Remaking Chiapas

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                       28 Jan 2008


A McDonalds restaurant full of customers, … commercial activity all around, … a bicycle vendor selling ice cream to passersby and hotels lining the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.  Tourists and local residents alike enjoy this area but seldom notice the monument depicting the people who once lived here. 

 Harvesting of the tall sugarcane is well under way by March of each year. The deep soil, good rainfall and warm climate along the coastal plain enable this crop to make a significant economic input to Mexico.  Further inland … the tropical rain forest that covers the steep slopes of the Chiapas Highlands beckons to the more adventurous.

 This area has been remade many times over the centuries.  It was here in Southern Mexico and Central America that the Mayan culture once flourished.  1500 years ago the Mayans were the most advanced civilization in the new world.  Huge temples were built as places of worship and sacrifice; inscriptions were carved in stone along with stylized representations of their rulers and their gods.  They were proficient in mathematics and had an accurate calendar.  They studied the planets and the stars drifting through the heavens.

 The ancient Mayans were organized as a loose federation of small kingdoms but they were never fully conquered by the powerful Aztec armies.  For that matter, … the Spanish colonists with their horses and guns did not succeed in their effort to bring them under control.

 Eventually, most of the Mayans abandoned the Chiapas area and now live in the Yucatan and in Guatemala.  Those who remained fled to the surrounding mountains where they have hung onto their traditional culture and still speak their own languages and dialects.  Today, in the southern State of Chiapas, there are about 750,000 indigenous people.  For them … as it was for their ancestors, … the change from power and prestige to poverty is painful.

 The steep mountains … with small towns and villages perched on ridges or near a mountain lake … appear to be quiet and peaceful from the distance. The roads, for the most part, are well maintained but it is often a long distance between full service gasoline stations.  However, it is possible to find gas along the way even though the price is high and the dispensing method is not designed for volume distribution.  

 The streets through the towns and villages are like others in Mexico but Chiapas is the home of the rebels known as the Zapatistas.  It was here in 1994 that a major uprising occurred when five towns, … including San Cristobal, … were attacked.   Hundreds were killed and thousands were forced from their homes.  This revolt … demanding more for the indigenous people … was a problem for several years resulting in a large government presence in the area.  However, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas continue to support the Zapatista movement.  The Zapatistas are seeking to reverse the changes that occurred in the past.

 There is much religious persecution in Chiapas.  Whole Christian communities have had to leave their homes because of threats.  During the past, evangelical believers were killed and their property destroyed.  Evangelical pastors continue to be in serious danger because of the bounty put on their heads. Some have been tortured and killed for preaching the Gospel.  The status quo does not want change.

 Examples of the potential violence occur frequently.  In the town of Bosque, the young men and some women dress in costumes and masks as they dance in the street. Celebrating their version of Carnival, they are commemorating the beginning of Lent. Yet, … it is very frightening to a visitor.   By mid-morning most are drunk and have little regard for visitors.  The partying continues to escalate and, … by mid-afternoon, … with alcohol and drugs taking their full effect, … it is extremely dangerous. … They bang on cars and trucks. … They steal from those traveling through town.  … It would only take a spark … a careless word  ... and violence would quickly erupt.

 It is much different in San Cristobal, a large mountain city that was founded in 1528.  With an elevation of about 7,500 feet, it is a cool and busy place with an abundance of Spanish architecture.  This was once the capital of Chiapas.  Some buildings are old and in need of repair while for others, the repairs are under way.  On the zocalo, the town square, … the Cathedral of San Cristobal was built centuries ago.  Recent work has restored the church to the original bright orange and yellow.  Inside the church, the gold trimmed paintings and statues are continuing reminders of the strong Catholic presence.

