Reflections on a trip to Chiapas, February 2015, by Christine Eber

Christine Eber is an anthropologist, writer and artist who has worked with Maya communities in Chiapas for 30 years. Her most recent book (co-authored with Antonia), The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico: Pass Well over the Earth is published by the University of Texas (2012) and is available here.

“Winning does not tempt this man. This is how he grows; by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.”

maya_normalistas_chiapas                            From “The Man Watching” by Rainer Maria Rilke

“We’re going to win!” I often heard my Maya friends say when I visited with them around their home fires in the 1990s. They were filled with hope in the aftermath of the Zapatista uprising. After centuries of being forgotten — remembered only when their labor was needed in fields or factories — they had finally made the Mexican government listen to their demands for justice and equality. During those years I was swept up in the surge forward and tried to accompany my friends from afar.

It is March 2015 and I have just returned from a trip to Chiapas after being away two years. Reuniting with Maya weavers and students I was moved as I always am by their quiet courage and perseverance. But this time I couldn’t contain my anger at the Mexican government for treating these people as obstacles to “progress.” Just a few months ago, 43 young indigenous men from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, studying to become rural teachers, disappeared while protesting the government’s neglect of their school. These students were on almost everyone’s minds when I was in Chiapas.

During my visit, tears poured out of me when I least expected. I am much older now and was sick much of my trip. But my biggest obstacle wasn’t age or illness; it was my inability to let go of the expectation that social change will necessarily involve my friends’ liberation from oppression.

Every day I was in Chiapas I kept asking myself how economic conditions could seem worse than when I first came to highland Chiapas in the 1980s. A couple things were different this year than in previous years. Two major crops failed. The corn crop suffered from lack of rain at a crucial time in its growth. Most households I visited had only half a burlap bag of corn, enough to feed the family for one month. Corn still constitutes the bulk of people’s diets and cash is needed to buy what cannot be produced. Where will they get the money to buy the rest of the corn for the year? Not from coffee, the other crop that failed. Throughout Chiapas and as far away as Honduras, coffee was hit by a plague called “la roya.” Most small farmers lost their entire crop, leaving them to sell their labor or products that they make in order to earn cash to buy corn and other necessities. For women who weave textiles, selling their work has become an important source of revenue. But not all women weave or know how to make artisan products. What is left? With scarce opportunities for employment in Chiapas, migrating to the United States or to farms in distant parts of Mexico or cities in the Maya Riviera has become a major survival strategy.

When I was in Chiapas in the 1980s, the Mexican government had not yet fully withdrawn subsidies and dismantled public works projects to pay back its foreign debt. Today these are all but gone and small farmers have little support for their land-based lifeways and must contend with misguided development projects. A few years ago, the people of San Pedro Chenalhó, where most of my friends live, mounted a well-organized protest against the government’s plans to build a rural city in their township. They succeeded in stopping the city from being built while knowing that any day they may need to defend their lands and lives again.

My best friend, Antonia, who joined a Zapatista support base in 1994, told me not long ago that despite hearing others in the movement speak of “winning” she doesn’t think about that. She just tries to live each day with respect for the earth, plants, animals, and her fellow humans, without being preoccupied about the future. She accepts that she can’t end poverty or control forces such as globalization. All that she can do is work with others in her community to strengthen their connections to the land, the ancestors, and each other, one day at a time.

Antonia’s philosophy may sound like something out of self-help literature. It does share elements with these, but one thing is distinct in how Antonia puts her ideas into practice. She moves through life as part of a something larger than herself. She belongs to several community groups that sustain her and that she in turn sustains. These include a Zapatista support base, baking, weaving, and general store cooperatives, and the Catholic community in her hamlet that draws its strength from Catholic social justice teachings. Antonia would feel bereft without these groups. They help her imagine and enact a better world.

Back home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I reintegrate into my more solitary existence while doing what I can to assist Maya weavers and students. As I come to terms with my limitations I find inspiration in poems such as Rilke’s, “The Man Watching,” and these words from the Nigerian poet, Ben Okri:

We are greater than our despair.

The negative aspects of humanity

Are not the most real and authentic;

The most authentic thing about us

Is our capacity to create, to overcome,

To endure, to transform, to love,

And to be greater than our suffering.

