March 10, 2000

Without A Bishop, Chiapas Indians May Be Martyrs In The Making

By Alberto Huerta

British writer Graham Greene once told me that the Catholic Church needed martyrs in order to survive. It comes as no surprise then that the Vatican recently announced the coming canonization of 28 Mexicans who died in the Cristero movement of seventy years ago, a period when President Plutarco Elias Calles persecuted the Church. But the Vatican announced another name too: Juan Diego, the 16th century Indian who witnessed the miraculous appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an historic moment that initiated large-scale indigenous conversions. I wonder if sainthood for Juan Diego will appease the Maya Indios in Chiapas, who are without a bishop.

At year's end, the Vatican reassigned Auxiliary Bishop Raul Vera Lopez to the far-away northern city of Saltillo. For five years, Vera Lopez had supported the policies of church accommodation to the indigenous expression of faith and their demands for social justice, policies set in place for decades by retiring Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz. It is a situation that makes me think of the Mexican writer Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes' novel El Indio which received Mexico's National Books prize in l935. In the novel's final scene, the wounded protagonist el Indio hunkers armed on craggy ground, watches the road and waits for the gente de razon — a euphemism for those of the civilized western world, to come and get him. As a friend in San Cristobal told me, El Indio is "haunted by the vision of an endless distrust." The decision to remove Vera breeds distrust anew.

The Vatican decision disconcerted many who had been working for peace, including the distinguished Chiapaneco poet Juan Banuelos, a member of the now-defunct National Commission for Intermediation in the Chiapas conflict between Mexican civil and military authorities and the indigenous Zapatista insurgents. Banuelos did not mask his bitterness: "We had hoped they would leave Don Raul (Vera) to allow the continuation of Bishop Ruiz's work. The future of the indigenous people and Chiapas now becomes more somber. The Vatican is following the savage policies of capitalism that is disinterested in anyone who does not produce for it or consume. So the Maya Indians have no right to live, do not count and should not be taken into account. It seems an exaggeration to put it in this way, but this is what is happening."

Mexican church authorities including Papal Nuncio Justo Mullor insist Vera's reassignment had nothing to do with pressures from the government, military or other groups. In the last year of his term, President Ernesto Zedillo has appeared reluctant to bloody his hands with the Chiapas conflict, although he has deported foreign clergy and press, and the state is militarized with the presence of half of Mexico's standing army. But Zedillo seems to want to leave it to the winner of this summer's elections to find a way out of the embarrassing political quagmire.

Meanwhile, what will the Vatican do about the key empty bishop's seat?

There is a sense among some Indians I talked to in Chiapas that the Vatican is punishing them for unknown reasons. One told me he felt as if the Church, like Pontius Pilate, had chosen to wash its hands of Chiapas. "We are indios. When has anyone ever really cared about us?"

With no protection from the Catholic Church, this flock of indios waits for a slaughter to come. Ironically, they may be subject to canonization a hundred years from now.

Alberto Huerta, a Catholic priest who visits Chiapas, says the Vatican's moves are troubling. Rev. Huerta teaches in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of San Francisco.

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