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Mayan Voices for Human Rights

Mayan Voices for Human Rights
Displaced Catholics in Highland Chiapas

How the Maya define and defend their human rights in Southern Mexico.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Nine

May 2005
248 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 b&w, 3 maps, 1 chart |

In the last decades of the twentieth century, thousands of Mayas were expelled, often violently, from their homes in San Juan Chamula and other highland communities in Chiapas, Mexico, by fellow Mayas allied with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). State and federal authorities generally turned a blind eye to these human rights abuses, downplaying them as local conflicts over religious conversion and defense of cultural traditions. The expelled have organized themselves to fight not only for religious rights, but also for political and economic justice based on a broad understanding of human rights.

This pioneering ethnography tells the intertwined stories of the new communities formed by the Mayan exiles and their ongoing efforts to define and defend their human rights. Focusing on a community of Mayan Catholics, the book describes the process by which the progressive Diocese of San Cristóbal and Bishop Samuel Ruiz García became powerful allies for indigenous people in the promotion and defense of human rights. Drawing on the words and insights of displaced Mayas she interviewed throughout the 1990s, Christine Kovic reveals how the exiles have created new communities and lifeways based on a shared sense of faith (even between Catholics and Protestants) and their own concept of human rights and dignity. She also uncovers the underlying political and economic factors that drove the expulsions and shows how the Mayas who were expelled for not being "traditional" enough are in fact basing their new communities on traditional values of duty and reciprocity.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Exodus and Genesis: Leaving Chamula, Creating Community in Guadalupe
  • Chapter 3. Opting for the Poor: The Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal and Human Rights
  • Chapter 4. The Sin of Westernization: Power, Religion, and Expulsion
  • Chapter 5. Defining Human Rights in Context: Anthropological, Legal, and Catholic Perspectives
  • Chapter 6. Respect and Equality: Practicing Rights in Guadalupe
  • Chapter 7. "Our Culture Keeps Us Strong": Conversion and Self-Determination
  • Chapter 8. Working and Walking to Serve God: Building a Community of Faith
  • Chapter 9. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chronology: Key Events in Chiapas, Chamula, and the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

Christine Kovic is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.


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Consider two scenes:


March 26, 1995, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Thousands of indigenous people and mestizos walked in a pilgrimage to announce their commitment to building peace with justice and dignity in Chiapas. Walking through the narrow streets of the colonial city, the pilgrims carried white lilies, clay bowls of incense, banners bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and signs in support of Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz García. Several groups of musicians played traditional wooden instruments, and the pilgrims shouted "Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe" at the end of each song. Some 20,000 people from hundreds of villages had traveled to this mestizo-dominated city to walk together in the pilgrimage. Most of the indigenous women and many of the men wore the traditional dress of their communities, with the sharp contrast in the colors of their clothing separating one group from the next.

Pueblo Creyente (People of Faith) organized the pilgrimage. This grassroots organization started by Catholics has been successful in uniting peasants from diverse ethnic groups, political organizations, and regions of Chiapas. The vast majority of the pilgrims were Catholic, although some Protestants also participated.

The pilgrims walked to demand that their human rights be respected, to show their support for the work of Bishop Ruiz, and to demonstrate their strength in numbers. They denounced the dramatic militarization of their communities and human rights violations such as arbitrary arrest, interrogation, and torture that accompanied the military presence. The pilgrims also demanded respect for economic and social rights, in their words, the right to a dignified life. As explained in a Pueblo Creyente press release: "As children of Mary, we continue working so that peace with justice and dignity comes to our pueblos today. We do not want this dirty war. We want to live as the words of Jesus say, 'To have life and life in abundance' (John 10, 10)."


July 2, 1994. San Juan Chamula. A very different demonstration took place in the town center of this indigenous municipality just six weeks before the state and national elections. Some 5,000 Tzotzil (Maya) men and women in traditional dress gathered in the plaza to welcome Eduardo Robledo Rincón, the gubernatorial candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Mexico's ruling party from 1929 to 2000. Robledo, a mestizo dressed in a chuj, the wool poncho used by Chamulan men, began his speech with a few words in Tzotzil and presented his plan for economic development in the municipality. Images of Robledo and the PRI's presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, adorned the town's light posts.

San Juan Chamula, located a few miles north of San Cristóbal, is often used as a showcase of indigenous culture. Two of the most elaborate festivals in the highlands are Chamula's Carnival and Day of San Juan (St. John). PRI politicians commonly visit Chamula during election campaigns, put on the hats of the mayordomo, and are handed a walking stick that symbolizes traditional power. During Robledo's visit, a group of Chamulan women succinctly expressed the corporate politics of the PRI in declaring that "All those of San Juan Chamula will vote for the PRI" and that they needed mills, markets, and support for agrarian production (La Jornada, July 3, 1994). In late August 1994, amid widespread charges of electoral fraud, Robledo was declared governor of Chiapas.