We are best defined by the mystery

That we are still here, and can still rise

Upwards, still create better civilisations,

That we can face our raw realities,

And that we will survive

The greater despair

That the greater future might bring.

From “Mental Flight” by Ben Okri (1999)

For more information about the organizations I work with on behalf of Maya weavers and students, please see http://www.weaving-for-justice.org and http://www.mayaedufound.org, or email Christine: ceber@nmsu.edu

Above photo of Carlos, Patricia and Aminadad, Maya normal school students supported by the Maya Educational Foundation. Photo by Carol Vanier.

Q & A with Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith is a freelance writer and photographer whose work can be found in the Denver Post, Santa Fe New Mexican, Denver Business Journal, New Mexico Business Journal, El Paso Inc., New Mexico Mercury and La Voz Colorado among others.

********************************************************************************************************************************************************

By Virginia Isaad

  1. Juarez has a reputation as an impoverished war-torn city and yet you’ve written about and visited places like Vision in Action, El Árbol de Vida, and Reto a la Juventud. What do you think about the fact that such places exist in the midst of such violence and poverty?

What I discovered some five years ago is that there are a handful of very heroic and dedicated people who are committed to helping others, no matter what the danger to them might be. My first encounter was with a Mexican woman named Martina Ontiveros who had lived in Santa Fe but went to Palomas to live in and volunteer at an orphanage named La Casa de Amor Para Ninos. When I asked her if she was afraid – it was very dangerous in Palomas at the time – she simply said that this was her mission. The same is true for people like Elenita Porras at Reto a la Juventud or Pastor Galvan or Dr. Vicente Pantoja or many others I have met. It’s their personal dedication that keeps these programs going.

  1. What stands out to you the most when you visit such places? Why?

The physical conditions of these places is usually not what we would expect in the US but the spirit and the sense of optimism and caring is always extraordinary and I very much enjoy being a part of it and also trying to publicize it.

  1. Through the years, how has the government’s involvement changed, if at all? Has there been an increase in donations and awareness through the media?

I don’t see any additional government presence in the areas I go to. Traveling through poor colonias in Juarez, for example, I just don’t see the presence of whatever social services they might have. Pretty much all I see is the presence of these private, non profit humanitarian groups.

That’s a neutral comment, suggesting, for example, that the government does little for the poor. On the negative side, one on going frustration is the way the Mexican customs officials hinder the work of these organizations by often blocking them from bringing in food or clothing or building materials for housing construction.

  1. Have you ever seen or heard of a place like Vision in Action? What is it about patients caring for one another that seems to work in this case?

I have probably visited Vision in Action 60 or 70 times in the last 4 plus years and am always amazed at how effective many of the patients – some like Elia who can’t even talk coherently – are at calming and consoling others. It’s evidence that even people who are deeply disturbed or have committed serious crimes can and do respond to affection and an environment of caring. This is an important lesson for our US mental facilities where there are very strict rules about patients are allowed to do.

The basis of this is Pastor Galvan and his insistence that his patients be treated with dignity and the many things he does to treat them as we would treat people without illnesses. For example, I was there on February 14 when several patients got married.

  1. Do you think if organizations like Vision in Action had governmental aid that they would sustain the system as is? What you seem to be most in awe of is how the patients help each other but if more money were to come in that would probably change. How do you feel about that?

I was a member of the Colorado House of Representatives many years and Chairman of the budget committee. As a result, I came to know many state programs in the social services area. Although funding was always important, what set the really good ones apart was leadership, not money. Vision in Action would stay the same if it had government support but only if it had the leadership of someone like a Galvan. How do you find that leadership? That’s the tough question.

Last, I would add that these characteristics – providing work which makes people feel productive, organizing the same kinds of events that “normal” people have such as the wedding I mentioned, showing affection, focusing on dignity – seem intangible as compared to, for example, therapy sessions in US facilities but they work. So Galvan is not only responsible for the survival of his patients but he has also given us some new insights on what it takes to change human behavior.

Read Morgan Smith’s previous guest post on Vision in Action here

Work, pray, love…in Ciudad Juárez By Megan Cullip

This week’s guest posting is from Megan Cullip. A chaplain and mental health professional, she wrote this reflection on her time spent at Vision en Accion, the shelter for homeless, mentally disabled people in Juárez, Mexico.

