Monday, June 20, 2011


Background on our history with Chiapas, from 2009 visit (first of two parts).
Tila in the mountain cloud cover--photo from bus on first visit 1998.  We could not enter the town due to military checkpoints.

           The crush of the crowds--pilgrims coming to make their yearly promises to Nuestro Senor de Tila--was exhausting parish staff.  Pastor Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera and assistants were stretched to the limit meeting the needs of throngs of visitors, as this Chiapas Mexico mountaintop city of 7000 swelled to more than 30,000.  Our mission group of five coming from Port Huron Michigan jumped in to lend a hand filling small bottles of olive oil that the faithful would use throughout the next year as a chrism of blessings back in their remote villages, and in the cities of the neighboring state of Tabasco.

Small part of the processions, from an earlier visit.

              After a couple of days of this, all holy oil had been distributed and our little team was trying to decide what to do next.  We certainly hadn’t made much of a dent in the whirlwind of responsibilities surrounding us.  Everybody else in the parish was so busy, and while I, who’ve worked 30 years as a Physician Assistant, was slated to help in the clinic, the rest of us didn’t have enough Spanish to hold many independent conversations.  We went to the celebration of mass, but it was physically very difficult to find any place to wedge into the packed church, and that with three to five masses per day.  So my wife Andrea, daughter Bridget, and two young adult friends Cassie and D.J. {sister & brother} decided to fill some down hours by playing a good old Michigan card game--euchre.

  When they asked for playing cards they were met with blank stares, and “no hay,” “there are none.”  So, not to be deterred, they found a deck at the local merchants—different Mexican numbers / markings, but they managed.  Though it was satisfying to them to have something social to do in the midst of this huge congregation of people speaking two foreign languages, Spanish and indigenous Chol, it made me nervous to see them around the table.  I knew it would be a provocation to the frenetic activity and goal directed temperament of our host Padre Heriberto.
At rural village, child in arms treated for severe chronic epilepsy, with medicine from Port Huron Hospital--Padre Heriberto at center.
  And as soon as the high feast day of Corpus Christi had passed, he cornered me alone at the kitchen table, and demanded, “It’s a question of purpose, what will be the purpose?”  I’d told him in the midst of the hectic first days of our trip, that I thought it most important that we spend time out in the more rural communities.  He was testing that idea, and my response was-- a clinic that I’d hold for a couple of days bringing some medicines, and for my companions, sharing for a short time the life close to the land, very distant from our own but respected.  He, having known me for ten years, accepted my closing argument—we are not tourists.  His closer was, “I can’t stand to see people playing cards.  Go.  Go.”  So the next day we crammed into a compact taxi with Rogelio, a lay parish assistant, who’d helped manage our holy oil efforts, to travel up the mountain roads to Jolja, guests of his family and community.  More on this journey later.

            This was the first time in six visits, during ten years of trips to Chiapas that I’d been in Tila for the celebration of Corpus Christi, June 11 this year, always on a Thursday.  Many masses a day, a novena of days, the church bursting with thousands of worshipers and lines encircling the inside walls of the parish enclosure many times, and people standing moving slowly along night and day.  This movement was accompanied by an almost constant powerful broadcast of mariachi music, hymns, preaching, and praying, from the church loud speakers out across the town.

            I’d been in big crowds for the parish feast day of Nuestro Senor de Tila on January 15th before, but this Corpus Christi was flooding the town with people.    An inundation starting nine days before, reaching high water at the Thursday procession and vigil mass and slowly ebbing an octave of days later.  Six priests, including the visiting Archbishop Arizmendi at the zenith, were busy many hours straight hearing the people’s confessions.  A never ending stream of pilgrims passed up long stairs behind and above the altar inside the church, to touch the legs of the miraculous crucifix—an ebony black Jesus with dreadlock hair.

