarchy of Latin America gathered in Medellin, Colombia to discern what Vatican II meant for Latin America.(22) A majority of the Mexican hierarchy adopted a traditionalist stance at these gatherings,(23) with one notable exception: Cuernavaca's Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo. His work in Cuernavaca, embracing aspects of Mexican culture like mariachi music during mass, his radical interpretations of mission and his objections to the church bureaucracy had already drawn reproach from some sectors. Nonetheless, throughout his episcopacy he embraced the changes set out in Vatican II and the subsequent gatherings. He adopted a theology of liberation(24) and developed an extensive network of comunidades eclesial de base (base ecclesial communities or CEBs) in his diocese.(25) Nicknamed "The Red Bishop," he became a renowned defender of justice and the rights of the poor. Although much of the Mexican Catholic hierarchy reluctantly received the new ideas and methods emerging during this period, creating a certain element of strain within the institution, many priests, religious and laity were animated by them and began to engage in work on behalf of the poor. Organizations like Cristianos para el Socialismo (Christians for Socialism) and Sacerdotes para el Pueblo (Priests for the People) grew rapidly, creating a vibrant CEB movement in Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s.(26)
The events of 1968 provide a sobering glimpse of the tension within the Mexican church as it tried to find its place within a rapidly changing world. The "economic miracle" which followed the Second World War had provided some opportunities for growth particularly among the middle class, but its success was waning. Students protested the increasing economic disparity, staging almost 50 demonstrations in the summer of 1968. The protest escalated in mid-August as housewives and office workers joined the students in a rally in the central square of Mexico City which attracted 500,000 demonstrators. President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was acutely aware of the need to protect Mexico's public image since Mexico was to host the Olympic Games in mid-October. In an effort to quiet the dissonance, President Diaz authorized the use of violence against the protesters. On 2 October 1968, a demonstration held in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the District of Tlatelolco to denounce the government's failure to meet demands regarding the release of political prisoners, the cessation of police brutality and the initiation of dialogue in order to address the increasing economic disparity, ended with the army and police opening fire, killing hundreds of protesters and bystanders.(27) This event became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre.
Where was the church during the upheaval of 1968? As the protests were intensifying and the government response growing more harsh, key members of the Mexican hierarchy were attending the bishops' gathering in Medellin, Colombia. At that conference, Mexico's Archbishop Miranda was spearheading the opposition to the meeting's draft document which denounced the institutional violence and structural oppression afflicting the poor in Latin America. Miranda maintained that these issues were not relevant in all of Latin America and certainly not in Mexico. Meanwhile Bishop Mendez Arceo, the only member of the episcopacy to sympathize publicly with the protesters, joined religious activists in Mexico to draft a declaration, "To the Mexican People," signed by 37 priests, which upheld some of the protesters' demands. Archbishop Miranda rebuked the declaration as misrepresenting the position of the Church.(28) On 2 October, the day of the massacre, the Church of Santiago, Tlatelolco closed its doors to protesters fleeing the slaughter and later refused to say a funeral mass for those who were killed.(29) The church's response to the events of 1968 provides a painful illustration of the chasm that was developing between those who had chosen to affirm a theology of liberation and the new role for the church in the world, and those who resisted this reorientation.
Eleven years later in 1979, People John Paul II made Mexico the site of his first international trip. Approximately 15 million people attended masses and lined the streets to welcome him. The Pope's visit was significant for a number of reasons. First, he hoped to quell the growing social activism in the Latin American Catholic Church by attending the third assembly of Latin American bishops. Second, the Mexican Catholic Church was encouraged on a spiritual level by the sheer magnitude of the Pope's reception. Third, he and the Mexican hierarchy parlayed some of the benefits of his warm reception into political collateral which could be used to strengthen the church's relationship with the state and ultimately secure full legal status for religious institutions.