A group of pilgrims supporting the work of Bishop Ruiz and denouncing human rights abuses committed by the government, and a group of Chamulas supporting the PRI—both groups struggle for access to political and economic resources, although they have chosen distinct paths of action. The Pueblo Creyente pilgrims criticize the government's human rights violations and its "dirty war," while the Chamulas welcoming Eduardo Robledo have allied themselves with the PRI to receive benefits. The pilgrims view Catholicism and their alliance with the Diocese of San Cristóbal as central to their struggle for human rights, broadly defined as the right to a dignified life. The Chamulas who support the PRI do so as a means to simultaneously gain material resources and to limit outside intervention in their local affairs.

The events are two of many forms of indigenous political activism in contemporary Chiapas. The most visible form of rebellion is the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), composed primarily of Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Ch'ol, and Tojolabal Mayas. Yet indigenous people have participated in many other types of political groups, including peasant organizations, women's groups, and faith-based movements such as Pueblo Creyente through which they work to defend and promote their human rights.

This book examines the ways Mayan Catholics of highland Chiapas define and defend their human rights. It focuses on Tzotzil-speaking Mayas who live in "Guadalupe," the name I have given to a colonia (a neighborhood or unregulated urban settlement) on the edge of the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. The Catholic residents of Guadalupe have been exiled, in many cases violently, from their native municipality of San Juan Chamula. Through their stories of exile and conversion to Catholicism, I explore how they conceptualize human rights and how they have struggled to create a new community in a semi-urban area.

The text examines the defense of human rights alongside their abuse. It describes structural constraints such as poverty and racism that affect indigenous peoples as well as the ways Mayan Catholics, even in extraordinarily difficult situations, work to improve their own lives and their communities. Indigenous people's efforts to defend human rights are at once a political struggle—carried out in marches, sit-ins, and other forms of protest—and an everyday struggle to live a dignified life. The story of the Catholics of Guadalupe is placed within the broader context of the pastoral project of the progressive Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. I explore the impacts the diocesan project has had on indigenous awareness of human rights and, in turn, how indigenous views forced the Church to reconsider its mission.

The book differs from most scholarship on human rights in that it explores how ordinary people—in this case impoverished Mayas, as opposed to lawyers, intellectuals, and nongovernmental organizations, among others—define and defend their rights. Human rights, a global concept codified by the United Nations and other groups, takes on new significance in the hands of Mayan Catholics. Most notable are (a) the emphasis on economic and social rights, rights often considered secondary in the West; (b) a critique of national and global inequalities and a demand for structural change; (c) a demand for dignity and equality that is justified in religious terms; and (d) the inclusion of community obligations or reciprocal responsibilities as rights. In this ethnography I attempt to humanize the concept of rights by exploring how indigenous peoples conceptualize rights and how rights are mediated by economics, religion, politics, and indigenous traditions.

Political and Economic Transformations in Highland Chiapas

The Mayan Catholics of Guadalupe are a small group of the thousands of indigenous people who have been exiled from highland communities, primarily San Juan Chamula, in the past three decades. The term los expulsados (the expelled) refers to those who have been forced to leave their communities of origin. Expulsion began in the 1970s, when traditional Chamulan authorities led the move against those who challenged their power, expelling dissidents from their homes and land. Although the expulsion of 20,000 indigenous people during the past thirty years constitutes one of the most significant social and political problems in Chiapas, the consistent response of state and federal authorities has been to minimize it as a religious and cultural conflict. Yet the reasons behind expulsion are linked to the dramatic economic and political changes in highland Chiapas in past decades, which resulted in accelerated pressure for emigration from Chamula. This section presents an overview of these changes as a means to contextualize expulsion.

Although highland communities never were isolated from outside political and economic influences, in the 1960s scholars depicted them as self-contained units with their own civil and religious governments. Describing his work in the highlands, Frank Cancian (1992:1) states, "When I first went to Zinacantán in 1960, I found a tight-knit community of peasant corn farmers. Zinacanteco men dressed in a distinctive costume that set them apart from their neighbors, and almost all of them were dedicated to the ceremonial life that defined the boundaries of their community. For the most part, they shut out the world around them and concentrated on each other."

