Four days after the Zapatista uprising on New Year’s Day 1994 in the impoverished state of Chiapas, a reporter interviewed one of its peasant soldiers, a prisoner of the Mexican army, and asked why he was fighting. “I want there to be democracy, no more inequality,” he said. “I am looking for a life worth living, liberation, just like God says.” John Womack Jr. uses these words as the epigraph to his book Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader.

The speaker was José Pérez Méndez, a Mayan peasant like all the common soldiers of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (the EZLN), and his statement conveys much of the impetus of the rebellion, whose leaders were not Mayan chiapanecos but urban university graduates, like Subcomandante Marcos himself. They had been planning the uprising for ten years, with the original intention of establishing a guerrilla foco (center) in Chiapas, in territory under their control, from which they hoped a revolution could spread. But the rebellion became something quite different: an event and a movement that could go nowhere militarily but have received extraordinary national and international attention. Now, more than five years later, the eventual fate of Zapatismo is still uncertain, and Mexico will enter the year 2000 with the as yet unresolved problem of, in the words of the Mexican intellectual Gabriel Zaid, “the first postmodern guerrilla war.”

The Zapatista soldier José Pérez Méndez had good reason to want democracy. For the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which has governed Mexico uninterruptedly for seventy years, the “backward” state of Chiapas was a secure reserve of votes in national elections, giving the PRI, on average, 97 percent of the ballots. The “electoral victory” was engineered through efficient methods of fraud: vote buying, false ballots substituted for the real thing in areas where the government party felt threatened, and strong pressure from powerful local interests to “vote the right way.” The machinery of the corporate state had links with all levels of power in Chiapas, from the Indian caciques, or political bosses, of small villages and communities all the way up to the dominant class—the owners of the coffee plantations and the cattle ranches, the lumber barons operating in the tropical forests, and other financial interests.

Pérez Méndez was one of many thousands protesting against the extreme social inequality in Chiapas. The state has immense natural resources. As of 1994 it was the primary producer of coffee, cattle, and cacao in Mexico, third in hydroelectric power, fourth in natural gas resources. And yet of its population of 3.7 million as of 1994 (of which 27 percent are Indian, divided among four major groups of ethnic Mayans), 50 percent were undernourished, 75 percent earned less than the Mexican minimum wage (then defined as 1,500 US dollars per year), and 56 percent were illiterate. In Los Altos (“The Heights”) and the Lacandón Forest—centers of Zapatismo—the conditions were even worse, intensified by a population density of seventy-six inhabitants per square kilometer, almost double that of the rest of the state. And in these regions, close to 80 percent of the population is Indian.

Perhaps the greatest justification for Pérez Méndez’s militancy lies in the daily affront to his dignity (Womack’s “a life worth living” is a translation of una vida digna, which can also be rendered as “a life with dignity”). Mexico is a country which for four centuries has undergone the most successful process of ethnic and cultural mixing in the Americas, but the ancient region of the Mayan civilization in Mexico, comprising primarily Chiapas and Yucatan, has been an exception from the very beginning. Racial discrimination, exploitation, and servitude have flourished through the centuries in its haciendas and cities. And they have bred ferocious ethnic wars.

The continued presence of the Zapatista movement may not have lessened the economic inequalities of Chiapas (recent studies are not available), but there is no doubt that it has given the image of Indians (about 10 percent of the total population of Mexico) greater dignity, and brought their problems to the center of national attention. The shock of the Zapatista uprising of 1994 surely helped to intensify the demand for democratic change in the country. Faced with the threat that Mexicans might again be drawn to revolutionary action as they have been in the past, the people who hold power in Mexico, particularly the PRI, for the very first time, opened up a real possibility of democratic electoral competition. At the same time, the political left, represented by the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)—a coalition of various forces including socialists, former Communists, and dissident defectors from the PRI—could cleanly distance itself from the idea of armed revolution (strongly favored by some sectors of the left since the late 1960s) and take clearer form as a social-democratic party contending politically for power.


The Zapatistas themselves, however, have shown an ambivalent, sometimes hostile, attitude toward electoral democracy, and this has had disastrous results. In the municipal elections of 1995, for instance, they instructed their followers not to take part in the voting, which both proved damaging to the PRD, the party that had shown the most respect for them, and also helped the PRI win elections they might otherwise have lost. In that same year, the Zapatistas chose not to respect the outcome of a citizens’ referendum conducted nationwide by sympathetic groups in which 1.5 million voters asked them to disarm and join the political process. Again, in 1997, they discouraged their followers from voting in the midterm elections, once more delivering many municipalities to the PRI. On the other hand, the Zapatistas have actively promoted the spontaneous establishment of “independent municipalities,” taking over villages controlled by the PRI. This has led to violence on both sides.

In his introduction to Rebellion in Chiapas, a collection of thirty-two documents ranging from colonial arguments and pronouncements dating from the sixteenth century to the latest EZLN communiqués from the jungle, John Womack Jr. explores the complicated, and sometimes paradoxical, unfolding of the Zapatista movement. He credits the government of President Carlos Salinas for its considerable investment in Chiapas before the rebellion, and for having rapidly decreed a cease-fire after the initial outbreak, instead of moving on to crush the movement, an option strongly favored by some of his advisers. Womack shows less sympathy for the policies of the present government of Ernesto Zedillo, whom he blames for delaying, and ultimately blocking, a solution to the conflict, even though both parties signed the agreement of San Andrés in 1996, which called for the withdrawal of most of the Mexican army stationed in Chiapas and the disarming of the Zapatistas.