The rejuvenation of church-state relations, though slow in coming, was realized following the scandal-ridden election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari as president in 1988. Many believe that had it not been for electoral fraud, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, once governor and former PRI member, and son of Lazaro Cardenas (president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940), would have won his 1988 bid for the Mexican presidency. The fraud which characterized the 1988 presidential campaign was publicly denounced by the base and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The results of that election, in which PRI candidate Salinas received only a bare majority, struck a political nerve. In response to the election the Mexican government moved to reinvigorate its relationship with the church. Although evangelical churches were gaining members, Mexico was still a predominantly Catholic country, where Catholic symbols continued to command central roles in cultural ceremonies and acceptance of religious authority was widespread. Hence Salinas hoped to strengthen his political base by affiliating himself more closely with the Catholic Church. Salinas' aspirations resulted in much of the Catholic hierarchy becoming more intimate with his administration; however a majority of the base and a small number of the hierarchy embraced, albeit chaotically, the political opposition led by Cardenas.(30)
In spite of his weak political mandate, Salinas embarked on a bold economic and political modernization program for Mexico. His administration put in place initiatives which privatized state-owned companies, diminished subsidies and import barriers and controlled bureaucratic growth.(31) He also made moves toward democratization when, for example, he accepted the victory of a PAN gubernatorial candidate in Baja California in mid-1989. Though his economic plan was being realized -- GDP grew nearly three percent in 1990 and over four percent in 1991--Salinas' administration drew fire from many sectors. Those at the base of Mexican society bore the weight of, and reaped scant benefit from, the dramatic economic restructuring. At the same time, business elite, large landowners and party bosses disliked their loss of status.
The church, on the other hand, enjoyed widespread public approval as the only national organization which neither received government funding nor was subject to government controls. It is, therefore, not surprising that Salinas turned to the church as he attempted to clam stormy political seas. On 1 November 1991, to the delight of many members of the Catholic hierarchy, Salinas declared his intention to normalize church-state relations and reestablish communications with the Vatican which had been severed for over a century. On 28 January 1992 after 75 years of legal limbo, 5 congressional amendments resulted in religion finally being officially recognized in Mexico's constitution.(32)
Amendments affecting the fate of religious institutions were not the only constitutional changes that Salinas managed to secure during his tenure. He also hoped to convince future trading partners Canada and the United States that Mexico was ready to enter the arena of first-world economic relations of which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the most powerful expression. Claiming that Mexico's ejido system of land distribution perpetuated inefficient land use and needed to be eliminated in order to modernize the agricultural system in preparation for NAFTA, the Salinas administration amended Article 27 of the Constitution which had legalized the system.(33) The amendment ended a land reform program which, although not without problems, had provided Mexico's landless with their only hope that they might someday own land. NAFTA was ratified and went into effect on 1 January 1994. Its passage merely served to codify the disillusionment and despair of Mexico's rural poor. Not all of the poor, however, accepted these changes. An insurrection erupted seemingly out of nowhere for which the Catholic Church in the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas was deemed responsible.
The Catholic Church in Chiapas: 1960 to 1994
The Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas (one of three dioceses which comprise the state of Chiapas) was the locale of the 1 January 1994 uprising of the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army or EZLN). In this diocese the episcopal leadership of Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia and the burgeoning of the catequista program have created a place where politics, the formation of popular organizations, empowerment of indigenous peoples, religious accompaniment during struggles for land redistribution and the quest for democracy have become intimately entwined with religion.
Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia arrived in the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas in 1960, two years prior to the opening of Vatican II. Although he attended the Council in Rome and the Medellin and Puebla bishops' conferences, Ruiz did not play a prominent role at these earlier gatherings. He did, however, preside over his diocese when the sweeping changes initiated by Vatican II turned the tide of religious teaching and practice within the church. Today, along with a small number of colleagues, Ruiz embraces a theology of liberation and continues to search for ways to capture the spirit of these theological renovations.(34) Under the direction of Ruiz, the diocese has attempted to raise the consciousness of its constituents, helping them to "understand the real context [in which they live, and] to locate the situation of our church in this reality."(35)
During Bishop Ruiz's tenure, the hierarchy of the diocese has become increasingly politicized. The church has engaged in a process of constant self-examination, reevaluating and reshaping its work to reflect "the reality" within which it is working. The Catholic Church in the Diocese of San Cristobal is acutely aware of its political capacity, which, some have argued, is nurtured at the expense of theological or spiritual concerns.(36)
The presence of the catequistas, or lay preachers, in the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, which serves almost 1 million people, has contributed to the effectiveness of the ministry of the Catholic Church. In the early 1960s there were approximately 700 catequistas fulfilling the fairly traditional role of religious educators. In 1961, building on a program begun by Ruiz's predecessor, two training schools for catequistas were founded in the diocese. Following the schools' inception, hundreds of catequistas were trained and began to work in their communities. In 1968 the diocese paused to evaluate its work with the catequistas. The sentiment expressed by the catequistas during this process profoundly altered the work of the diocese:
The church and the word of God have told us things to save our spirits, but we don't know how to save our bodies. During our work for the salvation of our spirit and for the spirits of others, we suffer hunger, sickness, poverty and death.(37)
The Bishop and a number of priests of the diocese had recently returned from the bishops' gathering in Medellin where the theology of liberation was widely discussed. The catequistas, echoing the words of a meeting about which they knew very little, were clearly articulating their desire to save more than spirits. They were asking the diocese to help them to address issues of hunger, sickness, poverty and death.
