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.”
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: email@example.com
Above photo of Carlos, Patricia and Aminadad, Maya normal school students supported by the Maya Educational Foundation. Photo by Carol Vanier.