Womack says (and he is partly right) that Zedillo did not carry out the accords because he felt that a continuing military presence and the mere passage of time would erode the will and the prestige of the Zapatistas. It is also true, and not discussed by Womack, that the provision advocating autonomy for Indian ethnic communities and their “uses and customs” ran into widespread opposition within the government, which feared that if power within the communities were to fall completely into the hands of local Indian leaders and come to serve the prejudices of majorities unused to tolerating dissident opinions, local autonomy would not only “subvert the political order” but also cause real harm to individual rights.

With 40,000 government troops still deployed in the regions involved in the Zapatista uprising, Chiapas is today engaged in a frozen war. But another, more sporadic, civil war continues, on a smaller scale, a war within the Indian population itself, between the Zapatistas’ supporters and their opponents. Some of their opponents are paramilitary groups linked directly to the PRI or to powerful local bosses. But others have political disagreements with the Zapatistas or reflect old resentments or newly inflamed family land disputes.

On December 22, 1997, in the tiny settlement of Acteal, one of these villages divided between factions, an appalling massacre took place. Forty-five defenseless people (twenty-one women, fifteen children, and nine men) were murdered. The dead were all members of Las Abejas, “The Bees,” a citizens’ organization sponsored by the diocese of San Cristóbal and sympathetic to the Zapatistas. The victims were praying at a local shrine when the killers launched their attacks. Two explanations for the slaughter have been offered. According to a communiqué issued by Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista army, it was a clear case of “ethnocide,” of “a state-sponsored crime…approved by the federal and local governments,” as part of the ongoing “low intensity war” against the Indians of Chiapas. The assassins were described as “paramilitary” groups directly armed by the state.

The official government report admits a “limited complicity” of “local police forces” but claims that the crime was committed by other Indians, supporters of the PRI who were bitterly opposed to the local pro-Zapatistas because they had created an “autonomous municipality” in the zone and had taken over its major resource, a bank of sand and gravel used as filler for road construction. The government report describes a civil war, a wave of looting and robberies, violent assaults, killings, and acts of revenge committed by both sides. It sketches a fierce conflict not so different from a number of ancient feuds among the Indians, where the communal system of values can show its negative side in the rejection of dissent, leading frequently to expulsions or even attempts to exterminate the dissenters.

Both versions convey much of the truth. Local government officials, not only the local police, shared far more responsibility for the crime than they admitted. The killers were allowed to organize and arm themselves despite warnings about what they might do. They were paramilitaries, but not federally sponsored gunmen. Like their victims, they were local Indians, working for a political boss connected to the PRI who was seeking revenge for the death of one of his sons in a recent encounter. On December 14, the boss, Jacinto Arias Cruz, former PRI mayor of the town of Chenalhó, was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for organizing the massacre. Twenty-three of the killers were convicted with him. In the polarized situation of present-day Chiapas, the possibility of similar massacres continues to be very real.


Womack’s collection offers English-speaking readers the opportunity to demystify the conflict by introducing a broad historical perspective. And it corrects an overemphasis on the charismatic Subcomandante Marcos by also concentrating on a person whose work in Chiapas preceded Marcos by twenty-five years, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Without an understanding of Samuel Ruiz’s long years of evangelical labor, the Zapatista rebellion cannot be adequately comprehended or evaluated. Using sources in the original Spanish, including some of the documents that Womack translates as well as other books and articles and a number of interviews I conducted in Chiapas, I have come to a somewhat different view of Ruiz’s work, though Womack and I agree on the vital importance of the religious factor to what has happened, and is happening, in Chiapas.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who has recently retired at the age of seventy-five after almost forty years as bishop, has carried through the most successful practical application in all of Latin America of the liberation theology that developed out of Vatican Council II convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962. Because of him, hundreds of thousands of Indians in the state of Chiapas have “become conscious” of the conditions of oppression under which they live. This is obviously a great good, but the impressive pastoral work of Samuel Ruiz has had other results as well, some more controversial.


Hanging on a wall of Bishop Samuel Ruiz’s office in the episcopal building in the highland city of San Cristóbal de las Casas is a folk-style painting that de-picts an imaginary encounter between Samuel Ruiz and his remote precursor: Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the great apostle to the Indians of the sixteenth century. The artist has presented the pair almost as twins, except for the eyeglasses Samuel Ruiz is wearing.

Bartolomé de las Casas, the “protector of the Indians,” was the first priest ordained in the New World and the third bishop of San Cristóbal. The painting not only brings together the two men but recalls, as well, the traditional filial relationship in Mexico between priests and Indians, which began in 1524 when Hernán Cortés summoned the Franciscan missionaries to Mexico. Hidalgo and Morelos, the nineteenth-century leaders of the War of Independence against Spain, were both priests; and their armies, at least in the first stage of the rebellion, were largely Indian. Chiapas, which is a living museum of Mexican history, seems the perfect place for the resurgence of a very Mexican figure, the rebel priest who may invoke the neo-Thomist doctrine of the “Just War,” as a last resort of the oppressed against their oppressors.

According to Don Samuel, the grim reality that he encountered when he arrived in Chiapas in 1960 was not “generically distinct” from what had profoundly shaken the soul of his great predecessor more than four centuries before. In one community he was informed that all the children had died almost overnight as the result of an epidemic wrongly diagnosed by the official health services. In some haciendas, owners whipped their resident peons; in San Cristóbal de las Casas, bastion of the coletos (a term used for the white upper class, especially within this city), Indians would still step off the sidewalks to let whites pass and could still hear themselves addressed with the same words of racial contempt that had assaulted the ears of Fray Bartolomé four centuries ago: “Indian dogs!”

