Road to Acteal
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
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
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.