In spite of their seeming isolation, indigenous communities were inextricably linked to broader political and economic structures well before the 1960s. Indigenous people began participating in migratory wage labor outside their own communities by the late 1800s. Indeed, the state government imposed several types of taxes on indigenous peoples in order ensure a steady supply of labor for nonindigenous Ladino-run commercial agriculture (Rus and Collier 2003:36). Many indigenous migrants worked as seasonal contract laborers on fincas, or plantations, that produced coffee, bananas, and other crops. Yet these seasonal migrants remained tied to their communities of origin, the center of cultural and social life, where they cultivated cornfields.

Unequal land distribution, historic land dispossession, and demographic pressure in the highlands forced significant numbers of families to work for wages to supplement what they produced on their own land. By the 1970s in Chamula, the highland municipality with the highest population density, most men worked part of the year outside their community to survive. A demographic study of several Chamulan hamlets in the 1970s revealed that 77 percent of heads of household relied on wage labor or sharecropping outside of the municipality, since the size or quality of their land was insufficient to meet family consumption needs (Wasserstrom 1977).

Chiapas's agrarian sector entered a period of crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s, challenging the already precarious survival strategies of highland families. In response to the oil boom, inflation, and peso devaluation of 1976, the federal government cut its guaranteed price for corn (Rus and Collier 2003:40-41). To keep their land profitable, large landowners of Chiapas's Grijalva Valley began to move from agriculture to cattle production. This displaced large numbers of agricultural sharecroppers and day laborers, as cattle ranching required minimum labor input.

Many of these displaced agricultural workers found employment in a number of new government projects in the 1970s and early 1980s. With the oil boom, Mexico financed oil refineries, dams, roads, bridges, and other projects. Zinacantecos and residents of other highland municipalities found work as masons, construction laborers, and merchants from 1976 to 1982 due to the dramatic increase in government spending in the region (Cancian 1992).

The boom in government projects and corresponding jobs that were created ended with the economic crisis of 1982. Soon after the crash in world petroleum prices, Mexico declared that it could no longer pay its large foreign debt. The International Monetary Fund and the United States provided bailout loans on the condition that Mexico would adopt structural adjustment measures. These measures, begun under the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988), included dramatically cutting public spending, devaluing the currency, privatizing state enterprises, abolishing barriers to foreign investment, and setting salary caps. The economic changes had severe impacts on highland communities of Chiapas (Collier 1994; Harvey 1994). Cuts in credits and subsidies for rural producers made it increasingly difficult for poor campesinos to continue farming. Analyzing census data from the Chamulan hamlet of K'at'ixtik, anthropologist Diane Rus (1990) found that just 5 percent of families were able to make a living from their own cornfields in 1977, and the percentage had declined even further by 1988.

As highland residents searched for work on fincas as they had done for decades, they found themselves competing with thousands of Guatemalan refugees fleeing the violence of the civil war. To make matters worse, in 1989 world coffee prices collapsed, causing many fincas to stop production altogether. Peasants who had cultivated coffee in small quantities as a cash crop experienced a drop in income.

Land scarcity in the highlands exacerbated the economic crisis. The population of highland communities increased significantly and in some cases more than doubled between 1970 and 1990, placing tremendous pressure on land. This growth took place even as thousands of people were emigrating from the highlands to the federally owned land in the Lacandon jungle under the encouragement of President Echeverría's administration (1970-1976). Some 5,000 Chamulas migrated to the Lacandon jungle and formed new communities such as Nuevo San Juan Chamula (Rus and Collier 2003). The increased use of rainforest for cattle ranching and oil exploration made migration a less viable option in the 1980s and 1990s (Ascencio Franco and Leyva Solano 1992).

In 1992, continuing with the structural adjustment policies of his predecessor, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari reformed Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, declaring an end to agrarian reform and allowing the once-inalienably communal ejido lands to be bought and sold. The reform made it possible to privatize ejidal lands and set the stage for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The continued implementation of structural adjustment policies hurt peasant farmers and favored large-scale agribusiness (Collier 1994; Harvey 1998; Nash and Kovic 1996).

With the economic crisis in Chiapas, the traditional way of organizing politics began to collapse. From the 1930s to the 1960s, communities were linked to the state and federal government through the corporate model put in place during the postrevolutionary presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). In exchange for land (or even the promise of land), credit, subsidies, and other government benefits, peasants in Chiapas and other regions of Mexico were expected to ally themselves with the state party and support it in elections. At the municipal level, small groups of indigenous leaders called caciques monopolized political power and served as mediators between the government and their communities (Rus 1994). These leaders were supported by the state. Municipal leaders ensured that communities delivered votes to the state party, and the leaders controlled access to government resources.

Although there was always resistance to this corporatist model, overall the system held together in highland Chiapas as long as the state and federal government continued to provide material resources. With significant decline in government support for the agrarian sector beginning in the mid-1970s, the power of the PRI, which for decades had been the ruling party in the highlands, began to crumble, although many would continue to affiliate with the PRI to gain access to resources as well as political benefits.

