e-mail us
Indigenous want share in Mexico’s future

By Beth Dotson
Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Mexico City

Indian women wearing thick braids the length of their backs sell stone jewelry or hand-sewn dolls from their blankets on the sidewalks and plazas of Mexico City’s town square. It’s a vibrant place where tourists who fumble through guidebooks stand amid dozens of Mexicans trying to earn a living among the architectural symbols of Mexico’s history -- symbols that illustrate how the country continues to fight with itself to shape a prosperous future.

The Metropolitan Cathedral, where the first stone was laid in 1567, is at once both a sign of the power of the Catholic church and an all-too-real symbol of its failing. The magnificent edifice is sinking, and heroic efforts are being taken to keep it stable. Behind the cathedral is the Templo Mayor, a double pyramid that served as the capital of the Aztec kingdom before the Spanish started building on top of it. Both are within a short walk of the National Palace, on another side of the square.

All three elements of Mexican culture -- indigenous, church and state -- figured repeatedly in the conversations of 50 journalists who gathered here in late September. The journalists, primarily from the United States, Canada and Mexico, met a few miles away from the Zocalo to discuss the effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- NAFTA -- on their countries.

They listened to the stories of grassroots leaders, editors, human rights workers and teachers -- stories that strayed far from the direct economic impact of NAFTA to themes the speakers considered more important, like continuing human rights abuses in Mexico and the cultural chaos that is dominating their country.

The chaos throbs in the town square, as it does elsewhere throughout the country. Protesters sit in the beds of two pick-up trucks behind banners that shout: “Don’t seize foreign cars. Nationalization, yes. Party of the Authentic Mexican Revolution.”

The protest speaks to Mexico’s continuing tumult and the government’s campaign to tax foreign cars that are brought into the country. If someone can afford a car at all, it’s cheaper to buy one in the United States and drive it home than to buy it in Mexico. Or to buy a car from someone who has brought one in from the North. The government wants the practice stopped or it wants its cut in the form of a tax.

But most of the vendors on the square are struggling just to put food on the table and shoes on their feet.

A teenage peddler, who wears earrings in his eyebrow, nose and lip, watches. Not far away, a young man about the same age dances to a drumbeat in beaded indigenous dress, hoping for a few donations. Another man approaches visitors at the temple, offering a paper that explains the ancient Aztec symbols.

Their creativity thrives on the very land where the church and government tried to bury the indigenous culture. But the earth and streets still rumble with the hopes of the people for a country of their own, as scaffolding holds up the sinking cathedral.

‘Us’ and ‘them’ conflict

Inside the National Palace, Diego Rivera’s murals illustrate the violence that foreigners brought to this land hundreds of years ago. His painted tale praises the prosperous, productive indigenous nation, muting any brutality that was also a part of that early culture. Instead, he illuminates the savagery of the conquerors, from Cortez to Maximillian and various church figures. History, as he sees it, depicts a struggle between the natives and invaders that ends with his own idea of utopia -- Karl Marx organizing the workers -- rather than Mexico’s true history.

Today there is still an “us” and “them” conflict in Mexico. Ordinary citizens are concerned about the way their politicians, now Mexican themselves, but still Mexicans who are heavily influenced from the outside, choose to emphasize the financial prosperity that can come from international trade agreements and globalization while ignoring the suffering of their own people. As one grassroots worker said, “Mexicans have good hearts. The government doesn’t.”

One of the good hearts belongs to Rogelio Padilla, a man who has gathered public and private resources to build a better life for the children he sees living and working on the streets of Guadalajara. The children, he said, “deserve a different country in which the decisions will be made for the happiness of the people.”

Padilla is not waiting for politicians to do something about the problems he sees. In 1988, he founded the Movement to Help Abandoned Minors (MAMA is the acronym in Spanish). MAMA works to defend the rights of those on the streets. “Especially, we are worried about the life of childhood put aside by society,” he said. MAMA works with hundreds of children whose lives illustrate what he means.

Blanca, for example, was 9 and working on the streets when she arrived at MAMA’s school for child workers. She couldn’t read or write.

Alberto lived on the streets, then in a government institution before he arrived at The Ranch, MAMA’s long-term home for boys. He doesn’t say much about his previous life where he had to work for food and avoid getting beaten up on the streets.

