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News from Chiapas
by Daniel Gómez-Ibáñez
(from Report for the Peace Council, October, 2002)
It had been a full day and I was tired after the long ride in the jeep and the warmth of an afternoon of greetings, one-by-one, by hundreds of indians who had gathered at this village in the Mexican state of Chiapas, close to the Guatemalan border. So I found a place to sit for a few minutes on a rocky outcrop beside the small chapel. It was still hot and humid as the mountains’ evening shadows lengthened across the valley. Smoky threads rose from cooking fires at isolated farmsteads scattered on the forested slopes. Clouds gathered above the crests. It felt like there would be another downpour during the night.
We were in Zapatista territory. Except for the electric line that struggled through the valley to find the single bulb above the entrance to this remote cluster of houses, there was no evidence that this was Mexico. Indian families from the six communities in the broad valley had sent their candidates for confirmation. Because Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte and the two priests that help him serve the huge parish of Ocosingo can come here only about once a year, the event would be cause for two days of celebration.
Fr. Gonzalo emerged from the knot of elders gathered around a battered notebook that lay open on the hood of the jeep in front of the chapel. They had been making plans for the mass that would fill the next day. He left the final details to the catechists and two nuns who would assist.
Fr. Gonzalo smiled and sat down on the rock beside me. For a while he was silent, looking out at the valley spread below us. Then he spoke. ?The first time I came here was twenty-five years ago, when Don Samuel was bishop and I was just starting to learn from him. I spoke some Tsotsil and this was my parish then, as it is again now. It is wonderful to be back!?
I looked at him. His shoulders sagged somewhat from the long day, but his eyes were alive. ?Sitting here brings to mind what happened to me on that first visit. It is something I will never forget. It was evening and I brought my breviary to this very rock, to sit here and say the office. When I opened to the right page I saw that the psalms for the day were about suffering and oppression, and prayers for help and relief.
?But as I started to read I heard some indians begin to sing behind me. They were in the chapel. Their songs were in Tsotsil and since I was eager to learn more of the language, I put my book down and listened. The songs were about suffering and oppression, and asking for help from God? like the psalms in my book.
It was then that I knew for myself what Don Samuel had discovered much earlier: that the Gospel was already here, alive, in this place. It was as if I had no need for my book. All that I needed to pray, all that I needed to know, was already here, with these people. I have never been the same since.
Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco, op, is a trustee of the International Committee for the Peace Council. He was Vicar for Justice and Peace in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas (Chiapas, Mexico) while Peace Councilor Samuel Ruiz-García was bishop. Bishop Ruiz retired in 2000 and for more than a year Fr. Gonzalo continued in the same role under the new bishop. But last year he asked the Dominicans to transfer him back to his former parish ministry.
Fr. Gonzalo’s days are full. His huge parish seems far more than a single person could manage. Ocosingo is by far the largest parish in the Diocese of San Cristóbal: with more than 400 villages and several towns, it is almost as big as the entire country of El Salvador. The parish includes mountainous regions as well as lowland rainforest near the Guatemalan border; often Fr. Gonzalo must travel on foot or horseback to reach remote areas. He is helped by more than a thousand catechists, about twenty nuns, and two other priests.
But Fr. Gonzalo’s call extends far beyond the usual parish ministry. Bishop Samuel Ruiz’s departure left Fr. Gonzalo as one of Chiapas’s most experienced and trusted peacemakers. Increasingly, state and federal government officials, local groups working for peace and human rights, and community leaders turn to this Dominican friar for counsel. When conflicts split indigenous communities apart, he often is sought as a mediator.
He is deeply involved with the work of local human rights and peace groups, usually as a board member or counselor. Among these are two groups that field trained observers to monitor human rights in Chiapas: the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (in San Cristóbal de las Casas) and the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada (in Ocosingo). Another is CORECO (Comisión de Apoyo a la Unidad y Reconciliación Comunitaria) a non-governmental organization that works to heal tensions within indigenous communities split by the factionalism resulting from the so-called ‘low-intensity war’ in the region.
At least once a week Fr. Gonzalo is likely to make the two-hour drive to San Cristóbal de las Casas to work with colleagues at one of the half-dozen groups that are active in the region. As an example, one of these is Melel Xojobal (Tsotsil: true light), an organization devoted to the welfare of indiginous refugees, especially children whose families, uprooted from their villages, now live in the shantytowns surrounding the city of San Cristobal. Melel Xojobal operates pre-school and after-school programs for children from birth to age 14. Another branch of the organization produces a daily news service spotlighting the region’s political and social develpments.
The resources for this essential work are few. Only recently has it been possible for Fr. Gonzalo to hire a secretary, thanks to a six-month grant from the Peace Council. The grant also pays for fuel and maintenance for Fr. Gonzalo’s ageing jeep, and it pays some of the expenses of feeding and lodging indigenous community leaders who may travel to Ocosingo seeking Fr. Gonzalo’s mediation or advice. More help is needed: to build a small office at the monastery in Ocosingo, and for local projects, like the nursery school that is planned for indigenous children whose families have fled to the city, or to help pay some of the expenses of volunteer human-rights observers.
In spite of hardships Fr. Gonzalo moves through his days with an inspiring and energetic optimism. This is the work he feels called to do. And this week he receives good news: Fr. Pablo Romo, a fellow Dominican priest who has spent the last few years as head of the Dominican Office for Justice and Peace, has decided to retire from the job in Rome and join Fr. Gonzalo in Ocosingo. The two are old friends, and, Fr. Gonzalo says, grinning and rubbing his hands together happily, ?He has so much good experience! It will be like having two or three more of me here!?
Page Published: 03/28/03 · Page Last Modified: