Jesuits support indigenous autonomy in Mexico


Photo: Hector a Portillo

by Fr. Arturo Estrada, SJ and Héctor A. Portillo

The Jesuit Mission of Bachajón was established on December 3, 1958, the feast of Saint Francis Xavier, nearly 60 years ago. The Mission is located in the High lands of Chiapas, inside the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Its land area of 1,351 square miles extends over six municipalities and covers more than 200,000 people, most of them Tseltal, one of the many indigenous peoples of Mexico.

For us Jesuits in Mexico, it has always been a priority to work with the indigenous peoples of our country. More recently, we have understood this work as necessarily tied with the defense and strengthening of their rights, their lands, and their culture.

In Bachajón, we have made the Tseltal culture and peoples the center of our work. We have strived for decades to acculturate the Church, to create and consolidate an autochthonous church. Thus, along with a group of Tseltals, we have translated the Bible, catechism, and every liturgical ritual. Today, Tseltals in the Mission’s territory can live their Catholic faith as part of their own culture, in a way that matches their understanding of the world and its peoples. Another somewhat newer effort has focused on accompanying their struggle for economic, cultural and political autonomy. We work with them to retrieve and preserve what they call slamalil qu’inal, or harmony, both in the individual and the community.

  During our latest strategic planning, the Bachajón Mission encouraged all communities to hold conversations and diagnose which were the biggest challenges or issues each of them faced.

One common challenge arose: the people wanted an alternative to the political system, because the political parties do not respect or nurture the Tseltal culture or the way they organize. Quite the contrary: political parties, they said, bring only division and conflict.

  In 2016, the Mission, along with the Movement to Defend Life and Land, or MODEVITE in Spanish, organized a mass pilgrimage across 11 municipalities to protest the government and business projects that bring death and break communal harmony. In this pilgrimage, the political parties were again identified as a cause for conflict in each community, and again the people expressed their desire to find an alternative.

  As the communities talked about how to confront their challenges, and learned more about experiences of other indigenous peoples in Mexico who have faced similar ones, an idea emerged: that indigenous peoples have the right to govern themselves according to their own traditions, and that this means no more political parties. This right is enshrined in Mexico’s Constitution and the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.

  Since there are federal, state and local elections in 2018, the matter became ever more urgent. The threat of all the parties’ efforts to mobilize and/or suppress the vote in the communities looms closer and closer every day. Again, the people talked among themselves, and with us. Eventually, it was decided to file a petition so that two municipalities, Chilón and Sitalá, rule themselves by usos y costumbres, and kick out the political parties. Thus, the idea of a “communal government” began to solidify both in the Mission and the communities.

  On November 17, they filed the petition and demanded via press conference their right to self-organization and governance be respected by the state’s electoral authority. We await a reply.

  Meanwhile, we continue to reflect on the challenges of this idea. What will such a “communal government” look like? What role could women and youth play in such a government? What happens when the political parties and the government they control threaten to cut off social programs that have become integral to many people’s economies?

  On this, we are encouraged by the fact that the people continue to talk and discuss among themselves about the communal government, and in recent assemblies, they have highlighted the need for the project to involve women and youth at all levels, including that of decision making.

Therefore, although there are no answers yet, we see the Tseltal people working and talking together to build the answers. Moreover, by promoting and supporting social and solidarity economics — for example, through a cooperative of coffee growers — or by creating processes and projects specifically aimed at politically and economically empowering women or youth, the Bachajón Mission has already developed some ways to help the Tseltals face those challenges.

  There is another set of questions we ask ourselves as Jesuits: how much can we get involved in this struggle? How much should we? And how can we do it, without taking over a role that is rightfully theirs? That is, how can we  accompany and support their struggle, while strengthening their leadership?

  The answers, we believe, lie at our conviction that our main responsibility and purpose is to work so that the Tseltal people have the peaceful, dignified life they deserve. Therefore, we are bound to walk with them, encourage them and protect them as best as we can. We can and should put the Mission’s political capital at the service of the Tseltals.

  We can and should use our resources as Jesuits to bring national and international attention to the plight of the Tseltals, and make sure the government is held accountable for any and every act of abuse, even for those of omission. We can and should use our privileges of class, of race, and of ecclesial position and even our bodies to protect the physical, emotional and cultural safety of the Tseltals. We can and should take advantage of the Mission’s infrastructure to promote and encourage the processes, always respecting and strengthening the Tseltal leadership in each community.

  And we can and should accept our own political roles, in the Mission and in every community, to “cheer the hearts” of the people, to use a Tseltal expression, and provide words of support that let them know that they are not alone in their struggles, that we, and all the Jesuits in Mexico, walk beside them. That we believe, as they do, that they are capable of governing themselves. That we have seen them exercise their autonomy and use their traditions to solve conflicts in every community, or to generate and share wealth through different experiences in solidarity economics.

  In other words, we trust them. True to the Society of Jesus’ commitment with justice, as an inherent part of promoting our faith, we believe in the Tseltals as agents able to reach their autonomy. Our role is to support, cheer and encourage. And, maybe, to encourage them to reflect further on some issue or another, based on our experiences inside and outside the Bachajón region. Today, we assume the motto of the National Indigenous Congress: never again can we have a Mexico, any Mexico, without them, the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Because not only do they have a rich and wonderful past, they also deserve a rich and wonderful future.

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