Manuel left home to earn money but fell into drugs while living on the streets. He’s been sleeping at MAMA’s night shelter off and on for three years, trying to overcome his addiction and change his life. “No man or woman is born 100 percent good or bad from childhood. It depends on the circumstances in which they develop,” Padilla said.

He doesn’t believe the parents hold total responsibility for what happens to their children. Rather, the problems of childhood reflect the type of country Mexico is. “Problems with kids reflect our debts and inabilities and political decisions that have not been made,” Padilla said.

At the conference in Mexico City, journalist and Jesuit priest Enrique Maza characterizes the problems of the country in a slightly different way. He says that the indigenous people have never been included in the law-making process of the country and today half of the total population lacks basic necessities. “The Mexican reality is one of injustice,” Maza told the gathered journalists.

Maza identified the clash of values between the people and the government. While politicians are telling the people agreements like NAFTA will bring more jobs and prosperity to the country, the people, Maza said, respond that money and the resulting individualism it brings are not what they want. Mexicans value family, solidarity, people, sharing.

Flor Diaz de Leon agrees and is contributing her personal and professional efforts to preserving the Mexican culture she values. Diaz de Leon is part of the founding board of Revista Surgir, a new magazine that seeks to cover the culture of humanity that the staff doesn’t want to see disappear under the weight of politics, corruption and capitalism.

Different opportunities

But it isn’t just Diaz de Leon’s work that she dedicates to the cause. As a wife and mother of two sons, she takes them away from the video games and television, seen here in some quarters as cultural icons from the North that threaten to homogenize the world. She prefers to spend a day with them viewing Rufino Tamayo’s art or visiting one of Mexico City’s more than 300 museums.

Diaz de Leon is aware that all children don’t have those opportunities. In fact, all children will not grow up with the ability to read her articles. The reading level in Mexico is low, she said, with the average Mexican reading only half a book a year.

Alicia Ramos is also waging a battle to preserve culture. A teacher from the state of Michoacan, Ramos attended the journalism conference with another teacher and two students. They came from a village in the mountains so remote that they don’t receive daily news of what’s happening in the world. The poverty is so deep that even the teachers are thin because there is little food available. “There’s no drinking water, no electricity. … They [the local people] don’t know if the planet is round or not,” Ramos said.

This is the kind of place where politicians can get votes with cornmeal, and people do not believe they can do anything to change the course of their country. “I have to convince my Mexican brothers and sisters that their opinions and ideas are needed because they have been told for so long that what they say doesn’t count,” Ramos said.

Yet, Ramos and fellow teacher Alberto Pastor dedicate themselves, because of their faith, to working in this impoverished community where they hope to help students gain skills they need to improve lives while preserving the culture. They work on projects in human rights, communications and the environment. Bringing their students to the conference was their first step in establishing a communications network for the region.

Ramos told the journalists, “In the name of my people, I say that we want to share in globalization, not just commercially with foods and technology, but we want to share the beauty and nobility of our traditions and the philosophy we have and our way of living our faith.”

Faith, said a taxi driver in the city of Cuernavaca, is what adults should be teaching children. Before the driver will discharge his customer from the United States, he delivers a lecture on the drug culture that is absorbing more of Mexico’s young people. They no longer just sniff glue; now it is easy to get cocaine. Young people need religion, he says, to keep them on the straight path.

Cherishing their faith

What many Mexicans cherish is their faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mexicans in more than one place said the same thing about the function of the Catholic church in contemporary Mexican society. “We are Mexicans first, Guadalupenos second, Catholics third.”

While many Mexicans may not be up to date on their Catholic catechism, they do build floats to carry on pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Families gather to attend Mass, and individuals walk across the plaza on their knees as a form of sacrifice.

Our Lady’s influence is evident throughout the country. In the neighborhood of San Lucas outside Cuernavaca, a shrine sits at a corner of one of the streets that is frequently flooded. The faithful have left flowers and photos asking for favors or thanking her for her intervention.

This is a neighborhood that appears to need intervention from somewhere. Unemployment is high because the nearby factories, including automaker Nissan, have eliminated jobs. Land has been given over to building and development, so people don’t grow as much of their own food as in the past.

