Long before dawn the glow of the first cooking fires flickered through the rude stick walls of the small traditional casitas loosely clustered around the church at the core of the village. These simple structures, usually with just one room with a hard-packed dirt floor and a thatch roof of palm fronds, would house a whole family and their simple possessions. The women rose first to fan the embers of previous night’s fire back to life. Perfectly round, hand patted tortillas would then be placed on a rudimentary grill of beaten sheet metal. Once browned, they joined a growing stack ready for her family when they rose.
By dawn the men would be heading to their small milpas hacked out of the surrounding bush on the edge of the Lacondona rainforest of southern Chiapas straddling the Mexico’s border with Guatemala. The corn, beans and squash they grew sustained their families and provided the surplus needed to buy needed essentials. Soon after the women and children would also be about their daily tasks.
Even in normal times spring meant hunger. The planting finished in May would not yield a harvest until August. Second plantings would have to hold the families through winter and all the way again until the next summer harvest.
In the fading light of the day a small Tzeltal Maya girl approached me with a simple question in Spanish, “How many tortillas do you want for tomorrow?” I knew my answer meant extra work and would tax her family’s resources. The villagers of La Garrucha had asked Bishop Samuel Ruiz and the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre several hours bus drive away in the town of San Cristobal de las Casas to provide international peace monitors for them. They hoped that our presence would provide a modicum of protection for them in this conflict zone. The villagers in return would provide us with a place to sleep and a kitchen where we could cook our meals, firewood and three dozen tortillas a day.
Rejected, marginalized and exploited, the people of La Garrucha after years of protests with no officials deigning to listen to their pleas, supported the Zapatista uprising in 1994. This brought the force of the state down on them. A military action had forced to flee their homes and fields the year before my stay in their village in 1997. Paramilitary actions continue to plague them even to this day.
Their crime was to speak truth to power. They sought and continue to seek to reclaim a fair share of the wealth denied to them in the resource rich state of Chiapas, their ancestral land. Fully a third of the indigenous people were reported to be severely malnourished in a state that provided staples like sugar and beef to the rest of the country. Sixty per cent of school-age children like those in this village had no access to schooling. A small portable generator provided the only electricity they had for their clinic and occasional community events.
Elijah in our first reading spoke truth to power. In Israel of the ninth century B.C. a drought ravaged the northern kingdom of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had prophesied this as he preached against the alienating policies and practices of a ruler who had broken faith with the Lord God.
Elijah sought refuge from a vengeful king and the natural calamity with a poor woman and her son. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand,” his instructed her. We know how the story goes from here, her complete trust in the words of a stranger and her hospitality were rewarded.
Jesus in the gospel also spoke truth to power as he taught in the temple. In the very heart of the Jewish nation he seated himself in front of the treasury. Who were the scribes he watched? Jesus denounced of these powerful and privileged interpreters and administrators of the law in their day as “They devour widow’s houses” while placing their large donations in temple coffers. He lauds for his disciples and those among us listening the honest faith and far greater generosity of the poor widow with her gift of “two small copper coins.” Had she been a victim of a corrupt system and scribal hypocrisy?
“Create a climate for change” is the slogan for the Development and Peace 2015 education and action campaign this fall. (www.devp.org/en/articles/create-climate-change) It urges us to reflect on “Our overconsumption combined with political inaction on global warming” which “are fuelling extreme weather events, and are leading to long-term damage to the living environments and livelihoods of poor communities in the Global South. Reducing our consumption and demanding political action addresses the structural causes at the root of climate-related disasters, but also creates the conditions for the sustainable development of communities.”
In La Garrucha soon after dawn the little Tzeltal Maya girl I spoke of earlier returned with my day’s 10 tortillas wrapped in a cloth. I told her to thank her family. Today likely she is a wife and mother with her own family still struggling, though, along with her community to right the wrongs of an unjust society.
The sacrifice of Jesus “at the end of the age” points the way for us toward the need for healing and reconciliation for La Garrucha, for ourselves and for all of our planet.
For many years, writer, educator and outdoor enthusiast Michael Dougherty has been an active community leader. He has been involved with numerous organizations, including the Social Justice Committee at the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse; the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition; the Yukon Human Rights Board; and the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society. In 2014 he received the Governor General’s Caring Canadian award. An adjunct professor at Yukon College, Dougherty lives in Whitehorse.