_____________________________________________

In 2008, when I was in my junior year of college, I saw a YouTube video about El Pastor, a man in Juárez, Mexico who had built an asylum in the Chihuahuan desert for those who are drug addicted, mentally ill, or developmentally disabled. I had a lump in my throat within three minutes of the video. I always had both an intellectual fascination and a tender-heartedness toward people with atypical brains. El Pastor, in the video, said that people referred to the residents at the asylum as: “human trash.” But what I saw, when I went there, was far from a dump.

Fast-forward about six years, the mental asylum in Juárez had been cemented in the back of my mind for some time. I had a deeply passionate compulsion to go.

I work in a state psychiatric hospital in the United States. We serve a wide variety of individuals with a spectrum of mental health issues: schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression, substance abuse, personality disorders. Because we are a state institution, we receive ample government funding. We are a multi-million dollar facility with about 1,200 staff members and, on average, 420 patients. We have professionals with lots of education and specialized experience. We have access to enough meds for everyone to receive whatever dose the doctor deems necessary, daily.

But we have codes daily. We have much conflict, patients fighting patients, patients fighting staff, patients harming themselves. We consider emergency restraints, where a patient has to be restrained in a chair or bed, “a treatment fail.” And it is.
Our patients are scheduled to attend groups throughout the day: psycho-education, medication management, spirituality group, individual counseling, music therapy etc.
But the patients rarely work with their hands, though some do get the opportunity to work in the greenhouse or the copy center.

Vision in Action has done something incredible without having millions of dollars to spend, nor teams of specialized professionals. I remember walking into the kitchen at the asylum. I was immediately handed a spicy dish of pork smothered in sauce and a plate of cheese quesadillas. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, the ladies and gentlemen who worked in the kitchen would offer me food-refried bean burritos with avocado slices, bottles of soda. They delivered their hospitality and quality cooking with broad smiles. They make 360 meals a day, and they don’t work in shifts.

During the day, people are working. They are cleaning, cooking, building, helping other low functioning patients perform their daily living tasks. When I was there, a new patient named Monica was dropped off from the local hospital. The other patients were at the gate waiting to receive her. She was placed in a cell for observation. She was despondent, when I asked her how she was. Monica appeared the same way many of our patients do upon their arrival at the hospital. But, as I looked around at the other patients at Vision in Action, I saw Monica’s potential. Monica would not meet with a treatment team. She would not be scheduled for groups. But I would not be surprised if, as I write this, she is putting her hand to cleaning, or laundry, or any of the other options. I wouldn’t be surprised if another patient is making friends with her and helping her adjust to this strange place of dignity and hospitality in the desert.

I had the privilege to speak at length with the medical doctor who works hard (for free) to try and give the patients the best quality of life possible. He showed me the supply of Haldol and Klonopin and other psychotropic medications that he locks in a tiny room in the asylum, out of reach from patients. If I were to take my own personal medicine cabinet, stuff it with psychotropic meds, and multiply it by three, that would be the maximum amount of medication that I found at the asylum. It was clearly not enough for 120 people, and definitely not enough for a consistent daily medication routine. The doctor told me that sometimes he has to cut one Haldol pill in half to serve two patients. It’s not enough. It’s inconsistent.

There is not a doubt in my mind that medication is helpful. And Vision in Action lacks the appropriate amount.

But there is also no question about the “success” (if you can ever talk about success when you talk about people) of this asylum. I did not see misery there. I saw sickness and poverty, yes. But I saw joy and community. I saw faith. I saw people who poured themselves out for others. I saw an energetic man in black slacks and a black blazer, named El Pastor. I saw him share the story and fundraise and care for his people, everyday crossing the border, praying to Jesus. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, when he marched to Montgomery during the civil rights movement, said: “I felt my feet were praying.” This is what I saw El Pastor, and all of those who help Vision and Action, doing.

Throughout the week I met many people involved in many different things: art dealers, curious givers, and a man with a landscaping business building an irrigation system for the asylum on his own dime. These people came and went, like the wind passing through from different directions. My last afternoon at the asylum, a pastor from Oklahoma came to pick up blankets. The asylum had extra blankets that they wanted to donate. The pastor from Oklahoma was going to take these blankets to natives on a reservation, who lived in caves. The poor were donating to the poor.