In the context of this crisis, highland residents searched for new ways to survive, some forming cooperatives and some entering into political alliances with opposition parties, peasant organizations, and religious groups. Economic crisis and political dissent went hand in hand. For example, in many communities indigenous women intensified production of artisan goods for sale and engaged in other income-generating activities to help support their families (Eber and Rosenbaum 1993; Nash 1993; Rus 1990). Women joined artisan cooperatives in order to improve access to markets and credits for their goods. Through participation in independent cooperatives many indigenous women became involved in political organizing (Castro Apreza 2003; Eber and Kovic 2003:5-6; Gómez Monte and Rus 1990).

Opposition to political and economic oppression grew throughout Chiapas in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s. A number of new organizations emerged with demands for land, wage increases for rural day laborers, higher prices for crops, and respect for human rights. Even as they were met with government repression, these groups offered an alternative to the PRI politics that had dominated the state for decades. Particularly important to the formation of these independent organizations was the work of the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Beginning in the 1970s, Samuel Ruiz García (bishop of the diocese from 1960 to 2000) and pastoral workers committed themselves to constructing a church that would defend the dignity of the poor. The training of indigenous catechists who took on social and political roles in their communities that extended well beyond preparing people to receive sacraments was an imperative move in respecting communities' ability to create their own path to liberation. By 1985 there were more than 6,000 catechists in the diocese (Floyd 1997). In their alliance with the Catholic Church, indigenous people gained concrete skills (from literacy to organizing), a language that justified their ongoing struggle for liberation, and a base for the development of regional networks. These Catholics describe themselves as followers of the Word of God and differentiate themselves from Protestants and from Traditionalists (those following a folk Catholicism that incorporates Mayan beliefs). The term "Word of God" refers to reading and discussion of the Bible, as well as to participation in diocesan activities such as meetings, workshops, and other events. Word of God Catholics form part of the organizational and decision-making structure of the diocese.

At the same time that many indigenous people affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal, others converted to Protestantism, with the Presbyterian and Pentecostal denominations attracting the largest number of new converts. According to government census data, the percentage of Protestants in Chiapas increased dramatically from 1970 to 2000, from less than 5 percent to more than 21 percent. Like Word of God Catholics, many Protestants opposed traditional leadership in highland communities. Indigenous Catholics and Protestants commonly organized against alcohol abuse, and many women joined together to prohibit the sale of alcohol in their communities.

In order to make a living, thousands of indigenous people migrated to urban areas within and beyond Chiapas. Rus and Collier (2003:46) estimate that as many as 100,000 indigenous peoples of the highlands moved to Chiapas's cities in the 1980s and 1990s. In San Cristóbal indigenous people established dozens of colonias on the mountains surrounding the city. Traveling farther, some migrated to Mexico City, Cancún, and Villahermosa and even to the United States in search of temporary wage labor.

In San Cristóbal indigenous people from the highlands began to identify with religious and political organizations oriented beyond the local community as they struggled to control geographic, political, and economic space. For example, the new urban residents drove taxis, ran for political office, controlled the street market, and attended small Catholic and Protestant churches where religious services were conducted in their native languages. These activities are evidence of the rise of a new indigenous leadership that is fighting for rights and opposes the power of traditional caciques (Cruz Burguete and Robledo 1998).

On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, the EZLN took over seven towns in Chiapas and demanded democracy, social justice, and an end to the hundreds of years of exploitation of indigenous peoples and peasants. The Zapatista rebellion followed previous protests in Chiapas in its opposition to the corporatist politics and corruption of PRI and in its critique of neoliberal reforms, especially NAFTA, which were described as a "death sentence" for Mexico's indigenous peoples. Zapatista sympathizers include Protestants, Word of God Catholics, and to a lesser extent, Traditionalists demonstrating that political alliances can be formed across diverse religious groups.

In San Juan Chamula, community of origin for the Catholics of Guadalupe, political conflict intensified in the 1970s as a new group of young leaders challenged the power of traditional authorities or caciques. The political and religious aspects of the conflict were closely linked. Anthropologists have long recognized that the politics of indigenous communities has traditionally been contained within local civil-religious hierarchies and that political-economic life is necessarily linked with religious practice among the Maya. Caciques commonly define themselves as Traditionalists, that is, they combine Mayan beliefs and customs with Catholicism, and their religious life revolves around prayer, saints' fiestas, and pilgrimages to sacred sites. The new leaders joined opposition parties or independent organizations and unsuccessfully ran their own candidates against the caciques in local elections of the 1970s. Many of these new leaders affiliated with Protestant or Catholic churches for support in challenging the political and economic power of traditional leaders. The converts further challenged the caciques' authority by denouncing their wealth and refusing to purchase alcohol sold for profit by the leaders themselves.

