Ancient, Modern Beliefs Clash in Hills of Chiapas : Mexico: 53 Chamula Indians injured, blinded, hospitalized in violence over impending ousters.


After two decades, Sebastian Diaz vividly recalls his father’s last visit to his modest home in the hills of Chiapas, Mexico’s most southern state.

The elder Diaz stood in the door of the one-room, thatch-roofed adobe, with a stack of matches clearly visible behind him. “We hear you changed religions,” he told his son. “It would be better if you did not wake up here tomorrow.”

So Diaz and his wife packed their few possessions, rounded up their seven children and moved to one of the shantytowns surrounding the nearest city, San Cristobal de las Casas.


That is the way it has always been: Chamula Indians knew that converting from the mixture of ancient Mayan beliefs and Roman Catholic rituals practiced here to a European-style religion--even standard Catholicism--meant expulsion from their community.

They went quietly. Until this spring.

In late March, when 44 Protestants learned that they were to be expelled, they rebelled, launching a series of arrests and kidnapings that resulted in an April 1 riot of stones, clubs and gunfire. The violence left 53 Chamulas injured, some blinded and others hospitalized with bullet wounds.

The incident focused attention on a problem that one human rights activist says is as intractable as Northern Ireland’s religious strife. The case has also polarized the two sides, ending negotiations aimed at resolving their differences. It has revived debate over individual versus community rights and questions about the role of the government in Indian affairs.

Nominally, the fight is about religion. But the struggle runs deeper--into culture, alcoholism and the way Mexico’s political machine operates in remote areas.

“It is a conflict about power in a community where the actors are identified by their religion,” said Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a noted anthropologist and human rights activist. “Clearly, (conversion) pulls the rug out from under traditional community controls and power.”

This conflict is being played out in Mayan communities throughout the Chiapas Highlands, where 15,000 people have been expelled from their homes over religious disputes in the last two decades alone; four out of five have settled in the hills around San Cristobal de las Casas.

When it comes to dissent, the 52,000 Chamulas have a reputation for being the least tolerant.

In theory, the Chiapas Maya, including the Chamulas, were converted to Roman Catholicism in the 16th Century by Bartolome de las Casas, the first bishop of Chiapas, who is widely regarded as the Western Hemisphere’s first human rights activist.

In practice, they accepted only the parts of Christianity that made sense to them, integrating those beliefs into their Mayan beliefs. Saints and angels, for example, were identified with traditional Mayan land gods or chauk. The Indians’ townships continued to be theocracies in the Mayan tradition, and their new, mixed religion became an integral part of the political structure. Political posts also carry a religious responsibility--usually a role in organizing the numerous, costly festivals honoring saints.

For centuries, the Catholic Church accepted this relationship. Then, in the 1970s, as Protestant evangelists began making inroads into the highland communities, priests began to question their collaboration in the traditional system and to make changes.

“The word of God became an alternative lifestyle to the tributary burden of custom,” said Martin de la Cruz Lopez Moya, general secretary of the Fray Bartolome de la Casas Human Rights Center, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church. The expulsions of both Protestants and Catholics who supported the reforms intensified.

In 1974, recalls Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz, “We decided not to (say Mass) there until the expulsions stopped.” Community leaders named a seminary dropout their bishop and abandoned any pretense of following standard Catholic beliefs. “They are no longer Catholic in Chamula,” said the bishop. “They ex-communicated themselves.”

The result is that the church in the main square here is unlike any other. There are no pews. Statues of saints--some in glass cages, all bedecked in layers of local silks--are lined up along the walls leading from the altar. Worshipers kneel before them, chanting and lighting rows of tapered candles. Incense mixes with the scent of the pine needles that cover the floor.

When supplicants’ wishes are granted, they bring a soft drink bottle of pash, a potent local sugar cane liquor, for a toast with the saint. Pash is an important ingredient in religious celebrations and in community affairs. It is also an important source of income for producers, distributors and the state government; it has been this way since anthropologist Ricardo Pozas did his classic study of the Chamulas in the 1940s.

But the ritual use of pash in quantities sufficient to make users inebriated--and the economic interests behind the drink’s production--are at the heart of the disputes here, according to dissidents and church officials.

Many of the Protestant sects forbid drinking, and Catholic officials oppose alcohol abuse. As a result, the devout and converts refuse to participate in or help finance festivals that center on alcohol. But, of course, religious beliefs that curb, rather than encourage, drinking undercut the economic interests of pash distributors.

To complicate matters, most of the pash distributors are also community officials and local representatives of Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by the initials PRI. Their responsibility is to get out the vote on election day, assuring a base of PRI support in the countryside. That relationship has handicapped state officials’ efforts to mediate the dispute, because they are viewed as biased. “There are a lot of factors involved, such as alcoholism and the votes of the PRI,” said Lopez Moya.

Chamula officials counter that no one is more disturbed than they by the effects of alcohol on their people.

“We would be pleased to see people set an example of moderation or abstinence,” said Antonio Hernandez Ruiz, administrative judge in Chamula and one of the kidnaping victims. The problem is not alcohol, he said, but culture and community participation.

“The converts do not want to accept the responsibilities of their offices,” which involve organizing and financing festivals, he said. “This is a threat to our customs.”

That pits the community’s right to maintain its customs against the individual right to freedom of religion.

The latest escalation began on March 31, when 44 religious dissidents in the Chamula village of El Pozo rented a cargo truck and made the seven-hour drive over dirt roads to City Hall. They said they wanted to ask about a petition circulating in their village, seeking their expulsion.

“I told them they should think about these problems before they converted,” said Hernandez Ruiz, a thin man who, like all the men here, still wears the traditional woolen chu, a type of buttonless overshirt. “In their villages, they are free to farm and hunt,” he said. “In the city, there is no land, no money. But to stay in their villages, they must follow our traditions. I told them life comes before religion.”

The discussion became more heated and ended with city officials throwing the dissidents in jail. Two escaped and ran to La Hormiga, a shantytown of eroded land and loose rocks where about 400 expelled Chamulas live outside San Cristobal de las Casas.

As they were telling their story, a pickup truck pulled up and the driver, a Protestant pastor, told them that Hernandez Ruiz, Chamula’s deputy mayor, and a driver were in the main square of San Cristobal, eating tacos with the state Indian affairs representative. They decided to kidnap them and bring them back to La Hormiga for a prisoner exchange.

Removing his straw cowboy hat to show the bare patches, Hernandez Ruiz said that after he was kidnaped, he was shaved and soaked with buckets of water throughout the cool mountain night. “That was not a very Christian thing to do,” he observed.

As the sun rose on the morning of April 1, the people guarding their captives noticed that their neighborhood was surrounded--8,000 Chamulas had arrived during the night.

The two sides first taunted each other, then began throwing stones. The stones thrown from above began breaking windows and creating craters in the neighborhood’s laminated roofs.

The Chamulas pushed forward into the neighborhood, running through the dirt streets, overturning cars. Someone got out shotguns--each side blames the other, but those with bullet wounds are from Chamula.

In the confusion, the hostages escaped.

La Hormiga was left in ruins.

One dissident leader, Domingo Lopez, was arrested and accused of plotting the kidnaping, and Chamula leaders are demanding the arrests of 17 more people.

“All we want is to have freedom in our villages and a little bit of land,” said Sebastian Diaz, who was expelled 20 years ago. “In the city, we just have enough room for a house, no place to farm or hunt.”

To Antonio Hernandez Ruiz, the solution is simple: “All they have to do is respect the old ways (and) say, ‘I will accept my religious offices.’ We will forgive them and accept them. For me, there is no pure religion. There are only our customs.”