To put an end to what Las Casas called the “unlawful treatment of the Indians,” both bishops took energetic action. They brought to the diocese priests who shared their concern. Both called on members of the Dominican order, which, like the Franciscans, had come to the New World as a preaching order actively seeking converts. From the first, certain Dominicans showed a greater critical awareness of the injustice and cruelties inflicted upon the Indians, and they were the first to voice doubts about the moral legitimacy of the Conquest.

Both bishops also had to deal with significant resistance from local ecclesiastics: Fray Bartolomé from members of other preaching orders, Samuel Ruiz from the old monsignors and other conservative priests who were shocked when he would refuse to sleep in the “big house” of a hacienda and would choose instead to spend the night in the modest home of a peon. Both would come to praise, and idealize, the values and customs of the Indians, arguing that they had lived in a better society whose harmony had been subverted by the Conquistadores and, more recently, by exploiters and power brokers from outside the Indian communities.

“He is a prophet who creates prophets,” says Miguel Concha, director of the order of the Dominicans in Mexico, about Bishop Ruiz. And Don Samuel has produced many prophets in his diocese: thousands of lay teachers of doctrine, called “catechists,” the great majority of them Indians, who for three decades have been sowing (they would also say receiving) the “Word of God” in their small communities. The new “catechist” movement in Chiapas, Ruiz’s creation, can be seen as a variation on traditional conversion: the propagation of doctrine by personal teaching in an effort to make the Indians conscious of their oppression.

This evangelical effort has been at the heart of the political changes that have shaken Chiapas before and since 1994. Fray Toribio de Benavente (known as Motolinía), a famous Franciscan opponent of Bartolomé de las Casas, expressed his fear that Las Casas’s ideas would someday be “read by the Indians.” This is precisely what Samuel Ruiz and his catechists have succeeded in doing.


Don Samuel Ruiz was the first-born son of poor parents. His mother and father met as braceros, migrant grape-pickers in California. His mother was there illegally, as a “wetback.” They married and returned to Mexico, where their son Samuel was born in 1924, in Irapuato, within the highland basin of the bajío to the north of Mexico City. This zone (along with Jalisco to the west) forms the very heart of Catholic Mexico. During the late Twenties (the era of the uprising of Catholic peasants called Cristeros against the anticlerical government of President Plutarco Elias Calles) and the Thirties, his father, now a small grocer, was not only pro-Cristero but also a Sinarquista, a member of a home-grown Mexican movement that was deeply Catholic but can also legitimately be described, in its racism and exclusivism, as fascist.

The movement was strong in León, where Samuel Ruiz entered a seminary in 1937, at the age of thirteen. The young Samuel Ruiz saw Sinarquismo as “a movement that shook things up, a necessary step in the civic and political education of society.” He is very far from that position now. The direct ideological descendants of Sinarquismo—the dangerous and profoundly anti-democratic movements of the Catholic far right—are fiercely opposed to social Catholicism, to Samuel Ruiz and the theology of liberation. But coming from a Sinarquista family, he had an early acquaintance with an ideology that rejected the secular state in favor of a religious community.

In 1947, after studying at the Seminary of León, Samuel Ruiz entered the Colegio Pio Latinoamericano in Rome, a key center for the training of Latin-American priests. He seemed well on his way to a relatively cloistered career as a church theologian when, at the Biblical Institute of Rome, he studied biblical exegesis and began, as he would later say, “to half understand that the Bible is the only book written for a poor people in search of the promised land.”

He returned to Mexico in 1952, and in 1954 he became rector of the Seminary of León. Five years later, he was appointed bishop of Chiapas—the poorest, most socially backward state in the Mexican republic. He would become one of the 2,692 bishops to attend the historic conclave that changed much of the direction of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council.

Shortly before the Council began, he had his first transforming “revelation,” his emotional response to one of the major themes Pope John presented as a preamble to the conference: the declaration that it was to be in the developing countries, in the “third world,” that the Church would discover what it really was and what it really had to do. For the bishop of Chiapas, this exhortation implied a mandate: “It clarified and determined the essential mission of the Church: if it does not maintain an adequate relationship with the structural world of poverty, it is no longer the Church of Jesus Christ.”

In 1964, Ruiz decided that his diocese was much too large for him to deal effectively with social problems. So he cut it in two: the dioceses of Tuxtla and, what would become his own, of San Cristóbal de las Casas, 48 percent of the state, including by far the majority of its Indian population. Then, three years later, Samuel Ruiz divided his diocese into six administrative zones, based in part on ethnic differences.

In 1962 Ruiz invited groups of Dominicans into Chiapas, most of them dedicated to the new directions within the Church. By 1966, these “apostles” had established the Mission to the Chamulas, which would undertake, along with their normal priestly duties, the construction of a health center and workshops for arts and crafts, a night school for teaching women about health care and other domestic skills, and a communal farm. But it was the opening of schools for training and organizing Indians as “catechists” that was the decisive step in implementing the new evangelism. Ruiz celebrated Mass at one or another of these schools every Sunday. By the Seventies, more than seven hundred catechists had been trained, and there would be many more in the years to come.