Beginning in the 1970s, caciques began to expel these dissidents for challenging their political, economic, and religious power. In some cases, especially in the early years, expulsion was accompanied by violence. Dissidents were beaten or jailed, their homes burned, their crops destroyed. By the year 2000, more than 20,000 people had been expelled. Yet state and federal authorities did not act to stop the expulsions. For the PRI, interference meant risking the loss of thousands of votes of support in state and federal elections. However, media and popular accounts of expulsion often fail to place the events in their historical context. Such accounts instead describe indigenous peoples as inherently violent and intolerant and blame them for expulsion.

From the time the expulsions began, Protestants, Catholics, and even Traditionalists have been forced to leave their native communities, demonstrating that political and economic factors underlie expulsion. My research focuses on Word of God Catholics because they have often been overlooked by scholars, journalists, and government officials who emphasize Protestant conversion as a key cause of expulsion. Time and again expulsion has been described exclusively as a religious conflict between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. The emphasis on religious conflict understates the connection between religious and political power. This explanation fails to recognize the political and economic roots of expulsion and fails to distinguish between the Traditionalists of Chamula and the Word of God Catholics who affiliate with the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. The focus on Mayan Catholics also allows for examination of the ways Mayas are appropriating two global institutions—human rights and Catholicism—to use as tools of resistance.

Progressive Catholicism in Chiapas

Mayan Catholics of Guadalupe along with other Word of God Catholics in Chiapas link their struggle for human rights to their faith. The Catholics of Guadalupe constantly made biblical references in explaining their struggle for a dignified life. Many explained, "We are all children of God, and we are all equal." They further noted that mestizos and indigenous peoples, men and women, and rich and poor are all equal in the eyes of God. This seemingly simple statement affirms the rightful equality of all humans and carries a critique of the status quo in Chiapas, where a small group of mestizos have held political and economic power for decades. In the same vein, members of Pueblo Creyente proclaim that the evengelization of the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal has been instrumental to their struggle for a dignified life. During the pilgrimage of March 1995 described at the beginning of this chapter, members of Pueblo Creyente noted that "in this long diocesan process, the Word of God has taught us and helped us to understand that the God of the poor walks at our side daily."

The present study of Mayan Catholics in Chiapas is a small chapter in a larger story of religious change taking place in recent decades in Latin American. Key to these changes were the historic meetings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, in Medellin, Colombia (1968). One of the most important themes of Vatican II was "the opening of the Church to the world" or the recognition that the Church must be involved in the realities and problems faced by the people, particularly by the poor. The Latin American bishops at Medellin strongly denounced the structural injustice of Latin America, affirmed the Church's responsibility to work in solidarity with the poor, and called for the concientización, the promotion of political awareness and empowerment, of popular sectors. The meetings along with dramatic political and economic upheaval in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s led to the development of liberation theology, a rereading of the Bible from the perspective of the oppressed. Liberation theology recognizes the poor not only as subjects of their own history but as the preferred subjects for the revelation of the Word of God and the history of salvation. All of these events shaped a progressive Catholicism in which church leaders and laypeople worked to promote social justice and democracy in many regions of Latin America.

Progressive Catholicism of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas was linked to and influenced by this larger movement in Latin America, yet it developed its unique path in response to historic conditions of Chiapas. Retired in 2000, Bishop Samuel Ruiz García arrived in Chiapas in 1960, and in his early visits to rural communities he noted the stark contrast between Chiapas's wealth of natural resources and the impoverishment of most of indigenous peoples and peasants. Bishop Ruiz is a storyteller whose homilies are punctuated by tales of what he learned from his experiences in Chiapas. He tells one about visiting a finca, a coffee plantation, in the 1960s where he celebrated mass and then stayed the night in the home of the landowner. The next morning the peasants who worked on the finca asked the bishop what type of banquet had been awaiting him in the owner's home. He said that he had been offered nothing more than a cup of coffee. The peasants told him that each one of them had been asked for a monetary donation to support his visit, and all realized what had happened to the money. The bishop reflects, "That was the most expensive cup of coffee I've ever had."

Moved by this and other visits to rural communities, Ruiz slowly underwent a process he calls "conversion"—not a change of religion, but a change of heart. It was a growing awareness of the oppression around him and eventually a commitment to walk with the poor in their struggles for a dignified life. Profoundly influenced by the meetings Vatican II and Medellin, members of the diocese formally committed themselves to work "with and for the poor" at their 1975 assembly.

