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Ruiz, Marcos changing history in Mexico


By John Womack Jr.
The New Press, 372 pages, $17.95, paperback


Individuals who have the skills and vision to mold social forces make history. Think of the role of the founders of the great religions. Genghis Khan changed the world, as did Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and in our times Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.

John Womack identifies two individuals as the agents of historic change in today’s Mexico. In this brilliant analysis he shows how Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Subcomandante Marcos, independently of each other, read the signs of the times and changed the course of history.

The book consists of two parts, an introductory essay (59 pages) that sets the scene and sketches Ruiz’s background, followed by 32 historical readings that start with a contemporary account, written in 1545, of the conflict the first bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, created by his defense of the indigenous people in what is now Southern Mexico. A short introduction puts each text in historical perspective.

Ruiz came to Chiapas in 1960 without previous experience of indigenous culture. He shared the common assumptions of Mexicans, including Mexican church authorities. The indigenous were emotionally children to be loved as such but also to be guided. But his mind was not closed. A first visitation of his diocese challenged him.

“Through the real difficulties of his diocese,” Womack writes, “through some long suppressed powers in him that now came out and through the amazing first session of Vatican II [1962], he lost his sound complaisance toward ecclesiastic, economic and social hierarchs and began to sense God working on his own among the Indians.”

The result of patient years of listening and learning, both by the bishop and his associates and by the previously voiceless people, produced what Ruiz has called a toma de conciencia, a shock of recognition. The effect is summarized in two brief statements. The first is the challenge to him at the end of a 3-month study by 30 indigenous wise men whose advice he had sought. “Is your God interested only in souls or is he interested in bodies as well?” The second is in the catechism composed by the Tzeltal catechists he had trained: “We are looking for freedom. The Tzeltals of the selva [forest] announce the good news.”

By the late 1970s various left-wing groups had become aware of the impact of the consciousness-raising of Ruiz and his associates. The Mao-inspired Proletarian Line, which had been formed in the early 1970s by young university teachers and students in Mexico City, proposed to the bishop and his associates a division of territory: the diocese to concentrate on pastoral activity, the Proletarian Line to take charge of political organization.

It did not take long, however, for the diocese to discover that the strictly political organizing included the training of cadres for armed struggle. It quickly pulled back, but many catechists who had been recruited into the Proletarian Line continued secretly to support militancy. By this time some eight left-wing organizations were vying for control of the minds and hearts of the newly awakened people. The one that emerged as victor, the Forces of National Liberation — FLN — became the Zapatista organization with Marcos as its leader.

The historical readings, some of them translated from indigenous languages, provide a vision of Chiapas in the past as well as today that reveals a society full of energy and drive, striving always for “a life worth living,” that is far removed from the conventional stereotype.

Of particular interest is Womack’s analysis of the 15,000-word pastoral Ruiz presented to Pope John Paul II during his visit to Mexico in August 1993, just four months before the Zapatista rebellion. Knowing that an explosion was imminent, Ruiz called for a reading of the signs of the times, urged a new path, a pause for dialogue. He could not have said more without precipitating the events he feared. As it happened, he himself barely survived. The anger of the Mexican government and papal nuncio Girolamo Prigione would have forced his retirement in disgrace had not the rebellion occurred and made him the indispensable mediator.

Womack also throws light on the mystery of the survival of the Zapatistas into their fourth year of symbolically armed rebellion. Washington perhaps welcomes low-intensity warfare in Mexico, a hypothesis that “to many Americans may seem farfetched, but only if they ignore the history and contemporary dynamics of U.S.-Mexican relations.” The Pentagon, Womack suggests, is in fact using this crisis, disguised as a war on drugs, to build up Mexican armed forces to a level that threatens such tentative democracy as now exists.

Given these extraneous pressures and interventions, the struggle in Chiapas for a more just society may end up in the short term as did the similar efforts in Nicaragua in the 1980s. But the short term is not history, either in Mexico or in Nicaragua. New dynamic processes, in which Ruiz and Marcos serve as catalysts, are at work. With the acceleration of history we may not have to wait centuries for results.

Gary MacEoin may be reached at maceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999