The 1968 diocesan evaluation of its catechetical program also addressed the manner in which the catequistas were organized and trained. The methods existing at that time ran counter to the communitarian traditions of the indigenous people. The training the catequistas were receiving was "western" and decidedly hierarchical. In order to become a catequista it was necessary to attend an annual course for a number of weeks where participants studied dogma, sacred scripture, canon law, liturgy, music and songs, etc. Once they completed the course they had the authority to preside over the community prayer group and the celebration and reflection of the word of God. Initially the catequistas were chosen by the diocese. These catequistas -- almost all young men, as they were most likely to have the skills and mobility necessary to participate in the training courses -- often displaced traditional community leaders and upset the community custom of identifying its leaders or "cargo holders" collectively.
As the catequistas grew in number and experience, their role gradually changed. The community began to choose who would be trained as catequistas. The courses were taught at least partially in indigenous languages (Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Ch'ol) and encouraged an exchange of ideas. catequistas were taught to be facilitators of community reflection rather than teachers of a predetermined or prescribed message. There was a renewed effort to embrace rather than replace indigenous culture. By 1993 their numbers had grown to almost 8,000 and their work was considered "el trabajo vertebral" (the vertebral work) of the diocese.(38) The catequistas (80 to 90 percent of whom are indigenous and speak Spanish and Mayan languages) have developed prominent roles as community and political leaders. Many play an important part in the struggle, which has been going on for generations, to eradicate poverty and landlessness and to construct democracy in Chiapas.
Popular Organizations: Quiptic ta Lecubtesel
The Quiptic ta Lecubtesel is one of the first popular organizations to grow out of the post-Vatican II activity of the Church in the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas. The municipality of Ocosingo, where the organization originated, covers an area of about 14,000 square kilometers, located mostly in the selva (jungle). At the beginning of the century, the area's sole occupants lived on the few fincas (estates) that were circumjacent to the dense selva. (Only the lumber companies entered the jungle, using the rivers to extract precious wood to export from the port of Campeche.) The campesinos (peasants) who lived on the fincas were essentially peons. The few who managed to secure their own land had been granted property that was not adequate for farming, the fertile land remaining in the hands of finqueros (estate owners).(39)
In the mid-1960s, some Tzeltal campesinos decided to leave their homes and the "protection" of their finquero to settle national lands in the selva set aside by the government for this purpose.(40) They traveled for weeks looking for a place to settle, planted crops and then returned to their former homes for their wives and children. Many new communities were formed in this manner. It was a difficult life, filled with disease, hunger and very hard work. "But," one observer explained, "in this way the Tzeltales returned to the selva which had been taken from them by the conquistadors...."(41)
This resettlement effort had a profound religious and political impact. For many campesinos the move was a sort of Exodus. They compared themselves to the Israelites fleeing the oppression of the Egyptians. Their new settlements bore names like Nuevo Canan, Damasco and El Eden.(42) Faith helped maintain the courage of the campesinos, who, although no longer beholden to the finquero, still lived in dire poverty. Encounters with these groups of settlers, from which a number of energetic catequistas emerged, profoundly impacted diocesan religious workers, one of whom recalled:
The enthusiasm of the catequistas always inspired us. The simple faith of the people was admirable, but even more, we began to understand the situation in which we found ourselves; the more we got to know the people, the more discontent we felt. In spite of much religious activity, we saw the people dominated by such an embedded poverty that it seemed impossible to solve or alleviate.