The conversions of Ruiz and pastoral workers involved a move from paternalism to accompaniment in the 1970s and 1980s. Church workers began to recognize indigenous people as the subjects of their own history; that is, church workers respected indigenous peoples' own paths to liberation rather than imposing Westernization as the only means to end poverty and exploitation. The liberationist Church is placed in a difficult, if not contradictory position, of promoting indigenous rights while allowing the poor to remain subjects of their own history. As promoters of indigenous rights, Bishop Ruiz and pastoral workers risk the paternalism of speaking for the Indians rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. As Catholic missionaries, they risk bringing Westernization through conversion. Yet, church workers are aware of and struggle with these contradictions. This book details some their difficulties in working with indigenous communities as well as their desire to listen to rather than speak for the poor. It departs from most writing on the progressive Catholic Church in its focus on indigenous people's understandings and practices of Catholicism. In Chiapas, thousands of indigenous people have affiliated with the Catholic Church in their struggle for human rights. Because of his work to promote human rights, Bishop Ruiz is profoundly popular among indigenous people of Chiapas. His popularity extends beyond indigenous Catholics to include Protestants and even Traditionalist supporters. Letters from Protestant organizations arrived at the Human Rights Center addressed to "our Bishop Samuel Ruiz García."

In many parts of Latin America, progressive Catholicism with its emphasis on justice and equality provided resources for oppressed groups to confront repressive governments (see for example Berryman 1987, Cleary 1990, Levine 1992, Mainwaring and Wilde 1989, and Peterson 1997). Over the past thirty years, the Church has created and supported informal transnational networks through publications, centers, and grassroots movements to facilitate democracy (Levine and Stoll 1997:69). This is certainly the case in Chiapas, where the Church has established human rights centers; provided material assistance following political crises; trained thousands of catechists in religious instruction, leadership, and literacy; and denounced the ongoing repression of indigenous peoples. Cleary and Steigenga (2004) observe that few researchers have examined the link between religion and indigenous activism. They note that the topic merits further study, given the importance of religion in indigenous life, its role in motivating political action, and its facilitation to transnational networks of people who may support indigenous causes.

Yet, this book not only examines the Church as an institution, it also explores faith, that is, the way that indigenous peoples understand religion and how it influences their day-to-day lives. As such, the study follows those who focus on religion as practice, the "everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women" (Hall 1997:vii; see also de Certeau 1988 and Orsi 1997). I hope to contribute to understandings of the ways that "ordinary people, and not just professional theologians, construct, adapt, and seek to live by theological and ethical systems" (Peterson 1997:11). Hence, this study examines how the pastoral work of the Catholic diocese has affected indigenous understandings and awareness of human rights and in turn, how indigenous views have affected the bishop and pastoral workers.

In many ways, the indigenous people are Catholics on their own terms; they understand and live their religion in their own context. Yet, as Talal Asad states, religion cannot be separated from power and history, for "it is not simply worship but social, political, and economic institutions in general, within which individual biographies are lived out, that lend a stable character to the flow of a Christian's activity and to the quality of her experience" (1993:33). The Catholic Church's relationship with the state conditions what it means to be Catholic in Chiapas. For the most part the Church has opposed the government's repressive policies, and as a result Catholics have been targets for further repression. Understanding the "thinking and doing" of the indigenous Catholics necessarily includes exploration of the political and economic processes in which Catholicism is embedded at a state, national, and international level.

Research Site and Methods

I first traveled to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in January 1993, a year before the Zapatista uprising. Like other visitors to the city of San Cristóbal, I encountered many indigenous women and children selling friendship bracelets and other items in the streets of the city (Figure 1.1). The vendors described themselves as expulsados who had been expelled from Chamula because of their religious affiliation. Wanting to know more, I visited the nongovernmental organization Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights, where the director explained the political, economic, and religious motives behind expulsion. The center had been founded in 1989 by Bishop Samuel Ruiz García to attend to the increasing number of human rights abuses reported by the indigenous and poor peasants of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

In August 1993, I began a two-year collaboration with the Center for Human Rights. The center was the logical place to start examining records of expulsion because, since its foundation, it has documented and denounced cases of expulsion. Collaborating with the center allowed me to explore the context in which human rights abuses take place and to examine abuses at the state level before beginning work in a single community. Reading through the many human rights case files at the center, I learned that violations are not isolated incidents carried out by a few corrupt authorities but are part of a repressive power structure within Chiapas. By condoning human rights abuses by police, militia, and local representatives, the state government attempted to repress political mobilization that opposed the PRI and to maintain the concentration of political and economic resources in the hands of the few. In cases such as expulsion, peasants were pitted against one another, making conflicts appear to be internal, when in reality they are a result of competition for scarce resources and of government negligence and corruption.