 Outside the church is a common gathering place for tourists and visitors.  It is here that people from the surrounding mountains, the remnants of the ancient Mayans, solicit customers with a variety of crafts.  The indigenous peoples are very traditional and, thus, their colorful native clothing, their appearance, and their broken Spanish easily sets them apart from the others.  The color and style of dress mark the differences between the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.  This is a place where the ancient and the modern cultures meet.  It is also a place where a North American visitor stands out among those eager to sell a souvenir.

 San Cristobal is a city of many old Catholic churches.  Not far from the zocalo is the largest church in the area.  Construction on this huge building began in 1547.  Like the others, … inside the Church of Santo Domingo, … there are gold trimmed statues and paintings.  Of course, Mary, … holding the baby Jesus, … and the Virgin of Guadalupe are the central focus.  A few come inside to pray seeking favors from the statues, but outside it is a commercial enterprise.  The open-air market is a regular occurrence with stalls packed in all available space surrounding the church.  There are traditional crafts, paintings, and a large variety of packaged goods.  Here too most of the vendors are the indigenous peoples who live outside the city.  Diversity is all around but change is hard to find.

 Nevertheless, occasionally change does occur.   Islam, … claiming Mohammad as Allah’s prophet, … is growing and gaining a dedicated following in one area of San Cristobal

 The village of Simojovel is a friendly town.  Kids play with their soccer ball or work at flying a kite; …  their only apparent fear is of entangling the string in the overhead power lines.  Along the street school children, as well as adults, seem to be in no special hurry to get to where they are going.

 It is also a place where tradition can be enjoyed by sharing in a home cooked meal.  The open fire with a simmering pot of delicious chicken, onions, and tomatoes gives a feeling of bygone days.  Some have a gas stove and a few enjoy television but the food is the real treat. In addition to the main dish, there are bowls of black beans, of chilies and tomatoes, and … of course … stacks of fresh corn tortillas.

 Here, as elsewhere, the tourist trade is important to the economy.  Amber jewelry is popular.  These items are hand made in a shop just outside the owner’s home.  The grinding, drilling, and polishing requires a lot of work but the cost for equipment is small. The skill and artistry are clearly evident in the final product.

 While Simojovel is much like other towns in the area with the Catholic Church and the merchants around the zocalo, there is a difference here.  An evangelical church is located on one side of the street about a mile from the town center.

 Pastor Eufemio Bonifax and his wife, Mari Cruz have been ministering among the Tzotzil and the Tzeltal   peoples in this area about fifteen years.  Much of their work now is in training pastors and lay people.  More than 20 indigenous churches have come out of this work. 

 Pastor Bonifax and his family live in San Cristobal and pastor the Iglesia Bautista Monte Hermon.  This pastor and others like him are making a difference in Chiapas.  The changes they seek are based on the firm foundation of God’s Word.  The remaking of Chiapas with God at the center has already claimed the lives of many faithful witnesses.  Believers who dared to be a Daniel have already paid a high price.  Yet, there are those who are still willing to be warriors on the frontlines of the battle to win Chiapas with the Good News of Jesus.  Earnest prayer is needed.  Will you commit to pray for a true change to occur in the lives of the people through the hearing of God’s Word? 

Closing Overlay: 

Jesus looked at them and said,

 “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Matthew 19:26


PRONUNCIATION GUIDE:  (Please correct and add to as needed.)

Bosque                                                           bose-KEH

Chiapas                                                           chee-AH-pus

Eufemio Bonifaz                                                ey-oe-FEH-mee-oh BONE-ee-fahz

Iglesia Bautista Monte Hermon                

ee-GLAY-see-ah Bah-oo-TEASE-tah  MOAN-the her-MOAN               

Mayan                                                            MY-yun

Mari Cruz                                                       MAH-ree croos

San Cristobal                                                  sahn Crease-TOE-ball

Simojovel                                                        sea-mo-ho-BEL

Tzeltal                                                            tsell-TALL

Tzotzil                                                             sote-SEAL

Zapatistas                                                       sah-pah-TEAS-tahs

Zocalo                                                             SOE-cah-low



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