At Vision in Action, I saw a lot of my own values at work: faith, community, hard work, preserving human dignity. Many of my coworkers at the hospital feel similarly as I do about patient care and best practices. But the system is very overwhelming, with a lot of red tape and the like. It is frustrating. Change comes slowly. In many ways, it seems, we are slaves to liability. We are under fear of litigation or scrutiny from authorities. It is hard and almost unfair to compare a large state psychiatric hospital in America with a small faith-based asylum in the deserts of Mexico. My hope for state psychiatric hospitals in the US is that they would look a little more like Vision in Action. I hope that patients are allowed to use their hands, to do good work. I hope that everyone treats each other with dignity, treating people as whole people and not diagnoses’ on a page. I hope that programming and schedules would be seen as one of many tools and not a prescription that will magically heal every brain and heart. I hope that staff, at the end of the day, will be able to utter: “I felt my feet were praying.”

———

Megan Cullip works as a chaplain at a state psychiatric institution in the United States. She can be reached at megancullip@gmail.com

Q & A with Jason McGahan

Jason McGahan is an investigative reporter who covers organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico and the United States. His special investigative report “Drugs in Chicago” was awarded a 2014 Peter Lisagor Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Chicago Society of Professional Journalists. His work has appeared in Vice, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, Time, Texas Observer, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, The LA Times, and in Spanish in Proceso, M-X, SinEmbargo, and Spleen! Journal. Follow him @JasonMcGahan

By Virginia Isaad
 You recently wrote about anti-clericalism and the murders of priests in Tierra Caliente. Do you see the violence against priests escalating or do you think these are isolated to certain areas? 
Centro Católico Multimedia tabulated eight murders of Catholic priests and two forcible disappearances since the start of the Enrique Pena Nieto presidency in December 2012. I wrote about the Dec 21 murder of Father Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta. In the course of my reporting, I learned that Father Gregorio was the fourth priest murdered in the region of La Tierra Caliente since 2009, not counting two students at a Catholic seminary who were also murdered. Another priest was wounded, and yet another was kidnapped and managed to escape with his life through a very fortuitous incident that distracted his kidnappers. When my story about the priests of La Tierra Caliente came out, Chivis, the administrator of the news site Borderland Beat, commented that priests have also been murdered in Tamaulipas and Veracruz. So the danger does not appear to be isolated to any one part of Mexico.

The slogan for Ayotzinapa is, as you mentioned, “the cradle of social consciousness.” do you believe the cartels were trying to send a specific message by going after the 43 students?

I think the problem with the Ayotzinapa case is the lack of a verifiable explanation from the PGR as to what happened that night. Even though the massacre is more than 5 months old, the story is still developing, the search for the students continues, and highly qualified professional investigators continue to examine the evidence A major break in the case is liable to happen at any time. Certainly, the Ayotzinapa students are known for their political activism. Part of the reason the abduction of the 43 students resonated so strongly with the Mexican public was that the student victims had no ties to organized crime. The truly mobbed-up elements of the Mexican political class, and here I am thinking of someone like the First Lady of Iguala, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, tend to keep an especially virulent form of disdain for political idealism. They don’t understand it, they don’t speak the same language. At this point, what we can interpret about the “message” of the Ayotzinapa massacre is that three students can be murdered (one of whose corpse was found with the face sliced off and the eyes plucked out) and forty-three forcibly disappeared in the downtown area of a mid-sized Mexican city, without legal consequences for most, if any, of the individuals responsible for the crime.
From priests to young social activists/students, the violence knows no bounds. How do you feel the impassioned protests and heightened attention have affected the war against drugs? 

I think the protests have inspired individual Mexicans to risk taking a stand against the impunity of organized crime in Mexico. The parents of the disappeared students from Aytozinapa have played the most decisive role in that respect. Thousands of Mexican parents have walked the proverbial mile in their shoes, have seen their children disappeared in recent years. But other parents were too afraid of reprisals to demand answers, much less to take matters like the search or investigation into their own hands, the way the parents of the Ayotzinapa students have. They carry a tremendous moral authority in Mexico, both for the pain they have endured and the courage they have displayed in demanding justice. The parents have set an example that others are following, to take a crisis into one’s own hands and to challenge the climate of impunity that prevails in the Mexican justice system.