The Center for Human Rights was located in the chancery of the diocese at the time, and it was there that I first met Bishop Ruiz García, priests, nuns, and other pastoral workers. In our early conversations I learned about the history of the diocese and its recent pastoral plans. In time, I was able to conduct interviews with the bishop and pastoral workers on their work with indigenous people. These interviews, along with observations of diocesan events and meetings, shed light on the Church's complex relationship with indigenous peoples.

I conducted more than sixteen months of fieldwork from September 1994 to August 1995 and in the summers of 1996 to 2001 in Guadalupe, a community I selected because of the population of expelled Tzotzils with a concentrated Catholic population of twenty-six families. Working in one community allowed me to observe how people define human rights, how they act to protect their rights, and what impact these violations have on daily life.

Initially, participant observation was important for getting to know the Catholic members of the community and gaining their trust. I attended Catholic celebrations in the local chapel to get to know church leaders, and at the suggestion of community members, I began to teach a literacy class. Between eight and twelve students attended the literacy class two days a week for a six-month period. I taught the class mostly in Tzotzil, since the students spoke very little Spanish. The class served to establish trust with the people of Guadalupe and helped establish some mutuality in my work, as I was able to assist a group of people in a small way.

When I began visiting the homes of the Catholic families of Guadalupe, I was eager to hear their stories of how they were exiled from Chamula and wanted to know how they talked about the human rights abuses involved, but I worried that people would be reluctant to open up to a caxlan, a non-Indian, and therefore an outsider. To the contrary, I found that they were eager to talk and were pleased that I had an interest in their history. They saw me as someone who did not know about their lives, suffering, and customs, but they wanted me to understand what had happened. They told me over and over about the Word of God, the authorities in Chamula, their arrival in Guadalupe, and the role of God in their lives. Talking served to denounce what had happened to them, and they told me in hopes that I would continue to denounce their suffering in Mexico as well as in my own country. People were well aware that the problem of expulsion had been presented as a conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and they wanted me understand the "true" story. They also told of expulsion as a testimony to their faith. In spite of what they had suffered, they never gave up their religion. Women spent hours talking to me as they sat weaving, spinning wool, making bracelets, or combing their children's hair. I spoke to men in the evenings and weekends, since they commonly walked to San Cristóbal to work during the day.

As I listened to and recorded stories of conversion, expulsion, and resettlement in Guadalupe, I realized that while the experience of exile (which involved jailings, beatings, and threats) was difficult, exile's most painful aspect was starting a new life separated from their land, houses, and families. Rather than describing their cultural rights as indigenous people, Guadalupe residents focused on their poverty and the need for access to land and basic services.

Conducting fieldwork during a time of intense political conflict in Chiapas presented numerous challenges. Following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the local and state government accused many pastoral agents and human rights workers of being Zapatistas or subversives. Mayan Catholics throughout the diocese, especially catechists and deacons, were also targets of repression. In this context, any conversation about human rights or the work of the Catholic Church carried significant political relevance and could be considered dangerous. In spite of this risk, human rights workers and indigenous peoples wished to make their voices heard and to express their side of the story. In addition, they hoped to publicize the human rights abuses in Chiapas and establish national and international support networks. In this context of repression and conflict, it was important to the Catholics in Guadalupe that I was linked to the human rights center and the Catholic diocese. This link was crucial in establishing trust and was emphasized whenever I visited new communities with Guadalupe catechists.

Although I was raised Catholic, I had not been active in the church (or even attended mass) in the ten years before I went to Chiapas. In the field, I was an active participant in the church, and this was perhaps the most important factor in building trust with the people of Guadalupe. Religion is a central reference point in their lives, and I was constantly asked, "What is your religion?" It was important that I attend religious celebrations in the local chapel as well as baptisms, first communions, and weddings. My religious affiliation provided an important link, for otherwise I was extraordinarily different—separated from my parents, living in Chiapas without a husband, and a female adult without children, my life did not make any sense to Guadalupe residents. In addition, my work involved writing at a desk rather than physical labor, and I did not know how to make tortillas (although I tried to learn) or to weave and embroider, all-important tasks for women. Our shared faith provided a link, albeit a fragile one, in spite of our obvious ethnic and class differences.