Liberation theology for Latin America—the “Preferential Option in Favor of the Poor”—received its classic articulation at the Second Conference of Latin American Bishops held in Medellín, Colombia, which Ruiz attended in the critical year of 1968. The new theology incorporated some aspects of Marxist analysis: the class struggle as an objective fact, capital as the product of alienated labor, and especially the explanation of the underdevelopment of the so-called third world as a direct product of the development of the so-called first world. In addition, the liberation theologists would try to discover “the Plan of God” in the Bible, and attempt to “activate the transforming energy” of biblical texts. The new theology called for peaceful struggle to resolve the problems of the poor and the oppressed but—in line with the neo-Thomist definition of “a just war, to avenge a wrong so serious that it is impossible to heal it in any other way”1—did not exclude the use of violence as a last resort.


The communities of Las Cañadas—a region laced with deep ravines within the Lacandón Jungle, which was to become a center of the Zapatista movement—were established by immigrants from elsewhere in Chiapas beginning in the Fifties. Most of these immigrants had been peons on estates bordering on the jungle who were forced out when the government began encouraging the spread of cattle ranches by giving the landowners financial incentives to switch from farming. The local oligarchy, the landowners and the politicians of the PRI, who were deeply imbued with a master-servant notion of the economy and a racist view of society, lobbied locally and nationally against government land-distribution efforts, and they hired gunmen to prevent the peons from settling on unused lands within their estates. Other immigrants were workers who had lost their places on the coffee plantations in the south of the state, as the growers began to hire cheaper Guatemalan labor. For many Indians, emigration to the jungle seemed their only hope. Between 1950 and 1980, the population of the Lacandón Jungle nearly tripled, from fewer than 80,000 souls to about 225,000.

The catechists also moved into Las Cañadas, where they began to apply a new method for “sowing” questions and “harvesting” responses that was partly inspired by the ideas of the Jesuit- trained Brazilian educational reformer Paulo Freire—especially in his key work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). Freire called for the encouragement of independent (and potentially transformative) thinking and expression from illiterate peoples; he wanted them to be taught to read and to be self-sufficient in their judgment. In the words of Fray Gonzalo Ituarte, who was then vicar of the diocese, a truly liberating education should center on “the appropriation of the Word…. The Word of God summons me to re-create the world not for the domination of my brothers but for their liberation.” Put into practice in Chiapas, the process came to be called “The Word of God” and the catechizer would be given the name tijuanej, which in the Tzeltal Maya language means “the animator, the provoker, the stimulator.”

Javier Vargas, a member of the Marist order and a leading teacher and director of the catechists, was on one of his frequent inspection tours through the Ocosingo region near the Lacandón Jungle when it occurred to him that the experience shared by the jungle’s new inhabitants, including the catechists, was that of a new Exodus: the departure from the estates, the long and dangerous period of wandering through the jungle, and the eventual building of new villages. Inspired by the parallel, which brought the biblical world ever closer, Don Samuel and Vargas, along with other workers of the diocese, decided to replace the traditional Catholic catechism of fixed doctrinal questions and answers with a new catechism, more in accord with Vatican II, which would express “all the sources of the Word of God, the Bible, and tradition,” but also “the history of the Indians as they record it, their traditions, their culture, wherein is the seed of ‘the Word of God.”‘

The result was a document fundamental to the conversion of the Indians to an indigenous form of the theology of liberation: We Are Seeking Freedom: The Tzeltales of the Jungle Proclaim the Good News. The text (a translation of which is included in Womack’s book) is based on collective conversations between catechists and Indians, originally held in Tzeltal Mayan and later translated into Spanish and issued in 1971 by the diocese as a modest book of a little more than a hundred pages. It contains prayers, songs, and readings of various kinds organized around the theme of oppression. Four types are described: economic, political, cultural, and religious. The book uses many citations from the New Testament and the prophetic books of the Old Testament to support specific arguments. For example, economic oppression, which the emigrants to the Lacandón Jungle had experienced on the haciendas, is compared to Pharaoh’s Egypt within the context of an appeal to God:

You said to the ancient Israelites when they were living as slaves: “I have seen the sufferings of my people. I have heard them weep and ask me for aid. I come to liberate them from their oppressors and carry them to a fine and spacious land that offers many fine fruits.” (Ex., 3:7-8). Because of this we have come together to ask you, O Lord, to help us as well, to be of aid to us!

The oppression is also political because the laws favor the rich; it is cultural because the caxlanes (non-Indians) despise the languages and cultures of the Indians, who as a consequence fall into the error of despising themselves. And it is religious because conventional religious practice concentrates far too much on external acts of worship, and this undermines the strength of men and does no real honor to God.

To offset these the community must be strengthened: “We live in community, we have a culture, we are worth a great deal…. The community is life, it carries me to freedom…. The good Christian is he who makes the world grow for the good of his brothers….” And more. God Himself is present in the community. He speaks through those who speak and, in a sense, He is the community. The catechism of the Exodus concludes with a question: “What are we to do?”

In 1974, in honoring the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bartolomé de las Casas, the state government of Chiapas inadvertently set the stage for a further step toward action. It convoked a National Indian Conference (Congreso Nacional Indígena), which was undoubtedly meant to be one of the feel-good cultural events that are a common feature of Mexican official calendars. The state authorities asked the diocese for help in organizing the conference, which Samuel Ruiz provided. The results were unexpected.