            These lines circling the hilltop sanctuary leading to Jesus—with their promised prayer requests honored to last a year—have been treading their determined holy pace for 300 years.  The sanctuary’s fame began with a sadly neglected church crucifix at Tila made miraculously new, overnight, in 1693.  Healings increased the faith attributed to Nuestro Senor de Tila.  Faith and courage sustained the indigenous Chol communities in this area through centuries of exploitation by large landowners.  The title of their land was taken by outsiders who then made the Chol people work as servants and peasants on what had been their own.
            But their belief in their own dignity and way of life continued, nourished by a faith in Jesus united with ancient Mayan tradition.    The church was under siege in the state of Tabasco, as in other regions of Mexico.  To be a Catholic then was to face prison and death.
Novel based on events of that time
            The church had not always been the friend of the poor indigenous in early colonial days, but it again offered support—the preferential option for the poor—when there was much aggression against them in all of Central America from the 1960’s on.  The Latin American bishops met in Medellin proclaiming words of hope.  Chiapas and the diocese of San Cristobal became [with Bishop Samuel Ruiz’ presence] a major center of relief and welcome for refugees from the violence, much of it spilling over the border from civil war in Guatemala.  Many courageous priests and nuns went out into remote areas to accompany and minister to the needs of the people.  One of these was, and still remains, Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz:  November 3, 1924 -- January 24, 2011
            Together with the local communities they started coffee cooperatives [before the term fair-trade coffee was coined] to try to win a more just share of earnings for the peasant workers.  When the Zapatistas rose up in rebellion January 1, 2004 on the day of enactment against unfair aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would take the little communal land they had left, the diocese of San Cristobal called for justice, indigenous rights, and a negotiated settlement.  Again the repression was cruel.  One half of the Mexican army was sent to be garrisoned in this one of 29 Mexican states.  Troops were stationed in small villages across Chiapas.  The town of Tila, population 7000, merited three military encampments—two out on the main road at either entrance to the city, and one taking up the courthouse plaza, stationed directly across from the church’s front doors. 
Family at clinic--with cards giving pertinent Chol-Spanish translations taped to wall.

When I first went to work in the small church clinic, El Dispensario Chol, for three weeks in January 1999, San Mateo’s staff didn’t want me going outside the church area’s gates for fear I’d walk into the arms of the soldiers, and be arrested.  Their town was in a restricted area in Chiapas since the Zapatista rebellion, those three weeks in January 1994, when 40 towns had been taken over by the peasant revolutionaries, who then receded back into the countryside, with the onslaught of a massive military presence.  In an unfortunate and unpublicized way, the U.S. made the Mexican military response over the ensuing years more brutal, providing 70 helicopter gunships and special-forces tactical training.

In another part of Chiapas near San Cristobal, diocesan center, troops and village women struggle for the land they live on.  1998 photo by Pedro Valtierra
  I first came to know of Tila in the mountains of the Zona Norte, when our Michigan Peace Team had traveled with the buses from the Chol region in a caravan of 29 buses from Chiapas, on pilgrimage to the shrine of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City 500 miles away, and back.  The year was 1998.  In another part of the diocese, Totzil indigenous Catholic men, women and children had been massacred by government supported paramilitaries.  There was some threat of further violence so our MPT group of four accompanied them on their journey of prayer and supplication.  We stopped in all the large cities on the way to the Basilica of La Virgen.

here were chants of “No estan solos,” [You are not alone] greeting the indigenous pilgrims, masses celebrated open air and late into the night, with cries of lamentation, and songs in many tongues at once.  It was uplifting and tragic.  Padre Heriberto was in charge of our bus.  We weathered some misunderstandings together.  Our group met the people of Tila on a long and bumpy bus ride.  The army and its restrictions on foreigners made it impossible for us to cross down into Tila when we pulled up outside of town accompanying them back deep into Chiapas, so we said our goodbyes on the perimeter road near the garrison’s barbed wire.

  With time and the invitation of the parish of San Mateo [the only parish for the whole municipio=county, of Tila], we penetrated the garrisoned barriers.  Fr. Peter Dougherty and Fr. Fred Thelan have returned to say mass in mountain communities where a priest only comes once a year if that.  Fr. Fred established an ongoing sister parish relationship between his Lansing, Michigan Cristo Rey parish and San Mateo.  I have worked in their clinics five different times since.
Part two to follow next week.

Illumination by Kathy Brahney

No comments:

Post a Comment