In order to place the community of Guadalupe within the wider context of the phenomenon of expulsion and human rights, I conducted interviews with leaders outside the community and analyzed documentation of the history of the issue. I consulted primary and secondary sources in San Cristóbal at the Instituto de Asesoría Antropológica para la Región Maya Asociación Civil, INAREMAC (the Anthropological Consultancy for the Maya Region) that document the history of the Diocese of San Cristóbal. The local press—primarily the newspaper El Tiempo, which has an important history in documenting the plight of the indigenous of Chiapas—provided information on the twenty-year history of expulsion, the response of government officials to the problem, and the mobilization of the indigenous population of exiles. Interviews in the community were complemented by interviews of political leaders of the expelled and pastoral workers of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Structure of the Book

Given the subjects of this book—displaced indigenous Catholics—it necessarily travels through a number of sites from the colonia of Guadalupe to San Juan Chamula to other highland communities. The book also examines the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas not only as a region, but also as a religious and political project. Maps and a chronology of key events are presented to assist the reader in locating these sites. This book is organized into eight chapters following this introduction that examine how indigenous notions of human rights have developed in the national, regional, and local context, above all in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Chapter 2 introduces the colonia of Guadalupe, its inhabitants, and its history. Taking this community as a unit of analysis allows for in-depth exploration of Mayan Catholics' understandings of rights, religion, and community as well as their struggle to live a dignified life. Chapter 3 presents a history of the diocese's mission under the leadership of Bishop Ruiz (1960-2000) and its attempt to work with the marginalized and excluded and to promote indigenous rights. Chapter 4 turns to San Juan Chamula, the place of origin of the Catholics of Guadalupe. It explores the diocese's attempt to establish a mission in this municipality and the events leading up to the first massive expulsion.

Chapters 5 through 7 examine indigenous concepts of human rights, both in theoretical terms and in definitions given by Word of God Catholics of Guadalupe. Chapter 5 analyzes the diverse understandings of and theoretical debates surrounding human rights as related to the issue of expulsion. It explores anthropological debates, Mexican legislation, Catholicism, and the work of the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights as related to indigenous rights. Chapters 6 and 7 describe the ways the expelled Catholics of Guadalupe define and practice human rights and traditions. Chapter 6 details how the indigenous Catholics mix doctrine emanating from the Catholic Church, legal codes, and traditional indigenous views in defining human rights, and Chapter 7 explores the ways these Catholics have re-created traditions in their search for a new life. Finally, Chapter 8 explores concrete actions and mobilizations by diocesan Catholics to defend their rights. The local networks of Guadalupe as well as the diocesan-wide networks built through Pueblo Creyente form a community of faith that can lead to a shared path of resistance. The larger question of what the case of Guadalupe and the work of the Diocese of San Cristóbal contribute to understandings of indigenous rights is addressed in Chapter 9.

When I asked the people in Guadalupe if I could write a book about their community, religion, and expulsion, they responded with great enthusiasm. They felt that it was important to document their history and wanted others to know what they had experienced. In fact, when I first explained my research plans, they asked me to write a booklet for them in Tzotzil telling how they had left Chamula and established a new community. They taught me about their lives so that I would understand what they had experienced and what they were living. A central theme in our conversations was suffering. Over and over, they repeated to me, "Cristina, here we are suffering a lot." They took me into their homes to show me how they lived, told me of their illnesses, described the difficulty of finding work, and expressed sadness in having to leave their land, houses, and community in Chamula. They wanted me to understand the poverty they encounter in the city, the discrimination from mestizos, and the refusal of state and federal authorities to address their situation. Theirs is not only a history of suffering, but also of hope expressed in their faith and their ongoing struggle for a dignified life.


“In sum, this carefully constructed study merits the highest praise for its contribution not only to the history of Mayan Catholicism, but especially for its on-scene documentation of human rights abuses.”
Religious Studies Review

“This impressive work on human rights organizing in Chiapas provides a deep and broad view of the struggle that gained front-page attention through the Zapatista revolt that shook Mexico, beginning in the 1990s. Through living in the area, Professor Kovic was in a privileged position to witness changes made by a globalized economy on marginalized groups and their response through human rights activity.”
Edward L. Cleary, Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies, Providence College

“Christine Kovic's study brings an important new voice—that of people empowered and inspired by post-Vatican II liberation theology—to our understanding of the Maya of Chiapas in the age of NAFTA. Although the Chiapas Maya are well known for their traditionalism and central role in the current Zapatista critique of neoliberalism, we know little about the demographically and politically important role of displaced Catholics in the volatile mosaic of modern Chiapas. This carefully-focused study of an impoverished small colony of displaced Chamula Tzotzils in the exploding suburban periphery of San Cristóbal de las Casas offers hope that post-colonial Chiapas—only now taking shape—will include all Chiapanecos.”
Gary H. Gossen, Dean of Academic Affairs and Julian Steward Professor of Social Science, Deep Springs College


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