Months before the conference, six representatives of the diocese visited numerous Indian villages and settlements, encouraging them to take part. Fourteen hundred delegates attended, representing more than five hundred communities, most of them in Chiapas. The sessions dealt with specifically Indian problems and were conducted in Chiapas’s four major Indian languages. For many Indians, it was their first experience outside their closed worlds. It was also the first major public conference in Chiapas at which the Indians themselves discussed their problems without the restrictive presence and interference of the government. During one session, an old man wept, because “no one had ever asked him anything in his whole life.”

The delegates agreed on the need for major improvement on four issues: the protection of Indian land rights, programs for health and for education, and greater protection of the Indian communities from exploitation. A speaker linked the conference to the work of the catechists and dubbed this assembly “the son of the Word of God.” It was followed by meetings throughout the country and even trips by a delegation of Indians and activists to the US and Canada. A newspaper was started and a hymn was composed with versions in all four languages: “We advance as a single heart,/As a single heart we are building our liberation.”

A few political organizers attended the conference, men of the left, some of them radicalized by the “Olympic massacre” of students at the Plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico City in 1968. They had been in Chiapas, says Javier Vargas, “more invisible than visible… not that they were living there clandestinely—it was that they smelled, they felt, the social force of the Chiapas Indians.” They were in a sense the older brothers of men like Subcomandante Marcos, who was eleven years old in 1968. It was they who were mostly responsible for the Marxist phrases and ideas in some of the documents produced by the conference (excerpted by Womack), but they were by no means its leaders. The overwhelming force of language, argument, and moral will clearly came from the Church. And in view of the history of Chiapas’s abandonment, and the resultant weakness of its political institutions, it was natural enough that the leadership be taken by an archaic institution and by a bishop who was a “convert” and on a mission to protect the Indians.2

Inspired primarily by the catechist movement and by a new social consciousness charged with the certitudes of religion, many of the Indians of Chiapas, especially in the Lacandón Jungle, began to make demands on what they perceived as a hostile government. Faced with the growing wave of requests for the partition of lands or for formal acknowledgment of small land tenancies, the local authorities responded with threats, often carried out, of expulsion and violence. They did not understand that a new kind of community was forming in the jungle—more austere, more united, and much more combative.

An absurd decree issued in 1972 by the national government of President Luis Echeverría contributed even more to the community’s cohesion. The decree was presented as an act of “historical restitution” to the “last survivors” of the Maya culture: the Lacandón tribesmen who had been living for many years as hunters and gatherers in the jungle. While an area of 614,321 hectares (about one and a half million acres) was given to the Lacandóns, a total of sixty-six families, the decree was, in part, a smokescreen for the government’s gift of exclusive lumbering rights to big Mexican companies. The welfare and lives of the almost 4,000 Indian families now settled in the region were threatened by this decree, and they began the hard struggle against it.

Toward the end of the Seventies, the diocese made another important move, creating a new category of church workers among the Indians, with new theological and political responsibilities. These were the deacons, known as tuhuneles, or “servants,” who, while laymen like the catechists, could offer the sacraments of baptism, extreme unction, and the Eucharist, and could also serve as marriage witnesses in the name of the Church. This new office, which could be filled for life and was open to married men, was received by the Indians with great enthusiasm. It responded to a centuries-old aspiration in the region—the desire, in the words of one tuhunel, “to have our own leaders, our own priests, our own religion.”

For Samuel Ruiz and his diocese, the tuhuneles were conceived largely as a step toward a return to primitive Christianity. “Without vainglory,” Don Samuel said to me in a recent interview, “I can affirm that if an anthropologist were to visit these communities, he would see that the figures of the catechist and the tuhunel almost stem from the tradition and form part of [the Indian communities’] own culture.”

In practice, the goals of Samuel Ruiz reflect both his longing for the communitarian “primitive Church” and his commitment to the Church as it later developed. By the Seventies, the bishop was fully exercising the three implicit aspects of his office: prophet, priest, and king. As a prophet, he lashed out at injustice in his preaching and announced the hope of liberation. As a priest, he cared for his flock, offering them consolation and guiding them toward an awareness of the holy. As king, he allowed himself to be treated as a sovereign to whom his people rendered homage. He had become known to his people—and addressed in person and writing—as Tatic, the Tzeltal Mayan affectionate form for “father.” Villages would prepare a month in advance for his visits. The women sewed special dresses for the occasion, while the men worked to prepare a proper house for Tatic’s stay. On the day of his arrival, a line of men and a line of women formed to kiss his ring. They slaughtered cattle for a large meal in honor of Tatic, and when he celebrated Mass they sang praises for the prospect of liberation through God and the Gospels.

In 1974, when Ruiz turned fifty, he published a short book of impressive erudition, The Biblical Theology of Revelation, in which he described the Indians of Chiapas as the collective body of Christ, devoted to saving society and themselves. In it he envisioned reality (or at least the reality of Chiapas and the third world, the heart of his theology of liberation) as involving, on the one hand, oppression and oppressors and, on the other, a poor, oppressed people and a God who deals with injustice and offers them a way to oppose it.

But the teaching of the Word of God may exclude those who disagree. In some of the annual reports submitted by the catechists of the Tzeltal area to Bishop Ruiz and now stored in the diocesan archives, there are references to those groups who cannot easily form part of the growing community, and who must be “changed” in order to be included. There are, for instance, those who resist the new teaching methods, those who are described as having “ideological differences,” those who are influenced by Protestant sects, those who disagree politically, those who do not speak their minds in discussions. These comments foreshadow much of the present situation in Chiapas.


