In Chiapas, the pope brings his message to the indigenous

In Chiapas, the pope brings his message to the indigenous
Photo by Teresa Puente

In Mexico, Pope Francis spoke this weekend of the richness of the indigenous culture and the need for Mexico to honor its multiculturalism.

The pope is on his way Monday to the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, where around one-third of the population is indigenous. And poverty in the state is more than 75 percent.

The indigenous in Mexico have long struggled economically and politically. Chiapas was the birthplace of the Zapatista movement launched by Subcomandante Marcos on Jan. 1, 1994. But in the more than two decades that have passed, there hasn’t been significant change in the quality of life for most of the indigenous in Chiapas. And the Zapatista movement has faded.

“There is still poverty and discrimination,” said Abraham Martinez Lopez, 50, a cab driver told me when I visited Chiapas last month.

The contrast between the haves and have nots is marked in the state’s cultural capital San Cristobal de las Casas.

In this town with colonial architecture, there are trendy cafes, wine bars and pubs and shops selling textiles made by the indigenous at tourist prices. Meanwhile, children as young as three sell gum or beg on the street. Boys as young as five work as shoe shine boys. Young migrants traveling from Central America through Chiapas in hopes of eventually reaching the U.S. stop to ask for food and money.

Some of the indigenous have been able to move ahead.

Ignacio Mendez Gomez, 20, is indigenous and speaks Tzotzil, one of the Mayan languages.

He is studying economics at university on scholarship. He is among the 5 percent of indigenous students in his high school class to pursue higher education.

“Most of the Tzotzil live in poverty,” he said.

He also is a volunteer at a church, la Merced, in San Cristobal de las Casas, and said he hoped that the pope would speak about the marginalized and the violence in Mexico.

“I hope that the pope brings us peace,” he said.

Gilda Diaz de Anda, who owns a religious gift shop, said she is excited to see the pope.

But she said some of the mestizos, Mexicans of mixed descent like her, resent the indigenous who were invited to attend mass with the pope.

“A lot of people are angry because they are giving priority to the indigenous,” she said.

She is just hoping for a glimpse of Pope Francis. She saw Pope John Paul II when he visited the nearby town of Tuxtla Gutierrez in 1990.

“I only saw him for three seconds. But those three seconds filled me with immense happiness,” she said

The pope also will attempt to reach the indigenous who bring their own culture to their faith.

Many indigenous have left the Catholic Church and converted to other religions. Chiapas is the least Catholic state in Mexico. According to the Archdiocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in 1976, 96 percent of residents were Catholic. That dropped to a low of 58 percent in 2004. In 2014, it rose to 76 percent.

How the indigenous practice Catholicism hasn’t always been welcome by leaders in the Catholic Church.

In San Juan Chamula, a village outside San Cristobal, the church has no pews. The floor is covered with pine needles.

Inside, the indigenous light candles and make offerings of live chickens and cans of Coca-Cola. By drinking the soda it is said to make one burp and release the bad spirits.

Some in the town weren’t even aware that Pope Francis was going to Chiapas.

I asked a Tzotzil curandera, or healer, what she thought of the pope.

“Juan Pablo?” she answered me.

Many young Mexicans also have turned away from the Catholic Church.

“I really could care less,” said Jose Andrian Gallegos, 21 of the pope’s visit. “He’s going to bless us and then he’ll leave.”

Pope Francis will bring prayers to the people of Chiapas. His message to eliminate poverty and help the marginalized will resonate.

But who will listen?


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