Scenes from a Mexican Village
About this articleIn this article, the author shares some personal reflections on her experiences in Mexico. Filled with insight, this piece encourages global awareness and compassion. Good for student and teacher background.
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration sponsor a program called Global Awareness Through Experience. The GATE program offers a rich opportunity to get to know the realities of Mexico, something I have wanted to do for years. At a point in my life when I was taking a breather from one career (as an editor for religious education materials) and searching for a new work direction that would be cross-cultural, the program was just the kind of learning and stretching experience I was looking for.
Our GATE group was a mix of seven people from three U.S. states and nine people from a Protestant seminary in Quebec--married, single, and religious. Our leaders were two women religious--Cecilia Corcoran and Marie Des Jarlais. After a short time, everyone in the group felt comfortable with one another, and we settled into the quarters at the Anglican Center in Mexico City, which was our home base for four days. The U.S. participants then traveled to the southern-most state of Mexico, Chiapas, for five days, while the seminarians ventured out to several rural villages beyond Mexico City. We all gathered back in Mexico City for our last night together before returning home.
Let me share a few scenes and people with you--a sampling of the many revelations I had during our ten full days in Mexico.
- Laura has come to talk with our group about her work with street children in Mexico City--those who literally live on the streets and in garbage dumps. I expect to be shocked and saddened by accounts of their miserable, degraded lives.
Yet, as I listen to Laura, I'm drawn beyond the tragedy of their situation to see what she sees--young people with tremendous native ability, energy, and wit who present huge challenges to those who would like to "civilize" them into a normal home and school life. Laura sees children who have no self-esteem but are nonetheless blessed with great potential. It's clear that she has discovered a way into their hearts. This woman, who does not look much older than the teens she works with, has spent twelve years building up an approach to helping these kids find their own worth as human beings and participate in changing their own life. "We are a little program with a large rate of success," Laura says, adding that 86 percent of the youth do not return to living on the streets.
I find in this intelligent and wise woman a deep sense of hope in the midst of tragic realities. As Laura expresses it, her voice alive with passionate reverence, "We are learning to be more human. We are getting back our own humanity by believing in human beings. We never lose our hope, because we are in contact with human beings."
- Several of our group have been strolling around San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial-era city in Chiapas, getting a feel for the local scene. Chiapas, with its mostly indigenous Mayan population, is known in the U.S. for the Zapatistas' revolt in the 1990s. Tourists come here, but generally the more adventuresome types who are not scared off by the continuing unresolved conflict. I guess that includes us, though we don't like to think of ourselves as tourists but as people trying to understand the complexities of Mexico.
The indigenous--those with no Spanish blood in their ancestry--are the poorest of Mexico's poor, the most discriminated against, the most oppressed. The Mayans cannot afford to rent any of the many stalls that line the charming streets. So the women and children in native dress roam the sidewalks and the plaza, trying to sell their wares--from beaded bracelets to embroidered purses to shawls to chewing gum to little Zapatista dolls. They can be quite "persuasive," and foreigners--that's us--are an obvious target. The gap between "them" and "us" seems to widen as we try to fend off the persistent vendors. We walk on hurriedly with a "No, gracias," not daring to make eye contact, or pretending we don't see them as they accost us with pleas for pesos "por las tortillas, por los ninos" (for tortillas, for the children). One woman who catches my eye chases after me for three blocks until I finally yield and buy a shawl from her.
The children are the hardest for a soft-hearted gringo to cope with. If you buy anything from one of them, dozens of others descend on you. Am image flashes in my mind--Lazarus begging for crumbs from the rich man's table. This distressing dynamic between the indigenous and the tourists in Chiapas seems to be a metaphor for the relationship between the Third World (or more descriptively, the "Two-Thirds World") of the earth's poor and the First World of the earth's privileged. We in the rich nations fear being overrun by the poor in their desperate need to survive, so we try to pretend they don't exist, at least not as full human beings like us, whose eyes you can meet.
- Sitting together in the living room of a tiny, cement-block house in a poor neighborhood of Mexico City are about twenty people. Eight of us are part of the GATE group, the others are locals who have gathered for their regular Friday night Christian base community meeting. We visitors are privileged to be here to listen, join in, and receive the hospitality of our hosts. People have worked a long day, most in factories, and Saturday will be a workday too. They are tired but appear glad to be here.
The focus of the evening is the Gospel story of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fishes. A capable young woman leads the group, at times bouncing her baby on her lap. She asks for reactions to the themes that Jesus provides abundantly for the people, and that with Jesus there is no scarcity. One member notes that in Mexico there is scarcity, that many people do not have enough to eat. Jesus' miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes doesn't seem to match the reality of life for a lot of Mexicans, and that is because the rich are greedy. Another member responds that perhaps Jesus is telling us that even if we don't have a lot, we should share what little we have to create justice.
At the end of the meeting, members of the group serve us sweet rolls and warm beverages, and I catch my breath at the sacredness of the moment.
- Miguel, an economist and the director of a foundation that funds needy groups in Chiapas, is filling in our group on the history of Mexico since the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. We are impressed by the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to lay out so vividly and clearly the complexities of Mexican politics, economics, history, and culture, within a global framework.
We follow Miguel's history up to the present, taking particular note of the current crushing impact of foreign debt on Mexico, and the harsh realities of life for Mexicans under NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to have improved life for Mexico's people but instead has set the conditions for deeper poverty than ever for more Mexicans. At the end of Miguel's talk, we have a grasp on how desperate the situation is for Mexico. We look to him for answers. Surely a man so brilliant will know a way out of the economic doom, won't he? "Is there any hope? What can be done? How can this be solved?"
But there are no easy or obvious or one-shot answers. Miguel says the solution is not simply in a new president and a new party, although those realities provide a welcome opening that has not existed before. Miguel affirms that there is hope within Mexico, but primarily it is generated from the grassroots. "Hope," he says, "comes with organizing." The hope for Mexico, particularly among groups that have been passive in the past, is to raise consciousness and develop organizing skills. People need to learn to organize around their own needs--schools, basic health care, work cooperatives, dialogue groups--whatever empowers people to take charge of their lives. In this is the future of Mexico.
- A few days later, we are visiting Sister Consuela, a Franciscan woman who works out of a parish in Palenque, a city in Chiapas near some of the ancient Mayan ruins. She is a soft-spoken, comfortable, Earth-mother kind of person, and as we discover, is also strong and highly effective. Her work consists in going out to some 140 Mayan villages that make up the parish, each three or four hours from Palenque, to train catechists and deacons, give marriage classes, organize youth groups, staff a health clinic, assist people with human rights concerns, train women in skills like nursing and sewing, teach health prevention, organize literacy training groups and women's dialogue groups around domestic violence, and facilitate the start of women's work cooperatives. We are astonished at all that this quiet woman does to empower people who historically have had no voice.
What is more is that Sister Consuela is attracting others who want to join her. Without ever intending to begin a religious formation program, she has found that six young Mayan women from the villages want to become sisters and help in the work of the woman who has inspired them by her life of service. They are in various stages of formation, and we meet them around a picnic table in the convent courtyard. They speak of becoming educated, not so that they can leave their villages behind but so that they can return to them with hope to offer.
The message of Miguel echoes in Palenque: Organize! Organize! It is happening, and the Spirit is breathing life into Mexico from the grassroots. We cherish this hope for the future of Mexico.
AcknowledgmentsThis article previously appeared in the magazine/newsletter Perspectives.
Published May 26, 2001.