The Road to Acteal

The road to Acteal wound up through miles of milpas (fields of corn, beans and squash) planted on every bit of fertile soil, some hanging off the mountain at improbably angles. Sometimes there would be a campesino walking the narrow rows with a chemical barrel strapped to his back, spray arcing back and forth. In the last half hour, we rode through a market. Both sides of the street were festooned with cloths and baskets full of fruits and vegetables, hanging ponchos, serapes, belts, woven dolls, large splashes of color against the scrap-wood stalls. Adults all smiles, children laughed as they ran. The whole was a glorious celebration.

Suddenly, we were driving past the gray, stark barracks of a military base, armed soldiers in front. I kept the camera snapping until someone hissed in a whisper, “Put the camera down!” I learned later that they would have searched the van, confiscated the camera, and possibly detained us. I wondered what these purveyors of fear were doing in this poor, peaceful paradise.
Arriving in Acteal, we were told that they had just held a festival and visitors from other villages had just departed…. we saw the last group of them off in the standing-only pick-up truck that serves as bus service in the mountains. The village spokesman had left for a regional meeting.

We waited. Waiting is an important part of being with indigenous people. Their clocks are set to the rhythms of the natural world. Everything takes place in its time, not peoples’. It was hot on the veranda where we sat, and the sun’s rays were sharp in the thin air. The community buildings fell away down the hill at our feet: meeting building, cooperative craft shop, school, chapel, memorial hall with an open theatre on its roof, and, surprise, a computerized, satellite communications center! We were treated to the glorious colors, laughter and smiles of Mayan women and children as they worked and played.

Finally, a man arrived who spoke Spanish…. Most in Acteal speak Tsotzil, a Mayan dialect. Mayans are very self-effacing people. So, first he told us that he did not know enough to answer our questions. We nodded deferentially and asked gentle questions. Finally, he began to talk. He spoke of farming, about the importance of corn. He talked of those who spray chemicals on their fields, and those who grow without them. About how people have sicknesses that they never had before chemicals were used. He told us of the community. “We are only people who want to live as we have always lived.” How they are not political or ideological, though a few of them have been forced to become so. I remember an Emiliano Zapata quote, “ The land belongs to those who work it, not to those with money.”

Then, in few words, he told the story of what had happened there: how, on December 22nd of 1997, at 10 PM, the paramilitary, young men trained, armed and supported by the Mexican military, massacred 45 people and left 21 mostly children severely wounded. The Mexican Red Cross affirmed these facts. According to eyewitnesses, Mexican Public Security forces did not take part, but posted themselves 200 meters outside and around the village so no one could escape. Then they came into the village after the massacre and hid the bodies, some in a cave, some thrown down a ravine. The men who killed their families live still in the surrounding communities. None went to prison. They are now leaders of the paramilitary.

Down the hill was the church. He led us into the small scrap-wood building. Sunlight shown between the wall boards and through the bullet holes. It was noon and the room vibrated with the heat of the sun and 45 candles that are always burning. Saints statues, images decorated with indigenous weaving and symbols: crosses, stars, suns. We stood in silence. Suddenly, a scores of dogs were barking, and it came to me that this is probably the first sound they heard that night, as they knelt here, on the third and final night of their vigil for world peace. Over 60 men swarmed out of the surrounding jungle, firing their rifles into the church. The congregation fled out the door, down the hill. The attackers followed the sounds of the children crying. They sliced and shot to death 15 children and babies along with 21 women, 4 of them pregnant, and 9 men.

We walk behind our humble guide down the hill to the site of the massacre, a hollow that is now a memorial hall. On the wall, there are pictures of the ones who had been photographed in life. We climbed to the roof of the memorial, a large amphitheatre with trees arching over the uphill side, open vista of the jungle on two sides and the beautiful valley below in front. We stand, pray, listen to poems. The people of this village speak of Mother Earth, and how she transforms the blood of their slaughtered loved ones into courage for them. As I am thinking about this, I find myself, unwillingly, squatting with my hands flat on the ground, feeling Her power beneath my palms. And it comes to me that there is no renewal, no rebirth, no healing, no life without the immense power of this Earth that is our home. And I pledge solidarity with these people, solidarity to share with others what has happened here….but, also, to share their deep faith, connection to, and love and care for Mother Earth.