The success of the catechists, and later of the deacons, in dealing not only with sacred matters but with the harsh daily problems of the poor, suggested to Ruiz the need for a more explicitly political organization that could make use of the critical energy growing in the Indian communities. Early in 1976, during a visit to Torreón in the border state of Chihuahua in the north, Ruiz met a group of young militants who called themselves “Maoists,” having been influenced by Chinese Marxist belief in the importance of organizing the peasantry, although not by the Maoist commitment to armed revolution. Their leader was Adolfo Orive, a left-wing economist who had spent time in China. His organization, Línea Proletaria, advocated the transformation of social relations, not military struggle. Its young activists were university graduates who had worked as organizers among poor squatters living in Central Mexico, in Torreón, Durango, and Monterrey. They worked mostly on practical matters, such as trying to improve squatters’ housing, increase their water supply, and bring them electricity. “It seemed to me that [Orive] possessed clarity of thought,” Ruiz remembers. He was impressed.

He invited the group, some thirty young activists, to Chiapas, and they began working in the villages alongside representatives of the diocese. They began various modest projects, such as helping the peasants to produce honey which they could sell, and negotiating with the federal government to enable the Indians to sell coffee directly without the participation of rapacious “coyotes” (middlemen).

In the campaign for the peasants’ liberation, another small group, the CIOAC (Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos), some of whose members had joined the Communist Party, succeeded in organizing hundreds of peasants on its own. In contrast to “the struggle step by step” (lucha paso a paso) of Adolfo Orive’s brigadistas, however, they favored and carried out a “struggle by forceful action” (lucha al golpe), occupying land that belonged to the haciendas, and resisting attempts to dislodge them.

By 1978, Orive’s brigadistas, the “northerners,” succeeded in winning the support of a few thousand catechists, who felt that these organizers could make tangible social improvements. But problems arose between the brigadistas and the diocese. The “northerners” at first had relied on the diocese—its organizations, its priests, nuns, and catechists—to gain the confidence of the local population. But then, to the bishop’s dismay, they began to bypass the Church and moved independently into the communities. Moreover, Ruiz and the leaders of his catequistas saw the commercial contacts they had established with the federal government as “compromising.” They accused the brigadistas of being reformistas and compared their projects to the “Golden Calf” of Exodus, a “deception” that would only delay the struggle of the communities to liberate themselves from oppression.

Despite the diocese’s distrust, the brigadistas continued their activity into the early Eighties. They founded an organization called the Unión de Uniones, which was able to conclude agreements with the government for a credit union to help finance grassroots projects for the production and sale of coffee. Thousands of Indian peasants became small stockholders in this bank. When the economic crisis of 1982 bankrupted the Mexican government following a collapse in the oil boom and caused the price of Chiapas coffee to plummet, the brigadistas lost much of their popular support, and Orive and some of his comrades went back north. Behind them they left in place the Unión, a functioning organization that would soon prosper again with aid from the central government, especially after 1988.

Meanwhile the diocese intensified its own political activities. Events in Central America during the late 1970s and 1980s seemed to strengthen the argument for the lucha al golpe: the increase in military terror in Guatemala, the guerrilla action in El Salvador, the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the assassination in Chiapas of Samuel Ruiz’s friend, Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, while celebrating Mass. In 1980, Ruiz created a more radical organization, known as SLOP (“root” in Tzeltal Mayan), drawn from among the catechists closest to him.

SLOP was a clandestine group, and many of the details of its members’ activities are still not known. It was clearly meant to be a core group to prepare for a possible armed rebellion, in line with the revolutionary aspirations that were spreading through South and Central America in the Seventies and Eighties. SLOP had the major assignment of creating armed “self-defense” units for the Indian villages (the word autodefensa in Spanish is a general term for the initial stages of nongovernmental armed organization). Lacking expertise in the use of weapons, they would eventually turn to another group of outsiders who had moved into the Lacandón Jungle in 1983.

These outsiders were the remnants of a guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Front, which had been founded in 1969 in the northern city of Monterrey. Their leaders were university graduates, Marxist revolutionaries who, in the early 1970s, had tried to create a guerrilla foco within the Lacandón Jungle. In 1974, however, the Mexican army had attacked and almost completely destroyed their force. Among the few survivors who left Chiapas were Fernando Yañez, the brother of the movement’s founder. He would return ten years later to reestablish a guerrilla movement, accompanied by younger militants, including a student of philosophy born in Tampico, probably in 1957. This was Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, who had written his university thesis on Althusser and would later become famous under the pseudonym of Subcomandante Marcos. Now, in the early 1980s, the group revived their organization and began recruiting local Indians. They became known as the EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

Bishop Ruiz was well aware of the nature and history of this movement before he made the decision to work with them toward the goal of social revolution. In Chiapas during this period, knowledgeable observers spoke of the “four roads” to social progress: the “Word of God” (that is the diocese itself and its organization); the moderate and reformist Unión de Uniones (later to become ARIC, the Asociación Rural de Interés Colectivo); the EZLN, and SLOP. For Bishop Ruiz, all “four roads” were valid routes to the goal, but the diocese itself was to remain paramount. For six years (1983-1989) the four groups worked together, SLOP and the Zapatistas organizing in the villages and the Union de Uniones/ ARIC providing much of the money, diverted from government funds.

