Early every morning before the first distant streak of colour breaks the blackness of night sky on the eastern horizon, fires are lit. For millennia women have begun the same daily ritual in small agricultural settlements like La Garrucha.
A flicker of light from cooking fires could be seen through the stick walls of their simple homes on the edge of the Lacadona rainforest straddling the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala. Women first ground the corn, which had been, soaked overnight in water with slaked lime. Skilled hands then patted the soft masa harina dough into round tortillas and place them on a heated grill.
Warm tortillas with a little salt and possibly beans greeted her family as they awakened to face the new day. By the first light of dawn the men were already beginning to make their way to small distant fields hacked out of the shrinking rainforest. A side bag of tortillas along with their water gourd hung off their shoulders. Tortillas were truly their life-sustaining bread.
As a human rights observer in this Tzeltal-speaking village some two decades ago, I witnessed this morning ritual repeatedly. The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, had sent me there to accompany these people in this then heavily militarized zone. A little over three years before, in 1994, the Zapatista uprising had taken place. The long oppressed indigenous Mayan peoples of the region along with poor neighbours, after exhausting all peaceful means, staged a revolt. The military reacted swiftly. The church under Bishop Samuel Ruiz helped broker an uneasy peace.
Violent incursions persisted in breaking the false calm. The military attacked the community of La Garrucha early one spring morning the year before I came to it. Alerted by their dogs to the military movements, villagers gathered what they could and quickly fled into the surrounding forests. One elder told me that the very young and the old suffered the most. Some died in forests before they felt it safe to return to their ruined village. No manna miraculously appeared to feed these people in the wilderness as it had the Israelites on their wanderings. Was this experience meant, as Moses had told his people in our first reading, “to humble you and to test you and in the end to do you good”?
The community of La Garrucha rebuilt. It was hard. Their fields had not been planted. Hunger visited the village increasing their suffering. A humble dirt-floored chapel occupied the centre of the village. Their faith helped hold them fast though their travails. It “led them through the great and terrible wilderness” they faced together.
Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican missionary from Spain, served as one of the first bishops of Chiapas. He is remembered as a protector of the Indians there. Bishop Samuel Ruiz founded the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in 1989. He gave it the mission to walk at the side and in the service of the poor and excluded.” As its goal it sought to “contribute to the building of a society where people and communities exercise and enjoy all their rights in their fullness.” He signed the identity card I had to wear everyday as I went about my tasks in the village.
Bishop Ruiz’s participation in the Second Vatican Council led him to see the need to bring the Catholic faith to people in a way that reflected their own cultures. How could the gospels be incarnated into the local culture of each community in Chiapas? Bishop Ruiz saw to the translation of the Scriptures into local languages. His catechists no longer delivered a “colonial” version of the Word of God to the communities with which they worked. They sought under Bishop Ruiz’s direction to incorporate the Gospel within the cultural traditions and day-to-day lives of the indigenous communities. A sense of social solidarity with the indigenous people developed. “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” as Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
The indigenous peoples in Chiapas came to call Bishop Ruiz “Tatic” out of respect for his commitment to them. It means “father” in a local Mayan language. A priest would likely visit La Garrucha only once or twice a year but every Sunday the faithful would fill the simple wood benches of the chapel, men on one side, women on the other. A liturgy of the word would be celebrated.
At that synagogue in Capernaum some 2,000 years ago, John writes in the Gospel that Jesus said, “the one who eats this bread will live forever.” After the Gospel was read in Tzeltal everyone would break up into small groups to reflect on the meaning the Scriptures had for them in their lives. Questions from an elder would facilitate the discussion. Then more prayers followed, the Our Father would be said and a hymn sung before communion was distributed. An elder brought the consecrated hosts from a town hours of travel away. Christ’s death and resurrection was continually present to them through the breaking of the bread.
I have heard that La Garrucha finally has electricity. Maybe they also now have a teacher for their school and medicine in their clinic. One thing for sure, though, they continue share along with us in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.