A Historical Summer

Welcome Back! 

We’re happy to be back on campus and focused on all things history. This year brings new faculty to the History Department, new course options, and new opportunities to think historically…like say, how the past informs our nation’s first presidential election including a female candidate and a novice politician.

Before we start looking toward our future, we thought we’d share with you some of our most immediate history. Our next couple of posts will highlight some of the ways our faculty engaged with the past over the summer break. We hope you enjoy learning about how many of us bring history outside of the classroom and we hope you share your historical summer adventures as well!

In June, our department chair Dr. Cathy Cory traveled with a group of teachers and clergy to San Cristóbal, Mexico. Below are her reflections on the historical legacy of indigenous communities and the Catholic Church in Mexico.

A Journey Through Chiapas, Mexico

In June 2016, I had the distinct pleasure of accompanying a group of teachers and parish ministers, who spent the previous two years refining their Spanish language skills and immersing themselves in our local Latino immigrant communities, to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. The city, which has a population of approximately 190,000 people, was founded in 1528. Deeply embedded in the history and culture of Latin America, it served as the capital of Chiapas until the late 19th century and is still now regarded as its cultural capital. Come along with me as I share our journey.

We arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas late in the evening of Thursday, June 17th, after three legs of our air flight and a van ride to our final destination. On Friday, we began the day with an excellent talk about the history of San Cristóbal and the state of the local indigenous peoples from the time of the conquest to the present. After that, we went to Taller de Lenateros, a cooperative comprised of Mayan artists who create beautiful handmade paper and paper products according to their ancient practices and in an effort to preserve Mayan arts and culture. Cooperatives are one way that the marginalized of Mexican society survive poverty and high unemployment. Their website, which includes a collection of essays written about the cooperative, is at http://www.tallerlenateros.com.

Later, we had time to explore the city and the market that is frequented by the many tourists who come to San Cristóbal. A few of us also went out to visit the churches that are ubiquitous in the city. My favorite was the Church of St. Francis, a sixteenth-century church of the barrio. Here are some photos: http://www.travelbymexico.com/sancristobal/atractivos/?nom=kscrfrancisco. We also visited the Cathedral of San Cristóbal de las Casas, which was originally used by Bartolomé de las Casas (d. 1566), the first bishop of Chiapas. Despite controversies surrounding his role in the conquest, he is still known as the defender of the indigenous. Today Dom Samuel Ruiz Garcia, a modern-day defender of the rights of the indigenous and bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas (1959-1999), is buried in this same church. Here are some photos of the cathedral: http://www.travelbymexico.com/sancristobal/atractivos/?nom=kscrcatedral&don=35.

On Saturday, Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte treated us to a presentation about Dom Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who was also a major player in the 1968 Medellin Conference of Latin American bishops and the primary mediator in the Zapatistas crisis of the mid-1990s. See the article in The National Catholic Reporter describing Dom Samuel Ruiz’s legacy in Chiapas: https://www.ncronline.org/news/global/mexicos-chiapas-state-bishop-ruiz-leaves-large-legacy. Later we went to a museum dedicated to Dom Samuel Ruiz, which is very well done. Here is their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MUSEO-Jtatik-Samuel-1541101406173254. And here is a short video highlighting the inauguration of the museum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsIPoR-T2y8.

On Sunday we went out in two groups to local indigenous Catholic parishes for worship and conversations with community members. Some went to Zinacantán and two nearby villages higher in the mountains surrounding San Cristóbal. My group went to Chamula at the outskirts of San Cristóbal to the Church of Juan Diegito (little Diego). The service was in Spanish and Tsotzil: Spanish, because the pastor speaks very little Tsotzil, and Tsotzil, because the majority of the community speak only Tsotzil. Lay leadership plays a very significant role in this parish, almost everyone was dressed in their traditional apparel, including the lay leaders who wore their Mayan ritual garb. I sensed a lot of sadness in this church community, which is made up of people from several villages who have been banished from their original homes due to political and social struggles between and among indigenous communities. It is a poor but proud community trying to reestablish itself after enduring more than we can imagine.