The interplay among these organizations and the various options they represented—all of them considered valid at the time, including armed revolt—is epitomized in the person of Lázaro Hernández. He was the “deacon of deacons,” the most important Indian leader of the diocese, and he joined the EZLN in 1984, under the pseudonym of Jesús, while remaining a leader of SLOP. He received clandestine military training at EZLN camps elsewhere in Mexico and, at the same time, became secretary-general of the moderate ARIC. (Opposed to the tactic of immediate military action, he left the Zapatistas in 1993, and has now become a political boss linked to the PRI.)

In this setting and in the radical atmosphere produced by guerrilla warfare in Central America, many catechists and deacons began to believe in the prospect of an armed uprising, in the idea that “the Word of God” and the need to change society were leading to a religious imperative to “take up arms,” an option in the Catholic tradition of the “just war”—as it is in many religions, from some Protestant sects to Hinduism. In her book Religión, política y guerrilla en Las Cañadas de la Selva Lacandona, Maria del Carmen Legorreta, an adviser for many years to the Unión de Uniones, has collected statements by former partisans of Zapatismo that trace how the catechists’ preaching was slowly sliding toward the acceptance of armed rebellion. In the words of one of these ex-Zapatistas:

You would come to the conclusion [from what the catechists said] that the people of God fought with weapons, not because it said so in the Bible but because that’s the direction they developed out of the questions, about arms, about all the old prophets, how they too struggled in Egypt, they rescued the native peoples who were suffering in their work like servants, like slaves; so what could they do to liberate themselves? Why were they able to free themselves? Because they believed in God, they believed in the armed struggle…. Everything the priests told you was believed, because people trusted the Bishop.

Toward the end of the Eighties, however, the diocese and the secular radical movement of the EZLN came into conflict. By 1988, Subcomandante Marcos was the second-in-command within the clandestine Zapatista hierarchy, becoming number one six years later. Aside from the obvious question of the power of the different groups (a similar question but a much more serious one than the problem a decade earlier with the brigadistas), the confrontation had much to do with the “unmasking” of Subcomandante Marcos’s hostility to religion. Marcos was known to have officiated at “revolutionary marriages” and to have commented frequently that “God and his Word are worth zilch” (valen madres). According to Legorreta, Bishop Ruiz, faced with the growing influence of Zapatismo, decided to use SLOP to offset that influence. According to Bertrand De la Grange and Maité Rico, in their Marcos: La genial impostura, a book highly critical of Zapatismo, the SLOP leaders began to intensify their criticism of the Zapatistas, saying that “Marcos is a mestizo, he’s not poor, and why should we let him give us orders?”

SLOP also tried to buy more arms on the Mexican black market to strengthen its position and to prevent the “armed option” (the lucha al golpe) from being left solely in the hands of the Zapatistas. Marcos began to act against Zapatismo’s opponents. Whole families were expelled from their villages or shunned by their neighbors, and there is evidence that pro-Zapatista deacons refused the sacraments to Indians who would not join or support the EZLN. It was the beginning of the split between Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas that is the source of the endemic civil war within Chiapas.

The Zapatistas were shaken by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which undermined popular faith in their traditionally Marxist ideology (though they would soon adopt an “indigenist” line, concentrating on the unity of all the Indians of Mexico rather than on world revolution). But even after the fall of East European communism, the EZLN was able to retain its strength among the sons of those who had made the exodus to the jungle. These young men dreamed of a transformation in their lives: “After the war, it is we who will give the orders,” one of them said. As for Samuel Ruiz, Marcos is said to have called him a modista—a word that can mean “seamstress” or “fashion designer”—because the bishop followed the “fashions”—modas—of the moment, meaning that Ruiz in the Eighties had seen armed struggle as a possible alternative, a “just war” that would help to move his flock to the Promised Land, but with the fall of communism he changed his mind.

Ruiz was reacting to the new geopolitical reality of Central America, where prospects were visibly growing weaker for a successful lucha al golpe. He broke with the Zapatistas at this time (and only for a time) around the issue of the armed revolt as a tool, but not as a possibility to be totally dismissed. The Zapatistas were moving toward a tactical decision with which he did not agree and they were moving toward it independently, expanding their power partly at the expense of the diocese.

Events were steadily advancing toward the Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994. Marcos made his now famous statement, “Here there will be no Word of God, here there will be no government of the Republic, here there is going to be the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.” Samuel Ruiz made a telling comment, “These people have arrived to mount a saddled horse,” the horse of social revolution that he himself had saddled.

Some of the actions of the Salinas government gave the Zapatistas more verbal ammunition. They argued that NAFTA threatened to flood Mexico with cheap farm products from the north, cutting the income of Mexican peasants. The changes in Article 27 of the Constitution, permitting members of the ejidos—common lands protected from sales—to sell their land to private owners, seemed to be even more threatening, a betrayal of the agrarian reform, the “supreme achievement” of the Mexican Revolution. The Zapatistas spread the word that the government’s action would cause further impoverishment and the devastation of the peasants and Indians of Mexico.

On August 6, 1993, five thousand Zapatistas staged battle maneuvers in the jungle, even while Don Samuel was preaching against the EZLN as “that cursed organization which advocates war and death” and urging his catechists and deacons to teach that “the armed project is a project of death, contrary to God, who chooses a road of life.” Yet much of the sophisticated diocesan radio network remained available to the Zapatistas before, during, and after the rebellion. And that same year, when a military detachment came upon a Zapatista encampment in the jungle and exchanged fire, killing several Zapatistas and taking many of them prisoner, it was Don Samuel who intervened to secure their freedom.