The catequistas came to the meetings and learned to read their copies of the New Testament. When the priest visited the communities it was a special occasion: The children were baptized, the young people were married, many confessed and took communion; but in spite of all this, life did not get better. Faith did not give a response to the vital problems of the community.(43)
In 1970 the religious workers assigned to this region began to analyze the social, economic and political situation of the new settlers. Using this analysis they worked to develop a new methodology for the catechism. A few years later they collected information on agrarian reform, migration, production, education and health, and designed a catechetical course using the book of Exodus, which had already helped shape these campesinos' faith. Exodus was adopted "because this is the central theme of the history of Salvation and it is found as a faith response of a determined people, which could illustrate the commitment of the Tzeltal community after the analysis of their own experience."(44)
The new catechism underscored the notion that the campesinos' quest to rid themselves of poverty, first on the finca and then in the newly settled communities, was consonant with God's will for them. It emphasized that God was with them in this struggle to rid their lives of poverty. The power inherent in this message was made manifest in the communities' formation of a strong, efficient, popular organization.
In 1975, the government tried to remove the people from three of the recently settled communities, claiming they were living on land catalogued as national park. These communities, with the help of 45 neighboring communities, successfully blocked the entrance of the civil engineers sent to map the boundaries of the park, and secured their land. This marked the first action of the group that would soon become the Quiptic ta Lecubtesel (Tzeltal for "our strength is unity for progress"). In January 1977, after a year of organizing, more than 60 communities created the Union Ejidal Quiptic ta Lecubtesel, an independent union which would empower campesino collectives.(45)
Catequistas and the Empowerment of Indigenous Peoples
During this same period, the government requested diocesan assistance to organize an indigenous peoples' congress to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the first bishop of Chiapas, Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, revered as the "Defender of the Indigenous." Government officials liked the idea of emphasizing indigenous culture, which to them meant colorful costumes, quaint music and dances, interesting food and a means to boost tourism. They asked for the help of the Catholic Church since the church already had close relationships with the indigenous communities. The diocesan officials in turn enlisted the assistance of the catequistas, who systematically recruited delegates and ultimately coordinated the three-day congress which took place in 1974. The congress gathered delegates from 1,000 communities, representing 400,000 people, and provided a setting in which indigenous people of Chiapas could address issues such as economic exploitation, the need for land, the destruction of their culture and human rights abuses. Clear in their analysis and focused in their demands, the participants laid the groundwork for an organizational network which would facilitate communication and encourage unified action. Throughout the congress, the presence of the church was strong. The catequistas and the communities they served claimed their place at the heart of the church. Bishop Ruiz observed that the indigenous delegates appreciated the potential of the church to aid in their struggle: "They asked the church [which they knew was not a political party, nor a political alternative, but a social force], to lend its support and its prophetic voice" to their cause.(46)
The government, which had initiated the congress, was subsequently threatened by the power it had inadvertently unleashed. The widespread government repression which followed the congress demonstrates the impact of the gathering. Leaders who emerged during the congress were threatened and became the victims of human rights abuses.
The growing force of the catequistas' community organizations was demonstrated again in 1978, during a debate of the Representative Assembly of the Diocese.(47) Accounts of this gathering document that a significant part of the meeting was spent considering a request from an independent political organization that wanted to work among the bases diocesanas.(48) This political organization had a certain affinity with various projects and actions in the diocese -- which in the aftermath of the indigenous peoples' congress included promotion of land reform and working against economic exploitation and human rights abuses and hoped to capitalize on the extensive and energetic network that the catequistas had developed. The report of the meeting states:
The Representative Assembly clearly understood that what the organization was looking for was a popular base like the Diocese had, especially to profit from the catequista ministerial movement.(49)
After extensive debate, the assembly rejected the political organization's overtures. Two points are worthy of note: first, the organization's very serious interest in the work of the catequistas indicates that the catequistas had something politically useful to offer; second, the assembly's equally serious consideration of the possibility of an alliance indicates that at least some religious leaders were interested in finding ways to impact their communities politically.(50) The conclusion of the assembly's debate is revealing. According to Dominican priest Pablo Iribarren's report, "The Representative Assembly rejected the alliance for practical reasons: It would make the diocesan church vulnerable, converting it into a political party and restricting its identity and evangelical mission."(51) In the end, the assembly decided it would have more political influence if it were not affiliated with a political organization. It was the idea of creating an alliance with that particular group that was rejected, not the involvement of the church in politics.