On any parcel of free ground between houses, people have planted corn. When the rain feeds the corn, there is also danger of flooding the creek that carries industrial pollution, causing skin rashes and respiratory problems in a neighborhood where people cannot afford extensive medical care.

Celia Guadarrana and Estella Bello Soto don’t dwell on their problems, but rather tell their story and continue working for what they believe in. Guadarrana and Soto have kept their recycling center open even though their money, mostly from foundation funding, has run out.

The women opened the center hoping to clean up their neighborhood and provide jobs. The cleanup has been slow, and the jobs are only volunteer positions at this time. “We really carry out our work for the love it,” Guadarrana said.

The garbage in their center reflects the influence of their northern neighbors -- empty Pepsi and Coke bottles, paint drums from DuPont, plastic containers that once held Philadelphia Cream Cheese. But when they sort it and sell it, they don’t earn enough money to pay for gas for the recycling truck and salaries for the workers. For example, Guadarrana said, they get 80 pesos (about $8) for one ton of glass.

They had tried another moneymaking activity -- opening a bakery. Ten women and two men began the project that ended with the men suing the women to take over the business. The men wanted a larger share of the profits, simply because they were men. The women had put more work into the business and wouldn’t give in to them.

Soto’s concern for the life of Mexican women carries over into the women’s health center she is helping to open. She says it is a move toward creating better living conditions for families. It will concentrate on women’s health because wives and mothers usually care for themselves last, after they have taken care of the needs of the rest of their family.

The women who founded the center have looked into their history for a strong female example to follow. They named their center “The Malitzin House of Health,” after the indigenous woman who was a translator and mistress to Cortez. She lived with one foot in the world of the conquerors and one foot in the world of the conquered, acting as a spokesperson between both. Soto sees her as a heroine.

Journalists at the conference in Mexico City also try to bridge two worlds. “We need to think about how we can create an economic model that includes everyone,” said Rafael Alvarez, who works for the Jesuit-run Miguel Augustin Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City. “How can we put economic development and social justice together?”

One thing that Alvarez and the others who work at the Human Rights Center work for is the safety of journalists. “Forced disappearance of people for political reasons is a reality in Mexico,” he said. “Journalism is a high-risk profession.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 1998 in Mexico there were two reported cases of journalists who were killed, three threatened, five attacked and four harassed.

Fr. Enrique Maza said, “If it was known in other countries how the Mexican press works, it would be humiliating.

“In Mexico, there is no possibility of hearing the truth or saying the truth,” Maza said. Proceso, the national political magazine that Maza cofounded, never uses public figures as sources because of their unreliability.

International help

Alvarez and others at the conference called upon their colleagues from the North to write about the reality of Mexican life in their publications because of the influence those articles can have in Mexico. “It seems like the [President Ernesto] Zedillo government understands things better in English than Spanish,” Alvarez said.

Rocio Culebro, of Amnesty International’s Mexico section, agreed. “We need the help of international organizations and other countries because Mexico doesn’t take human rights seriously.”

Yet this is a time when politicians could begin to consider alternative points of view more thoughtfully because the presidential elections are in July. Many citizens have hope that this will be a truly democratic election in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- PRI -- which has won the past 11 presidential elections, is not guaranteed to win.

Another taxi driver, this one in Guadalajara, listens to political talk radio as he drives. Politicians are corrupt, the taxi driver said. But he holds hope that things can change. “I am Mexican. I must have hope.”

Fr. Eleazar Lopez , who works with an indigenous mission organization, has hope that the new leaders will consider the needs of all Mexicans instead of the directives of economics. He is especially interested in seeing the government abandon the historic tendency to suppress the indigenous people, who have not disappeared after all these years. “The society has placed a mask on the Indians, and they don’t want to look at them directly,” he said.

It is time, Lopez said, to recognize the rights of the indigenous people to participate in national decisions. Regardless of how the politicians feel about that, Lopez said, the indigenous people are saying there will never again be a Mexico without them. If they can gather their voices and make them heard, this could be a historic moment of change. “It’s a moment when we can have an influence on history,” Lopez said. “When we can have more dignity for human beings.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999