The Salinas government began to accelerate the flow of money into Chiapas. The former Unión de Uniones, now ARIC, tried with some success to revive the reformist goals of the brigadistas ten years later: they built a number of primary schools, introduced new coffee-growing projects, and partly reversed the legislation assigning exclusive privileges to the Lacandón tribesmen in the jungle.

But while many Indians continued to believe in the lucha paso a paso, others sold their cattle to buy arms. The Zapatistas were able to retain 40 percent of their followers, despite the infusions of government money and despite Ruiz’s now open opposition.


In some of their sermons before the rebellion, Don Samuel and his vicar, Gonzalo Ituarte, used drawings of trees to illustrate world and national politics (see illustration on opposite page). One drawing shows, from the roots up, the elements of “the capitalist government which controls,” beginning with landowners, bankers, businessmen, etc., passing through the trunk of political parties and institutions and rising to the top where the various media—as the instruments of ideology—are represented. The second is a compact history of the relationship between the Indians (pobre, “the poor man”) and the diocese (Sk’op, or God). Another tree is much simpler. The diocese organization SLOP forms the roots, the peasants are the trunk, and the summit of the tree is plagued by a majanté, a “parasite” marked “Z” for Zapatismo, which threatens to consume both trunk and roots.

The Church’s visual and verbal admonitions proved fruitless. When the majanté began their rebellion in January 1994, they gained considerable national and international sympathy. In his first public statement after the uprising, Samuel Ruiz gave a measure of legitimacy to the movement, his words fully in line with his commitment to the supreme value of social equality: “The truth is that for the Indians, tired of the promises made by government, there was no other way out but that of the gun. They were driven beyond what they could stand, though we do think that there are alternatives.” What did he mean by alternatives? In part perhaps further organization, different sorts of pressure. More important, however, the term is deliberately vague, as Ruiz’s rhetoric often has been (which is true as well of the Church in general and of all Mexican rhetoric, even when something very real is screened behind the elegant words).

It is nevertheless clear that the bishop’s attitude toward government has not changed since the rebellion. When I first met him, in 1994, he commented on the impending national and local elections: the National Action Party (PAN) was a party that represented the interests of the upper and middle classes, he said. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) claimed to speak for working people, but the experience of England showed that workers were fully capable of voting for conservatives. As for the governing party, the PRI, it wasn’t even worth discussion. “There are no acceptable schemes,” he said quietly. “We have to search for national articulation beyond the political parties. What is most important is that ‘civil society’ manifest and express itself. I am hopeful that a miracle will happen. If not, there will be an inmolación” (the Spanish word suggesting not only revolution but martyrdom). He maintained that position when I last saw him, a year ago: the electoral process in Mexico offered no reasonable way to reform the country.

Yet in January 1994, when President Salinas unexpectedly declared a cease-fire after almost two weeks of fighting, both the government and the Zapatistas requested Ruiz’s mediation in the peace talks. The Zapatistas still respected him, while the government recognized him as a useful intermediary. In 1994, Mikhail Gorbachev recommended the bishop for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he might have won if peace had really come to Chiapas. But now, almost six years later, the Mexican army remains in place, while Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas continue to confront each other uneasily and sometimes violently in many villages.


I ended my last interview with Don Samuel a year ago feeling that I had met a true incarnation of Isaiah or Amos, the righteous prophet of God. Yet I also felt that he lives in a different world from mine. While his struggle for social justice over so many years has been impressive and moving, his attitude toward compromise and toward violence remains ambiguous.

To me the danger in Ruiz’s view of the world is not only that it leaves little room for dissent. By helping to polarize a community, it can lead to potentially explosive situations, as happened in the massacre at Acteal. It can also serve to intensify the exclusiveness of traditionalist communities like those of the Chiapas Indians. And it can feed the temptation (a constant danger in Mexican history) toward martyrdom as a means of triumph over defeat.

One of Samuel Ruiz’s most loyal converts, Father Raul Vera, is scheduled to replace him, although there is speculation that the Vatican will appoint a more conservative bishop, as it did some years ago in Chihuahua and Cuernavaca. In either event, Ruiz’s successor will greatly influence the future of Chiapas, and the impact of the Chiapas problem in Mexico. It may be that the EZLN leaders are waiting till the year 2000, hoping for the election of a center-left government with whom they might more easily deal. At the present moment, this does not seem likely. It will be essential for the next government—whether PRI, PAN, or PRD—to conclude a final settlement in Chiapas. The best option for the Church in Chiapas and for Zapatismo itself would be to recognize the growing enthusiasm for electoral democracy, to participate in the elections of the year 2000, and to struggle, electorally and democratically, for legislation that could help the many poor of Mexico, and particularly the Indians, who are often the poorest among them.

If Zapatismo remains a guerrilla movement in a state of passive waiting, it will continue to lose force and sooner or later have to come to a negotiated agreement like those that ended the guerrilla wars in Central America. And, on the side of the Church, the new bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas—whoever he may be—will have the responsibility of determining the direction of the Chiapas Church. The odds are still good that the elections of 2000 will be the most democratic in the modern history of the country. In that event all the elements of Mexican society, including the Zapatistas and the Church in Chiapas, will have to adjust to this new reality, which—if the election goes reasonably well—could create a national government (and a precedent) with the controls and accountability that are necessary for democracy to develop and maintain itself in Mexico.

—November 16, 1999
(Translated from the Spanishby Hank Heifetz)

This Issue

December 16, 1999