Religious Accompaniment: The Church in the Struggle for Land and Democracy
In his pastoral letter, En esta hora de gracia (In This Hour of Grace), written on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's visit to the Yucatan peninsula in 1993, Bishop Ruiz explained that the church is called to accompany the poor in their religious and political struggle:
Becoming acquainted with the painful reality of our brothers, the poorest of the poor, we chose to accompany them, like the good Samaritan, in their search for a new society, structured on justice and fraternity.(52)
It was being with the people, accompanying them, that helped the pastoral agents to determine a course of action. The Catholic Church has been present in the communities in the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas longer than any other single organization. While various groups have come and gone, the church has remained, and in all likelihood will remain, for many years. Profoundly affected by these enduring encounters with those to whom they were ministering, the church has reevaluated and reshaped its ministry, choosing to accompany the poorest of the poor, who had already begun moving when the church joined them.
The term accompaniment begs the question of leadership. Who is leading? Who is setting the agenda, making the decisions? Who is following? Those who are accompanying are not quite leaders but neither are they followers. Religious leaders can be found at the heart of political, social and economic struggles of the people, but they are not quite responsible as they are simply accompanying their members on the journey. Regardless of these ambiguities, accompaniment is a powerful political strategy. In the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas religious accompaniment manifests itself in a variety of ways. Religious leaders, clergy and lay can be found supporting campensinos in their struggles for land and educating catequistas in their struggles for democracy.
During the summer of 1980, a group of peasants who lived on the outskirts of the Finca Wololchan invaded the finca attempting to recover land which they believed belonged to them. Their efforts turned bloody when the government violently evicted 723 families from the invaded land, killing more than a dozen people. Following this tragedy, the church, embodied by the Jesuits in nearby Bachajon used its networks to communicate the events in Wololchan to a stunned public. The Jesuits explained their accompaniment of the campesinos in the struggle for land redistribution:
...[W]e speak because the desperate situation of the 700 families that were affected demands solidarity and clamors for justice. Even though no one asked us, even when all were quiet, we had to lift up our voice. This is the commitment that the Church reaffirms by way of her bishops in the meeting of the Latin American Episcopal Conference in Puebla in 1979....(53)
The Jesuits then worked with the people to rebuild their community in the surrounding area. Sixteen years after the Wololchan tragedy, the political party which instigated the takeover is long gone, yet the church is still a vital part of the community. During the 1994 presidential and gubernatorial elections, Jesuits trained 400 indigenous electoral observers in the Wololchan area.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s there was a series of land takeovers in Chiapas, similar to the one in Wololchan. The indigenous people had grown tired of waiting for a legal process in which some had been engaged for 15 to 20 years to restore lands which they believed were rightfully theirs. The campesinos' efforts met with varying degrees of success, but landholders became frustrated by the takeovers. The Catholic Church became the primary target of their frustration. In one case Father Joel Padron of Simojovel was identified as the culprit. Father Joel had worked since 1980 in Simojovel, a region known for its high intensity of violence, assassinations, repression, the presence of guards hired by large landholders, and for the growth of strong independent campesino organizations whose principal demand was the redistribution of land. Following a land invasion in September 1991, Father Joel was arrested and placed in a maximum security prison on charges which included robbery, conspiracy, unlawful association and possession of firearms. Writing from prison, "...my cause is the justice of the indigenous people. This is my defense ...," he explains that never in his tenure had he joined a group of indigenous people in an action against the government. "I never did this," he says, "nor did they need me for this."(54) In another letter Father Joel is more explicit about the role of outsiders in the indigenous struggle:
[The indigenous] do not need advisors from outside. They are not hungry because I tell them they are hungry. They are not sick because I tell them they are sick. They are not illiterate because I tell them they are illiterate....The indigenous person lives malnourished, hungry for generations. This is his reality and he is not going to rise up because someone from the outside tells him to rise up, it is his own desperate reality that brings him to his feet.(55)
Religious accompaniment in the diocese also takes the form of education. Prior to the 1994 elections in Chiapas, the diocese offered a series of workshops for the catequistas on democracy and elections. The workshops' objective was: "To reflect on the importance of participation in the construction of democracy and in particular in the elections of 21 August 1994." One such workshop began with the simple question, "Does anyone need translation during the meeting?" A quarter, or 25, of the nearly 100 catequistas gathered, raised their hands. The workshop was translated from Spanish into Tzotzil. Then one catequista asked if printed materials would be provided since many of them wrote very slowly. It was agreed that printed materials would be provided.
The participants brought with them a Mayan sense of democracy. Theirs was essentially a community-, rather than an individual-centered democracy. The religious worker leading the workshop raised questions such as:
What is democracy? What is politics? What does it mean for us that government is born from the people? In Mexico is the government of the people?
