COLUMN ONE : The Defiant Return to Chiapas : Pro-government Chamula Indians for decades violently expelled villagers who dared to differ. Thousands seemed to accept their fate--until now.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Josefina Hernandez Gomez did not have much to go home to. On the day last year when she and her extended family were driven into exile, Hernandez's hateful neighbors burned their tiny houses and stole the chickens and sheep. The unattended radish and corn crops rotted.

But Hernandez and her family, defying threats of death, did return. They sleep in the fertilizer shed while starting to rebuild.

"They burned everything. Our mattresses. The Singer sewing machine," says Hernandez, a 26-year-old Mayan mother with a baby slung over her back and two daughters at her feet. "They threw us out because we believed in God."

For two decades, powerful pro-government Chamula Indian leaders in this fertile, isolated swath of southern Mexico's Chiapas state have violently expelled members of their pious, conservative community who dared to differ. Those who converted to Protestantism or, worse, to opposition politics--those who challenged the established order in any way--were cast out.

At least 25,000 people, more than a third of the community's population of 70,000, have been expelled, according to human rights activists. And all seemed to accept their fate, until now.

Inspired by a Mayan rebellion earlier this year that shook Mexico to the core, hundreds of Chamula exiles have taken matters into their own hands and for the first time are returning home.

Their perilous action reflects a new militancy among Indians here that may be the most significant legacy of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, the rebel band whose Jan. 1 uprising sounded the call for democracy and indigenous rights.

The return challenges the traditional leaders, known as caciques , who run San Juan Chamula and other Indian towns in southern Mexico like small fiefdoms. And ultimately, it challenges the ironclad way Mexico's ruling party has controlled this rural region for decades.

"It is not so easy anymore for the government to cover the sun with a finger," said Domingo Lopez Angel, one of the first Chamulas to be expelled in 1974 and now an opposition activist. "The Indian is rising up. We will no longer let ourselves be fooled. We have seen (a change), thanks to our Zapatista companeros , who had the courage to awaken the country."

The Chamula are one of several Mayan clans who live in the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico, each with its distinctive customs and dress. The Chamula women, for example, wear embroidered blouses and black blankets wrapped as skirts; the men wear black or white sheepskin tunics.

Since the 1960s, an arrangement has existed between the authoritarian Indian caciques and the regional bosses from Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who found they could control the indigenous communities by buying off their leaders.

The caciques benefited from government patronage, including land grants, and were allowed to make money, build empires and manage their towns as they saw fit. In exchange, the caciques provided unanimous vote counts for the PRI at every election.

As time went on, the Chamula leaders saw any change as a threat to their traditions, their community and their hold on power and wealth. San Juan Chamula earned a reputation as a place hostile to all outsiders.

Although the Chamula conflict is often portrayed as a holy war between Roman Catholics and Protestants, it is, in fact, more complex. Religion, politics and economics are inextricably intertwined.

The leaders have said the exiles were expelled because they had become born-again Christians whose religion threatens the syncretic brand of Catholicism practiced in San Juan Chamula and the community's traditional dress, ceremonies and customs. Many of the exiles, as well as anthropologists and other experts, say religion is being used as a pretext for expelling political dissidents and nonconformists.

The first Chamulas to be expelled in the early 1970s were taken in by American missionaries in the region; many were converted to Protestant faiths. They settled in shantytowns on the outskirts of the nearest city, San Cristobal de las Casas, towns with names like Bethlehem and New Jerusalem. The largest, which climbs the side of a muddy hill, is called The Ant.

Those who have converted reject many of the rituals the caciques demand. Members of the Chamula community are required to supply expensive religious festivals with thousands of candles, gallons of Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, and moonshine called "pash," which is consumed in large quantities.

Not coincidentally, the caciques and their lieutenants control the distributorships for all the items required in the ceremonies.

"They wanted us to buy the booze," Hernandez said in broken Spanish, switching to her native Tzotzil language to speak to her relatives. "They like people to get drunk."

Hernandez's father, Juan Hernandez Heredia, owns four plots of land here on the sweeping hillsides of Cuchuluntic, a hamlet that is part of the larger San Juan Chamula municipio , or county. The Hernandezes say they were expelled because of their religious beliefs and because they refused to go along with the ceremonies--but several posters for an opposition candidate hang on their fertilizer shed.

Last September, a woman from the town came to warn them. If they didn't leave by the morning, they would be dead. They knew others before had been killed, the women raped. The Hernandez family fled to the nearby hills and waited until dusk. As neighbors doused the Hernandez property with gasoline, the family walked for three hours to San Cristobal, joining 580 Chamulas expelled during a four-month period last year.

But unlike the thousands who had gone before them, the group decided to fight. First they occupied the San Cristobal headquarters of the federal government's Indigenous Affairs Office. Then, taking their cue from the Zapatista rebel leader known as Subcommander Marcos, and to the shock of the caciques and the regional PRI leaders, the Chamulas in July kidnaped Domingo Lopez Ruiz, the mayor and a principal cacique of San Juan Chamula. Two people were killed in a shootout to free the mayor, who was freed later.

The Mexican government, already badly shaken by the Zapatista uprising that left 145 people dead and focused international attention on the plight of Mexico's impoverished Mayans, was eager to negotiate. The government paid the exiles $150,000 for their lost crops, and is considering awarding $70,000 more for property damage. Still, no formal agreement for their return was reached.

Exhausted and frustrated, the exiles decided to forgo further negotiations and test their luck. Two days before national elections last month, more than 500 people rounded up their few remaining sheep, boarded government trucks and went home.

Hernandez Heredia said he and his family were greeted with "silence" from the neighbors, but no violence so far. This time, however, they are prepared: Using some of their reparation money, they bought walkie-talkies and set up a warning system among the returned exiles. This time, they say, they will defend themselves if neighbors or the caciques' henchmen come after them.

