Why do they hate us?--Reflections on Chiapas and Florida
Allan Burns
January 1998

At the very beginning of November I was in San Cristobal de las Casas teaching video and oral history interviewing to indigenous people and anthropologists from the region. One of our interviews was with a weaver, a Tzotzil Maya woman from one of the towns outside of San Cristobal. The working group that was doing the interviews was interested in documenting her life story, how she became a weaver, how she was inspired to weave, and how her weaving helped her survive the poverty and oppression of Chiapas. All at once she turned and looked directly at the camera. "Why do they hate us so much?" she asked. There was a pause because nobody knew what to say. Nobody could really answer her question. Nobody could put into words any response that would approximate the sadness and depth of what she asked.

The massacre in the small town of Acteal of 26 women, 9 children and 10 men on December 22nd is one more event that is turning winters in Chiapas into times of distress. The Mexican Commission on Human Rights reported that perhaps three of the victims were alive when they were thrown onto trucks with the other cadavers and taken to San Cristobal. Since the massacre the governor of the state has stepped down, the mayor of Acteal has been arrested for complicity in the killings, and the interior minister of Mexico has resigned. Thousands of federal police, military troops, and local police have moved into Chiapas and tightened the institutional grip on life there

The massacre of Acteal is related to the increasing activism as well as increasing tensions brought about by the Zapatista uprising that occurred four years ago. Acteal, like many communities, was not a Zapatista stronghold, but Zapatista political initiatives had been embraced by one faction of the community. Afraid of losing their control on the countryside, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico) had been supporting paramilitary groups in those towns like Acteal to confront the new Zapatista inspired activism. For some of us who live far from Chiapas, the Zapatista uprising is a heroic struggle of indigenous people against an oppressive system. But the uprising has also exaggerated ethnic differences, and led to the militarization of the state of Chiapas. There are more violent factional disputes, and more open hatred in families, in towns, and in the culture of the Maya. Does this mean that the Zapatista uprising is to blame? No. But the Zapatista movement has contributed to the increasingly strong lines that have been drawn between people in Chiapas. Since 1994 Chiapas has experienced an increase in prejudice and discrimination, the exaggeration of ethnic stereotypes, and the closing of the few cultural spaces available for dialogue and change.

I was in Chiapas at the invitation of colleagues at the major social science research center there (CIESAS-SURESTE or the Center for Advanced Studies of Social Anthropology of the Southeast) to conduct a training workshop for a group of indigenous cultural activists, including weavers, photographers, and writers as well as anthropologists working in the region. Soon after the Zapatista uprising in 1994, CIESAS had developed many projects in the regions of Chiapas where the Zapatistas had gained influence. One of their projects was with Mam Maya people who organized themselves into organic coffee cooperatives and have since successfully challenged the traditional structure of the powerful coffee industry of southern Mexico. They did this by changing the conditions of serfdom of indigenous coffee pickers with a model based on small producers who sell directly to the international gourmet and organic markets. Their coffee can be purchased, by the way, through http://mmink.com/mmink/dossiers/cafemam.html.

Another project CIESAS developed was on spouse abuse in indigenous communities. A third was an applied project to bring traditional medical healers together into an association, and a fourth was to train some 1,400 new teachers who had been elected in small communities throughout Chiapas. This last project reflected the evolution of the Zapatista uprising to a broader new social movement for community change rather than just a movement against the Mexican government. Villages in the state that were not controlled by the Zapatistas directly still used the uprising as a way to challenge the demagoguery and anti indigenous educational system of the government. But after electing new primary teachers, the communities needed a way to ensure that the new teachers could teach. The normal teacher training avenues such as graduating from normal schools were not open to these new teachers, so CIESAS was asked to provide teacher training. Students and faculty from the University of Florida had also begun working with CIESAS and other research centers. Internships in health, a project on little known crops of the Maya, and a tour led by a curator from the Florida Museum of Natural History to weaving areas of Chiapas complemented the activities of the St. Augustine Catholic Church's efforts to work in the area. Seen from within this research center, it looked as if there was a growing space for change in the state of Chiapas.

But the look in the eyes of the weaver and her disturbing question suggested that the initial euphoria and success of the Zapatista led changes of Chiapas were quickly being smothered. One colleague of CIEASAS, who is also a musician, told me that it was becoming increasingly difficult to work between ethnic groups. Even the musical scene of Chiapas was strictly delineated between indigenous and non-indigenous musicians and musical groups with little room for musicians like her whose skills were in working between different traditions rather than within only one. Another colleague in CIESAS and I had a long discussion about family violence and spouse abuse in Chiapas. Her research showed that physical violence against women in Chiapas was widespread, more so than in other parts of Mexico.

While I was in Chiapas, bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raul Vera were were attacked in the municipality of Tila. The Mexican national newspaper, La Jornada, reported that three people of the bishops party were severely injured by members of a government supported group, whose name, "Peace and Justice," sounds like something from a George Orwell novel. A week before I was in Chiapas at least ten homosexual men were assasinated in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Death and violence was spreading on the heels of the small opening in the society of Chiapas that occurred in the year of 1994.

Now between five and ten thousand people are in the towns of X'oyep and Polho', in ad-hoc refugee centers around Acteal. They are internal refugees from the fear of attacks by paramilitary groups, the voracious appetite of new military barracks for land and resources, and the fear of living in this uncertain time. The Jornada quoted one refugee as saying, "We're here because we suffer. Because there is no clear authority that can be seen, not federal, not state, nor municipal. Because they don't want this thing to be resolved. That's why the paramilitary is so strong. We left our neighborhoods because the "Priistas" (members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico) or as it is, the paramilitary, have threatened us with death." (La Jornada, 11 January, 1998).

"Why do they hate us?" Who they are is far from certain. They are factions of indigenous people in the same village: Catholics who hate evangelical Christians, evangelical Christians who hate Catholics. The killings of Acteal were carried out by one of these groups against the other. They are the members of the official party of Mexico, the PRI whose control over Mexico has already been lost in the major cities and now is being threatened in the countryside. They are the "autochthonous" non-indigenous people of San Cristobal de las Casas who blame outsiders like religious workers and anthropologists from other parts of Mexico for inciting peaceful Mayas to violence.

The weaver who was with us in the workshop is unable to make anything near a living wage through her weavings. Some of the blouses or huipiles she makes take up to six months to weave, working five or six hours a day. A huipil of high quality might be sold at the market in San Cristobal for $120, but this represents a wage of only about twenty cents an hour. Tourists like the beauty of Mayan woven art, but don't want to pay prices that reflect the amount of work invested. Instead they look for "good deals" and inadvertently contribute to the impoverishment of the weavers. Zapatista theorists and many reformers argue that poverty can only be reduced in Chiapas if indigenous people either charge up to a thousand dollars for their huipiles or find other work. Some people from Chiapas have moved to Florida and now work in the vegetable and citrus industries of south Florida. When I interviewed some of them in Immokalee we talked about immigration policy and deportations. "Why do they hate us?" they asked me.

Allan Burns is an anthropologist at the University of Florida who runs the Yucatan exchange program. He has worked in Mexico for the past 25 years on issues of Mayan linguistics, history, and culture.

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