He then divided the catequistas into small groups to discuss their responses. After talking for some time, the small groups reconvened to share their thoughts:
Politics is the search for unity in the communities, participation in the communities....There is democracy if there is liberty, justice....The government is born of the people but it manipulates them....The Mexican government is not born of the people because it practices fraud. The government is elected by the rich for the rich....Democracy is when there is participation of all of the community, when we have the word....If there is no participation, there is no democracy.
The group considered other issues such as:
Who has the right to vote? How do you vote? and Why do we have to vote alone? If we are electing people to serve the community, shouldn't the community decide together?(56)
These and other questions continued to surface during the two-and-a-half days of this workshop on democracy and elections.
The indigenous people of Chiapas are on a long road toward land rights and democracy. They will continue to set the direction and determine the pace. The commitment that the church has made is to walk beside them on that road.
The relationship between religion and politics in Mexico has had a long and tumultuous history. The Mexican Catholic Church helped give birth to an independent Mexican state. During much of the nineteenth century it enjoyed an intimate relationship with conservatives who sought to safeguard its position of economic and political privilege. The backlash produced by this position of privilege left the church bereft of any legal status by the early part of the twentieth century. The challenges of Vatican II and Medellin forced a divided Mexican church to re-enter the political arena. Some within the church worked on behalf of elements of Mexican society which have been denied privilege while others sought to reestablish the church's own position of privilege. In Chiapas, the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas has been unambiguously aligned with the former.
Clearly the Catholic Church in the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas has chosen to minister to the needs of the people of the diocese in a concrete and tangible -- some would say political -- manner. Were "activists shielded in religion" behind the 1994 uprising? The work of the church, as demonstrated by the few events outlined above has had political ramifications. But the work has been neither secretive nor deceptive, as the phrase "shielded in religion" would suggest. On the contrary, the bishop, priests, religious and catequistas openly acknowledge their efforts on behalf of the poor.(57) The events and movements described above, along with countless others, demonstrate not political activists using religion, but rather a church coming to terms with political action as a way to respond to the struggles and needs of its people. The work of the church in this diocese addresses key issues, such as the struggle for land and needs and aspirations of indigenous people and the poor.
The Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas has not preached a theology of insurrection, but the work of the Catholic Church in Chiapas has helped create fertile ground for the seeds of democratization. How the church participates in the current pursuit of democracy is a question that cannot be answered by studying a single diocese or even a single state. Reverberations triggered by the Zapatista uprising were felt around the country and around the world. Clearly the quest of the people of Chiapas for democracy did not commence nor conclude on 1 January 1994. It has its roots in struggles which began generations earlier, struggles in which the church has participated, and in which the church, responding to political, economic and theological aspirations, will continue to participate.
(1) Quoted in Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 287.
(2) Thomas Benjamin, A Rich Land A Poor People: Politics and Society in Modern Chiapas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989) p. 223.
(3) Philip Russell, The Chiapas Rebellion (Austin: Mexico Resource Center, 1995) p. 12.
(4) George Collier, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1994) p. 2.
(5) It was no coincidence that the uprising took place on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Zapatistas considered tantamount to their death sentence, went into effect.
(6) Luis Pasos, [??]Por que Chiapas? (Why Chiapas?) (Mexico City: Editorial Diana, 1994) p. 37.
(7) Throughout this article the term "church" is used to refer to the Catholic Church. This is not because Protestants are not present in Mexico; they are. The first Protestant missionaries arrived in 1871. By the early 1980s Protestants, or Evangelicals as they are called in Mexico, comprised less than four percent of the country's total population, while in Chiapas they number almost 40 percent. Collier, p. 56. Jean-Pierre Bastian has done extensive research on the role of the Protestants in Mexican politics. See for example, Jean-Pierre Bastian, "Disidencia Religiosa Protestante y Imperialismo en Mexico," ("Protestant Religious Dissidence in Mexico") in La Participacion de los Cristianos en el Proceso Popular de Liberacion en Mexico (Christain Participation in the Popular Process of Liberation in Mexico), ed. Miguel Concha et al. (Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, UNAM/Siglo XXI, 1986).
(8) George W. Grayson, The Church in Contemporary Mexico (Washington, DC: The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1992) p. xiii; and Denis Goulet "The Mexican Church: Into the Public Arena," America (8 April 1989) p. 320.