"Marcos encouraged us to organize well," Hernandez Heredia, 48, said, standing by the charred wood and crumpled bricks of his old home. "If they come back to attack us, it will not be the same as before. We have weapons--stones, slingshots, sticks. We are ready. The time we would let ourselves be stepped on like mice is over. We are not afraid."

He paused to speak on the walkie-talkie in Tzotzil to a fellow returnee down the road. They are hoping to raise enough money through their church and elsewhere to buy more radio units.

If the Chamulas are successful in returning and defying the traditional power structure, they could force permanent changes in their local government. And gradually, the PRI's absolute control of the region could begin to deteriorate.

The changes so far are incremental. In the Aug. 21 voting for president and other offices, a real election was held in San Juan Chamula for the first time. In previous years, the caciques did not allow opposition political parties or independent election monitors into town; the entire community voted as one, and always for the PRI.

This year, representatives of other parties were present on voting day. The PRI's margin declined to 85% of the vote. A small victory, but a start, say the returning exiles. Hernandez and his family could not participate, however, because their voter-identification cards had been burned when their homes were destroyed.

Speaking with remarkable candor, Gustavo Moscoso, the regional head of indigenous affairs for the Mexican government, said much of the problem in San Juan Chamula and other Indian villages has been the complicity between PRI party bosses and the caciques . Government officials rarely dared challenge the cacique rule as long as the PRI votes kept coming.

Those days are ending, he said.

"In Mexico, we are living through a change," said Moscoso, who assumed his job in February, after the governor of Chiapas and his administration were fired in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion. "The indigenous communities now know what their rights are and that laws exist."

Some experts argue the caciques ' fear of the onslaught of evangelism has some justification. As the population grows and land becomes scarce, the new religions have eroded some traditions that Chamulas had fiercely guarded since Friar Bartolome de las Casas converted them to Catholicism in the 16th Century.

"They see Chamula as a fragile vessel, that their way of life is contained in it . . . (and) that they were handed this vessel by their ancient ancestors," said Jan Rus, an anthropologist from Claremont, Calif., who has written extensively on the Chamulas. "They see it in their language, in the saints they venerate, in their territory."

But Rus and others say that in recent years the expulsions took on a more violent, witch-hunt tone that clearly targeted dissidents and reformists.

To describe the Chamula conflict as a religious one oversimplifies it. Still, the religious practices of the two sides offer stark contrast and highlight their basic differences.

Inside the brand-new neon-blue Tzotzil Independent Pentecostal Evangelical Church in Paradise, an exile colony on the outskirts of San Cristobal, hundreds of Chamula men and women crowded onto rough wooden pews on a recent evening for hours of prayer, gospel and song.

Some of the women and all of the men had forgone their native Indian dress for slacks, shirts and dresses--indicative, the caciques would say, of lost culture. They knelt on the dirt floor and bowed deeply in prayer, chanting and moaning.

The nonstop preacher stomped, clapped and shouted, Bible in one hand, an organ and trap drum set alongside him. The long sermons were in Tzotzil, dotted frequently with words in Spanish: "Brothers!" "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!"

"Depart from evil, and do good; so shall you abide forever," the preacher read from the Bible. "For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. . . . The righteous shall possess the land, and dwell upon it forever."

Some of the church elders sat facing the wall, sobbing in prayer.

Back in San Juan Chamula, the Catholic Church is unusual, to say the least. It is central to a practice that combines Mayan mystical beliefs with Roman Catholic traditions. The Catholic diocese in San Cristobal pulled the priest from the church in the late 1970s because it did not want to be associated with the expulsions. So worship is personal and individual.

Large signs outside the church warn visitors not to take pictures. Inside, on a recent morning, incense filled the air and pine needles covered the floor, both smells combining with the distinctive waft of cane liquor.

Indian men and women sat on the floor in groups throughout the chapel, which has no pews. They prayed to dozens of saints, bedecked in silk and mirrors and standing in glass boxes. Each group of worshipers had placed before it dozens, sometimes more than 100, candles of all sizes and colors. They also laid out bottles of Coke or Pepsi, containers of pash and eggs.

One woman held a red-brown chicken by the legs, passing it over the candles, then over the body of a younger woman seated by her. She held the chicken upside down until it died, then she placed it with the candles. The man next to her struggled to wring the neck of a speckled rooster, which squawked until it died, as the man steadily murmured his prayers.

As for the Chamula exiles, politically speaking, they are something of an anomaly. Pentecostal faiths have made inroads throughout Latin America, but they are usually attached to conservative movements. The Chamula evangelicals, on the contrary, are essentially revolutionaries.

Anthropologist Rus describes the phenomenon as a historical accident. The exiles, even as converts, never lost their political goals of changing the Chamula government. Their ties to the Zapatistas are natural, since both groups emerge from the same community, he said.

In addition to the Chamula exiles, there are other signs of new militancy. Indians throughout Chiapas have seized vast acreage since the Zapatista uprising; even the charcoal peddlers of San Cristobal have adopted the Zapatista name and are fighting for a better location at the local market.

"People are realizing their community doesn't serve their needs," Rus said. "They are forging new organizations and getting a sense of themselves as Indians in a caste system.

"What does that lead to? I don't know. Native people want space. The question is, how much are the (elite) willing to cede power? . . . (The Indians) have always thought about how poor they were, how the government screwed them. Then it just suddenly sort of bloomed, and the Zapatistas were the catalyst for that.

"That consciousness has an expression now," Rus said. "It's mystical to watch. It's like blacks in the South, when they realized (the civil rights movement) might actually work."

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