On Monday, we went to Melel Xojobal (http://www.melelxojobal.org.mx), which provides educational and social support resources for indigenous children who live and work on the streets of San Cristobal. Most have families but, because they have been displaced from their ancestral homes by war and social conflict, they live in precarious situations. We learned that 75% of the people of Chiapas fall into the category of extreme poverty. In 1995, the United Nations defined extreme poverty as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.” In 2005, the World Bank referred to extreme poverty as “earning below the international poverty line of $1.25/day.” Later that day, we went to INESIN, an ecumenical center in San Cristóbal, where we learned about indigenous spirituality and its interface with Christianity in Chiapas. Their website describes the organization’s history and their mission to foster peace through intercultural and interreligious dialogue: http://inesin-mx.org/english/aboutus.htm.

On Tuesday, we visited the Fra Bartolome de Casas Human Rights Center (also known as Frayba), which has a staff of 22 people working on human rights advocacy and cases involving the disappeared, people forced off their lands, or denied basic liberty rights at the risk of their own personal welfare. They do amazing work, but the enormity of the problems that need to be addressed are overwhelming. Two huge issues that they cannot even begin to address because of lack of resources are feminicides and abuse of migrants. Our presenter gave the example of “The Beast,” the network of freight trains that travel the 1,450 miles, south to north, through Mexico. Desperate migrants hoping to get to the U.S. ride atop these trains at great peril. Frayba has documented as many as 2,000 riders at the start of the journey and only 200 by the time the train reaches its northern destination. No one knows exactly what happens to the 1,800 who do not make it to the end of the journey, but we can surmise that their end is not good. For more information about “The Beast” see the NPR article at http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/06/05/318905712/riding-the-beast-across-mexico-to-the-u-s-border. Frayba’s website is at http://www.frayba.org.mx/?hl=en. They also have a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FraybaDerechosHumanos/.

On Wednesday we visited Universidad de la Tierra in San Cristóbal. This is a residential school for young adult indigenous men and women ages 13 through 21. Located on a beautiful, sprawling campus, built and furnished by the students and their teachers, students are allowed to study whatever they feel called to study from embroidery and weaving to electronics, electrical work, auto repair, music, art, food preparation, book making and sustainable farming. The immediate goal is to provide these young people with skills for survival that they can take back home to make their communities self-sustaining. But the long term goal is to instill a love of self-motivated learning and, to that end, the students also study philosophy, literature, history, educational theory, and theology. See the INMOTION journal interview with Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, director of the school, at http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/global/rsb_int_eng.html.

Later that day, we visited with the staff at Codimuj, a diocesan women’s group, which has as its goal the empowerment of indigenous women as equal members of their families and communities. A 2012 S¡Paz Report carried the following article on its 20th anniversary commemoration: http://www.sipaz.org/article-the-20-years-of-the-diocese-coordination-of-women/?lang=en. You can also find a reflection by Sr. María del Carmen Martínez on the work of Codimuj on the website of the Dominican Missionaries of the Rosary: http://www.misionerasdominicas.org/index.php/experiencias-misioneras-11/archivo/845-mujeres-mexico.

Thursday, June 23rd, was our last day in Chiapas. The week had been full of marvelous experiences, and everyone was tired, but one more very special experience awaited us. Earlier in the week we had an opportunity to meet a Mayan medicine woman who combines psychotherapy with traditional healing practices in her work with indigenous communities in Chiapas and throughout Latin America and beyond. This day she invited us to her home village of La Candelaria high in the mountains above San Cristóbal to share in a healing ceremony. Before we left, we went to a local market—not the one frequented by tourists—to purchase the candles, incense, firewood, flowers, and tobacco for the ceremony. It was raining as we left the city, but when we arrived in La Candelaria the sun broke through, and we had the extreme privilege of praying together—across faith traditions—for the healing of ourselves, our families, our ancestors, cultures, and the earth. As the sacred fire began to die, we sat in silence gazing at the breathtaking views from the top of the mountain. Then the rain began to fall again, and I think everyone felt the blessing of that sacred moment as we made our way back down the mountain to San Cristóbal.

So ends my travelogue. I hope you can visit this special place someday and be inspired as I was.

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