(9) Hidalgo's use of the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe is significant. Tradition has it that the Virgin appeared to a recently converted Indian boy, Juan Diego in 1531. The Virgin, clothed in a simple robe, was a dark-skinned woman. She instructed that a shrine be built in her honor on the hill where she appeared to Juan Diego, which was also the site where the Indians worshipped Tonantzin, mother of the gods. The shrine was built and the Virgin of Guadalupe has comprised a powerful part of Mexican self-identity ever since.
(10) His army's numbers had been drastically depleted in previous battles and Hidalgo was not confident that he could control his army were they to emerge victorious in such a pivotal battle as the capture of Mexico City.
(11) Roderic Ai Camp, Politics in Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 30.
(12) Grayson, p. 6.
(13) Roger Bartra, Agrarian Structure and Political Power in Mexico (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) p. 88.
(14) Soledad Loaeza-Lajous, "Continuity and Change in the Mexican Catholic Church," in Church and Politics in Latin America, ed. Dermot Keogh (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990) p. 276.
(15) Loaeza-Lajous, p. 278.
(16) Quoted in Karl Schmitt, "Church and State in Mexico: A Corporatist Relationship," The Americas, 20 (January 1989) p. 373.
(18) Grayson, p. 14-15. See also Graham Greene, The Power and The Glory (New York: Penguin Books, 1971).
(19) Mexico, as Roderic Camp explains, "is a one-party-dominant system encountering only limited opposition from 1929 through 1988, the year in which a splinter group from the official party ran a highly successful campaign. Mexico's system is unusual in that the antecedent of the PRI, the National Revolutionary Party did not bring the political leadership to power. Rather, the leadership established the party as a vehicle to remain in power; the PRI was founded and controlled by the government bureaucracy." Camp, p. 15.
(20) Michael Tangeman, Mexico at the Crossroads: Politics, the Church, and the Poor (New York: Orbis Books, 1995) p. 46.
(21) Joseph Gremillion, presenter, The Gospel of Peace and Justice: Catholic Social Teaching Since Pope John (New York: Orbis Books, 1976) p. 1.
(22) The documents of the Medellin gathering identified "internal and external colonialism" as the cause of Latin America's suffering. These exploitative structures constituted a "sinful situation," and "a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence." The task of eradicating this violence and creating a "just order... is an eminently Christian task." The Church, according to the Medellin documents, is called to engage in a project of radical change or "authentic liberation." Gremillion, p. 446-62.
(23) Hannah Stewart-Gambino defines traditionalists as those within the Church who "regard authority and the determination of the moral and social guidelines for the church as flowing primarily from the top down from the Vatican through the international church." She notes, although there are exceptions, that traditionalists often hold conservative political views. Hannah Stewart-Gambino, "Introduction: New Game, New Rules," in Conflict and Competition: The Latin American Church in a Changing Environment, ed. Edward L. Cleary and Hannah Stewart-Gambino (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992) p. 6.
(24) According to Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff, liberation theology's point of departure is "a reality of social misery" and its goal "the liberation of the oppressed." His colleague Juan Luis Segundo explains that a key component of liberation theology is "that human beings are already building up the kingdom of God here and now in history." Quoted in Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) p. 27. Although Gustavo Gutierrez originally presented a "theology of liberation" in a lecture in Chimbote, Peru in July 1968, these ideas can be traced back at least as early as Rerum Novarum, the social encylical issued by Leo XIII in 1891.
(25) CEBs vary in their structure and beliefs. In general, these grassroots Catholic communities have between 12 and 75 members who gather weekly to read scripture and discuss its implications for their lives.
(26) Grayson, p. 51.
(27) According to historians Michael Meyer and William Sherman, "The Olympic Games themselves were notably free of turbulence, and it appeared that the violence had spent itself.... The fires of Tlatelolco had been largely extinguished, but social smoldering would continue to choke the country for years." Meyer and Sherman, p. 667-71.
(28) Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of Chiapas was in attendance at Medellin. Ruiz, by all accounts, failed to recognize the severity of the problem. However, at this point in his career he tended to defer to the traditionalists who generally sided with government authorities when threatened by the base.
(29) Tangeman, p. 52.
(30) The church's posture is inclined to parallel the political situation. The PAN, aligned with the Catholic hierarchy, tends to be stronger in the north, while the left opposition party, Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD), which grew out of the Cardenas candidacy, has drawn the majority of its support from the south where the church is more progressive.
