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CSUN Delegation Learns the Painful Truth in Chiapas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting on the steps of a national immigration office in Mexico City, waiting hour after hour for a special visa to enter the southern state of Chiapas, Lorena Flores had one thought running through her head: “What exactly don’t they want us to see there?”

Last week, she had her answer. In an Indian village, Flores and a group of fellow Cal State Northridge students and professors sat down with an old woman, who cried as she told of the day men ransacked her home, leaving her with nothing.

“They didn’t want me to see that woman’s face,” Flores said. “They didn’t want me to see the faces in the town we visited where five men under the age of 18 had been executed. That’s what they didn’t want me to see.”

The CSUN delegation to Chiapas--where a tense cease-fire between Zapatista rebels and the Mexican army has been in place four years--was one of a dwindling number of foreign groups being admitted to Chiapas. The Mexican government severely restricted access to the region in May, citing trouble during a visit by Italian activists who clashed with local Indians earlier that month. Now, delegations must be sponsored by a Mexican group, limited to 10 people and stay no longer than 10 days.

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The changes, say human rights activists, have made visits very difficult. The CSUN group, which went in conjunction with the Humanitarian Law Project, had to appeal to two U.S. congressmen, a U.S. senator, U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and the U.S. State Department for its special FM-3 visa. Even after the visa was granted, the group was held up for an extra day in Mexico City, where they had been attending a conference on Chicano studies.

Evangeline Ordaz, a professor of Chicano studies at CSUN who helped guide the students in Chiapas, said conditions there are the worst she has seen them.

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“It has never been so tense as it is now,” said Ordaz, who has regularly visited Chiapas in the four years since a Zapatista-led uprising left about 150 dead and began the current standoff. “There are people living on the side of the mountains who are literally clinging to life.”

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The four students in the delegation knew before leaving they weren’t signing up for a vacation. Lydia Brazon, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Project, had given it to them as straight as she could.

Chiapas is a war zone, she said. Rape is common. Shootings are common. In recent months, several dozen foreign visitors have been expelled from the region.

“At least one paramilitary organization,” she said, “has threatened to cut up foreigners into little pieces.”

Two of the students, who returned from Mexico last week, said they believed the lessons they learned outweighed the risks. The two other students remained in Mexico as tourists and are expected back in Los Angeles this week.

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The students, all members of a Latino campus collective that raised more than $800 in the past year for Chiapas medical relief, had a different mission than many humanitarian aid workers. They said they hoped to learn from the people of Chiapas how to sustain a minority culture under enormous pressure to assimilate--and perhaps apply the lessons here.

In one instance, the CSUN group was kept waiting several hours while the residents of one village decided, as a group, whether to talk to the outsiders.

“In the Latino community in L.A. there are so many different groups and factions that can’t agree on anything,” Ordaz said. “It was amazing to watch these people take the time to come to a consensus and then follow it.”

Armando Gudino, a graduate student in Chicano studies who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, said that despite the abject poverty and strife in Chiapas, the local Indians have found ways to help themselves.

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“In some villages the government has refused to provide health care, and the people have set up their own pharmacies,” Gudino said. “Some of us don’t have health care either. Once you learn the lesson of how they are trying to take care of themselves, you can reapply it to what’s going on here in L.A.”

Ordaz, who is also a lawyer specializing in humanitarian law, said that visiting Chiapas offers students lessons she could never teach in a classroom.

“Just driving down the road one day we saw 39 or 40 military vehicles full of troops,” Ordaz said. “When you are there you can really see how hard the Mexican government is working to silence these people.”

Flores and Gudino both said the military presence was overwhelming. On a visit to the Indian village of Acteal, where 45 Zapatista sympathizers--mostly women and children--were massacred by masked gunmen in December, the sadness on the people’s faces left an unforgettable impression.

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The students are now finishing a report on human rights conditions in Chiapas. They also plan to return. Flores said she would like more American students to see for themselves the conditions there.

Ordaz said she considers the trip an educational success.

“The ideal of education is to learn about it and then go experience it first-hand,” she said. “I can tell them all about what I think about what is going on in Chiapas, but it is more important for them to be able to see for themselves and do their own critical analysis of what they have seen.”


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