 

In your article about U.S. visas you talk about informants getting sideways: “Get sideways” is cop slang for breaking the law. It is most commonly applied to informants who want to have the thing both ways. They want the benefits of being an informant and the income from doing something illegal” How often would you say this occurs and how has the U.S. dealt with it? 
In my investigations, it seems as though the agencies of the United States Government charged with combating organized crime invariably seek to identify and enlist the help of insiders –criminals or corrupt public servants– as a way to study the architecture of a given criminal organization. Any DEA agent, in a moment of candor, will admit that confidential informants are the bread-and-butter of any investigation. Much more important, in the grand scheme, than things like electronic surveillance or wiretaps. What I found, in the investigation of mine that you reference in your question, is that the higher up in the chain of command that investigators reach for their informants, the better position the agents are in to influence the outcome of a conflict, like the turf war in Ciudad Juarez. I wrote about a situation where high-level traffickers and enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel in Chihuahua were provided with visas to enter the United States and provide sensitive information on their enemies in the Juarez Cartel. But all the while these informants continued to work as active members in mid- to high-level management roles within an international crime syndicate that was the largest supplier of cocaine, meth, and heroin to the United States.

What would you say has been your most challenging story (regarding the violence in Mexico) and why? 

 

 

I recently wrapped up a six-month murder investigation in Mexico. I won’t get into specifics until the article comes out. But gaining the trust of sources who do not know anything about you, who have never met a reporter before, much less a reporter from the United States, and where the decision for them to talk can have immediate life or death consequences, is a challenge that can only be overcome with patience and understanding.

Death on Sevenmile Road…Border Killings Investigation…Texas Observer

A long and deeply researched piece by Melissa del Bosque on the Texas DPS shootings of Guatemalan men from a helicopter in 2012. Go to the link for the full story, photos and video… This is the piece to give the lie to the “violence spilling over the border” hysteria we hear so often.  What I would say is YES, violence is spilling over the border…from NORTH to SOUTH… not the other direction as Fox News, the US Congress and the Texas DPS wants you to believe.  

I will share something personal:  During 2010 and 2011, I had the opportunity to work with Charles Bowden and to travel with him from one end of the border to another… On one trip we drove from Las Cruces to Brownsville. We spent time on Falcon Lake in Texas looking into the disappearance of David Hartley. We took a ride in a fast bass boat over to the Mexican waters of the lake. Our guide showed us the spot where reports said Hartley was shot and disappeared. The depth of the water there was 2.5 feet. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/08/world/americas/mexico-cartel-arrest/) There was a lot more leading us to question the official story about the disappearance of David Hartley and many more of the hysterical “violence spilling over the border” stories.

Charles wrote the story (commissioned by a high profile magazine for outdoor sports) and debunked this and other “violence spilling over the border” myths. It was rejected because he didn’t write the story they wanted. He wrote the truth. He sent the story to another very high-profile left-liberal magazine. His editor there rejected it also because she said she didn’t believe the story because “it stands to reason that violence was spilling north.” Chuck wrote a personal memo about this later: “At that point, I thought of two things: why lies rule on the border and why Americans feel the need of a wall.”

So it is refreshing to see the Texas Observer on the case of immigrants being shot from helicopters… by US law enforcement.

If you’d like to see an entertaining video of Chuck talking about this, here’s a link:
Charles Bowden: America’s favorite lethal lies about the border, Utah Valley University, May 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BsO4WuKCUM

30 Homicides In Juarez In February; 67 So Far In 2015

The El Diario report posted late Saturday (Feb 28) reported 29 homicides in Juarez in February.  But late Saturday night, a young man was shot to death by a police officer bringing the total to 30. Channel 44 reported 31. These discrepancies have been fairly common over time. El Diario reported 37 homicides in January; Channel 44 reported 36.

Three victims in February were women, exactly 10 percent of the total number of people killed. This female to male ratio is also fairly constant when looking at Juarez homicides from 1993 to the present.