(31) See Philip L. Russell, Mexico Under Salinas (Austin, TX: Mexico Resource Center, 1994).
(32) Tangeman, p. 82.
(33) The ejido system refers to an Indian concept of village-owned lands. After 1915 the Mexican government adopted this system in order to distribute land to residents in rural villages. The land was held in common by those who obtained usage rights although no legal title was granted. The policy remained in effect until 1992 when it was terminated by constitutional changes.
(34) The October 1995 appointment of coadjutor, Raul Vera, in the diocese may have significant impact on his work because the introduction of a coadjutor often radically alters the theological (and political) work of a diocese.
(35) Lineas basicas para entender donde estamos (Basic Lines to Understand Where We Are), (San Cristobal de Las Casas: La Comision Encuentro Diocesano, 1978) p. 1, photocopied.
(36) See for example, an open letter written in 1987 by the Asociacion Municipal de la Pequena Propiedad y Asociacion Ganadera Local de Ocosingo, Chiapas (Municipal Association of Small Landowners and Local Ranchers Association of Ocosingo) to then-President Miguel de la Madrid demanding the removal of Bishop Ruiz. Citing recent campesino land invasions, the letter describes Ruiz as the "principal craftsman of the climate of agitation, disorder and violence that rules our property." "Carta Abierta al Sr. Presidente Miguel de la Madrid," ("Open Letter to President Miguel de la Madrid") Excelsior (25 September 1987) p. 32-A.
(37) Quoted in Monsenor Samuel Ruiz Garcia, Carta Pastoral: En esta hora de gracia (Pastoral Letter: In This Hour of Grace) (Mexico City: Ediciones Dabar, 1993) p. 29.
(38) La Diocesis de San Cristobal de Las Casas Chiapas, Mexico (San Cristobal de Las Casas: Diocesis de San Cristobal de Las Casas, 1989) p. 4, photocopied.
(39) "Quiptic ta Lecubtesel," Caminante, 30 (May 1983) p. 26.
(40) The finquero provided the only avenue of access available to many campesinos for commercial relations. Many were also dependent on the finquero to fulfill religious obligations. Often, the chapel was located on the finca, whose owner was the chapel's patron. Each year the priest celebrated the fiesta patronal during which couples would be wed and children baptized and confirmed.
(41) "Quiptic ta Lecubtesel," p. 26.
(42) Fr. Pablo Iribarren, O.P., Experiencia: Proceso de la Diocesis de San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas,. Mexico (Experience: The Process of the Diocesis of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico), (Ocosingo: Comunidades de San Cristobal y Ocosingo, 1985) p. 69, photocopied.
(43) "Quiptic ta Lecubtesel," p. 27-29.
(45) For a more detailed description of this and other popular organizations, see Neil Harvey, "Peasant Strategies and Corporatism in Chiapas," in Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico, ed. Joe Foweraker and Ann L. Craig (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1990).
(46) Monsenor Samuel Ruiz Garcia, p. 26.
(47) The Representative Assembly is the diocesan body, including priests, religious and pastoral workers, which gathers regularly to discuss the affairs of the diocese.
(48) Iribarren, p. 15.
(50) Catequistas were not present at this meeting of the Representative Assembly.
(51) Iribarren, p. 15.
(52) Monsenor Samuel Ruiz Garcia, p. 27.
(53) "Boletin de Prensa de la Mision de Bachajon" ("Press Release of the Mission of Bachajon"), Caminante, 26 (August 1980) p. 5.
(54) "Analisis del Caso: Padre Joel Padron" ("Case Analysis: Father Joel Padron"), Encuentros, 5 (November-December 1991) p. 9.
(55) "Analisis" ("Analysis"), p. 10.
(56) Author's observation of the Taller de Democracia y Elecciones (Workshop of Democracy and Elections), San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, 24-25 June 1994.
(57) Though it is beyond the scope of this article to explore the issue in depth, it is important to note that Bishop Ruiz has stated unequivocally that the diocese has not, will not and cannot advocate the use of violence to eradicate injustice.
NOTE: (*) I would like to acknowledge with appreciation the assistance of friend and colleague Ruth J. Chojnacki. Melinda Floyd and K. Karpen also provided thoughtful comments. Research for this project was made possible by the generous support of the Institute for the Study of World Politics, the Andrew Silk Fellowship of the City University of New York and the Instituto de Asesoria Antropologica para la Region Maya, A.C.…