Walking in the darkness: Peacemaking in Chiapas

Mennonite Central Committee
Friday, 12 October 2001

X'OYEP, Mexico -- "How is your heart?" Alicia Gomez asks the education promoters with whom she works in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, using a greeting from their indigenous tradition.

For the last 2 1/2 years, Gomez has been an educational coordinator in X´oyep (Shoy-EP), a community of camps of displaced indigenous people fleeing violence from paramilitary groups. Through a Catholic parish, Gomez works with community-chosen promoters to ensure primary education for displaced children.

She and other educators seek to care not only for the minds of their students but also for their hearts. For an indigenous community committed to non-violence, caring for the heart implies strengthening the will for peace. The curriculum they have created is already bringing together students from various denominations and political factions.

"This education seeks to create the conditions necessary for the reconstruction of communities," Gomez says.

Camp residents are part of Civil Society Las Abejas, an indigenous faith-based organization dedicated to non-violent action for a just peace in Chiapas. Las Abejas participate in prayer vigils, fasting and demonstration marches.

The organization emerged in 1992 after the Mexican constitution was changed to guarantee Mexican entrance into the North American Free Trade Agreement. These changes threatened the communal land rights of the indigenous people of Chiapas, sharpening perennial problems of poverty and injustice.

Zapatista guerrilla fighters demanded indigenous rights. The ensuing clashes with government-supported paramilitary groups, who differentiate little between Zapatista guerrillas and pacifist Abejas, have had devastating consequences for the Abejas. Some 4,000 to 5,000 members of Las Abejas have been forced to take refuge in overcrowded camps.

In this context, Alicia Gomez and the displaced Abejas have developed Programa Tsotzil, a curriculum designed by and for the Tsotzil indigenous people. Curriculum content was drawn from community meetings, with technical assistance from a team of outside professionals.

Programa Tsotzil is organized around four major themes: earth, work, community and organization. Classes in Tsotzil, Spanish, math, health, history, geography and culture are shaped by these themes, reinforcing identity and cultural priorities of the Abejas. Volunteer teachers are chosen by the community. An education council, also named by the community, assumes the role of guardian of the education system, responsible for nurturing and preserving its Tsotzil soul.

The nonviolent ideals of Las Abejas form an essential component of this Tsotzil soul. Teachers promote respect, dialogue and peaceful solutions to conflict.

Already students from pro-PRI families are participating alongside children of Las Abejas in one of the camp schools. Plans for an organized return to communities of origin suggest additional challenges ahead for Gomez, the Programa Tsotzil, and Las Abejas.

Gomez's own commitment to peace has been nourished by participation in the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)-funded Regional Network for Peace and Justice, a Mennonite initiative that brings together grassroots peacemakers from across Mexico and Central America for training and mutual encouragement.

The ecumenical gatherings have offered her new perspective on the religious dimensions of the conflict in Chiapas. There, the supporters of indigenous rights are predominantly Catholic. Most supporters of the PRI -- the national political party that monopolized power for 70 years and spawned paramilitary persecution -- are Presbyterian.

"There are so many things that separate us," Gomez says, "but also so much that unites us."

Gomez´s most profound learning, however, is rooted in her experience with the people of X'oyep.

"The Abejas are teaching me what it means to walk in the darkness," says Gomez.

The darkness of poverty, war, massacres and overcrowded and unsanitary camps plagued by disease. The darkness of a future clouded with uncertainty.

Mexican President Vicente Fox's electoral defeat of the PRI has brought a breath of hope to Chiapas. But the long-term relationship between the Mexican army and the states of Chiapas remains uncertain. Despite the uncertainty, Las Abejas are firming up plans to return to their homes. Walking in the darkness. Walking in faith.

For more information, or to contact Mennonite Central Committee, see their website at: www.mcc.org

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