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new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

The cry
by Eduardo Galeano

Gathering crowds around the church in Chamula, Chiapas.

Portrait of Justice in Chiapas
In 1986, Mexican congressman Eraclio Zepeda visited the Cerro Hueco jail in Chiapas. There he met a Tzotzil Mayan Indian serving a thirty-year sentence for killing his father. By chance, Eraclio discovered that the presumably dead father brought his son food every day.

The Indian had been interrogated and tried in Spanish, a language he barely understood. And with the aid of a good beating he’d confessed to being the author of the crime they call ‘patricide’.

Border of Countries and of Years
Armed with sticks, machetes and a few rifles, over a thousand Indians have risen up in the south of Mexico. The insurrection began in Chiapas, in the city that bears the name of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. It occurred as 1993, the Year of Indigenous Peoples according to the United Nations, was dying. And it occurred as 1994, the year the Mexican Government claims the country will enter the First World, was being born.

What Border? What Country?
Any tourist who travels to Mexico’s southern border can see that it is no more than a dotted line on a map. On either side, the Mexican and the Guatemalan, Indian land is populated by Mayans who speak the same languages, share the same customs and memories, and suffer the same scorn. But to go from one room to another in their vast home, they need passports.

In colonial times, Chiapas was part of Central America. In the nineteenth century it became part of Mexico by referendum. The Indians didn’t even know about it. They couldn’t vote. Now they can vote, but they still can’t elect.

Two Exiles, No Kingdom
During the past decade, the Guatemalan generals pursued a plan of extermination. Four hundred Mayan villages were wiped out, and many thousands of Indian survivors found refuge in Chiapas: more than forty thousand under the protection of the United Nations, and who knows how many thousand at the whim of God.

The Mayans on the Mexican side were not victims of any systematic butchery, and comparatively speaking their situation was much better than Guatemala’s tragedy. In the light of the flames of the recent rebellion, one might ask: Was it much better, or was it less worse?

The Majority is No Longer Silent
How many bombings, how many executions will it take to choke off this cry of desperation?

Like all the Indians of the Americas, the Mayans of Chiapas suffer the humiliation of incessant conquest. The communities of Chiapas, sacked a thousand times over the centuries, now face the annihilating stampede of the clear-cutters and Indian-hunters of the epoch of consumer society and the market economy; lumber and cattle corporations, assassins of forests and devourers of lands and hands.

Past and Present
Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was the bishop of Chiapas. When he arrived in 1545, the local gentry offered him a few coins from the Burial Fund as their only donation. And Fray Bartolomé soon confirmed that the Indians were treated as slaves, even if they had branded on their arms the word libre.

Times have changed, but even in our day many of the Indians of Chiapas are slaves of debt. If the local gentry have no need for their cheap hands, they would be pleased to send them to the cemetery or the museum.

In our day Fray Bartolomé’s comment on the horrors he discovered still resounds: ‘Doesn’t God see them, even when they wear masks?’

Copyright © 1994 by Eduardo Galeano.
Translation copyright © 1994 by Mark Fried.
Reprinted by permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York.

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