Thursday, October 9, 2014

Being Heard

Click here for a few seconds of the demonstration.
I didn’t understand the words nor the history but I could feel the sorrow and anger. Walking through the crowd of maybe a couple of thousand people, my eyes began to leak and my heart felt heavy. 

It was a demonstration complete with hand-marked signs and professional banners, megaphones and chants … a gathering of the hard-core, the wounded, the determined and the merely curious and happenstance, such as myself, a wanderer who happened to converge with reality in the Cathedral square of this small town in the southernmost state of Mexico. 

This is a land of textiles, beautiful and brightly colored hand-woven or hand-stitched clothing and household goods. It is also the land of the Zapatistas, once a fuzzy, political word from a far off place, now a part of the life, the soul, of my vecinos … my neighbors. The name comes from Emiliano Zapata, an agrarian reformer, and most Zapatistas are indigenous Mayans. And, while I thought the “Zapatista uprising” was something that happened years ago, yesterday’s demonstration and my subsequent research reminded me that all is not well in the world, even in this small bit of paradise. 

This is the 20th year of this declared war of the people, a war that has cooled to civil resistance and, perhaps, should not be called a war at all, but rather simply a movement toward a greater good. The roots of this movement go back decades, centuries even, but became public on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. Announcing their intentions from the Lacandon Jungle (the largest area of rainforest in North America, one still large enough to support jaguars), their declaration amounted to a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which they considered so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it illegitimate.
Ayotzinapa is the village where
many students were "disappeared."

It doesn’t take long here in Mexico to see the vast differences in economic well-being among the people. Begging children, the maimed and elderly, as well as peasant women carrying huge burdens of textiles or food stuffs to be sold, routinely wander through the streets, often intruding on a casual visitor’s stroll through the colorful and exotic ways of a new land. One day I literally bumped into a woman from the US who proceeded to complain to me about one of her “pet peeves” of not being able to eat in peace. 

The vendors of textiles and trinkets wander through restaurants and the streets, wherever they might find a customer. It’s how they live and feed their families. And, it is irritating. It is a constant reminder that there is poverty, disease and need among us, a poverty so deep that we can’t possibly fix it and the easiest thing to do is to not see it. It is a constant reminder that a huge part of our own “success,” economically at least, comes not just from our own efforts but also from simply our great good fortune of being born into a country and an economic system that values education and offers a great deal of freedom and stability. 

The difference between me and that woman carrying a mass of shawls that she has woven isn’t that great. Had I been born into that woman’s village, I could be her. Her life is hard, but as I talk to people here and wander through the fiestas that celebrate the lives of the saints and watch the families, it turns me back to the question of what is success?
Honoring the 43 missing students and teachers
And that turns me back to yesterday’s demonstration; people seeking a better life … more access to resources, more control over their own destinies, and in this case their own physical safety. 

One of the most powerful images from yesterday showed school photos of 43 young men arranged on the ground like quilts of “the disappeared.” The claim is that the Mexican government and the drug cartels are in an unholy alliance and that dissident students and teachers are being targeted for their efforts to combat drugs and crime.

It’s hard to know what to do with all of this. I know there is no perfect country, no blameless government, but there is so much charm and beauty and goodwill here, that I’m distressed to see this vein of sorrow, anger and the signs of dysfunction of the government systems. Like that woman I bumped into, I’d rather not see the underbelly of life; however, that doesn’t stop it from being there.

The spokesman for the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, is quoted in a Wikipedia article as saying:
We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn't go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.
We went to war in order to be heard. How much of what we do in life is simply an effort to be heard … acknowledged, valued? Much to think about.

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