Up from Chiapas


With the storefront door opened to crisp air and curious people, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo is for now seated near friends who ask for an autograph of her 2001 book, ‘Histories and Stories from Chiapas.’ Turning back the cover, she points to a full-page photo of a white stelae, explaining how borders are marked the traditional way, not with walls.

"It’s a symbolic border," she smiles, showing how the marker sits upon an island in the middle of a lake. From her position not quite in the center of a gathering crowd at MonkeyWrench Books in Austin, Texas, the legendary anthropologist is glowing with words, ideas, projects, and stories. It is time, says an organizer, to get the program started.

In her latest collaboration, ‘Dissident Women,’ published the week before Thanksgiving, Hernández is one of several editors and writers who offer fresh studies about the ongoing indigenous women’s revolutions of Southern Mexico, including a first-time-in-English publication of the 1994 Mayan document, ‘Women’s Rights in our Traditions and Customs.’

As co-editor Shannon Speed explains to Monday nights’s tightly-packed audience, the women of Southern Mexico are working out terms of struggle that allow them to organize within "cultural spaces" connected to indigenous traditions, even as they assert their rights to reform those traditions.

"It is better that we women put down on paper that there are some customs that do not respect us and we want them changed," reads the Mayan document of 1994. "Violence-battering and rape-is not right. We don’t want to be traded for money."

Yet, as Mayan women make frank complaints against patriarchy at home, they insist equally that "we don’t want a paternalistic state coming in to handle this for us," says Speed. The words provoke memories of rapes and beatings committed by police this past May, in an assault upon indigenous flower merchants; an attack that Hernández has described as "some of the saddest and most violent days in the modern history of San Salvador Atenco, on the outskirts of the Mexico City megalopolis."

Hearing these words from the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, or Tlaxcala, my mind leaps to Afghanistan and Iraq, where steel-tipped outbursts of masculine temper have been propagandized as women’s liberation. Compared to the knowledge that Hernández and Speed bring from Southern Mexico, what do we yet know about all those women who now live under our bombs?

Against the deafening violence of gluttonous states, indigenous women of the Americas continue their 500-year struggle for cultural sovereignty. The gathering of Mayan women who produced ‘Women’s Rights in our Traditions and Customs’ was prompted in part by a government official who one day informed Hernández that indigenous women are not interested in politics. Likewise, among academic officials, prevailing attitudes assume that indigenous women don’t really think.

"We are tired of seeing indigenous women reserved for the appendix of scholarly books," explains Hernández, to an audience that sits at the margins of the University of Texas community. "Indigenous women also struggle with theoretical issues." Although scholars will use narratives of ‘native peoples’ for source materials, any ‘theory’ to be heard from those voices will likely be dis-credited. And to tell the truth about it, attitudes about ‘women’s knowledge’ can infect the women themselves.

Doctoral candidate Melissa M Forbis, tonight’s third and last speaker, has been working for a decade in Southern Mexico, "because what I was reading about Chiapas didn’t match what I was experiencing." She helps us to remember that health care was one issue that provoked the Zapatista uprising. The indigenous peoples of Chiapas were dying in high numbers from curable diseases, and women were dying at high rates from childbirth. So one of the first tasks facing the indigenous movement was recovery of their own health. That recovery required theory and knowledge.

On the road to their own definition of health, the women of Chiapas worked collectively to recover their knowledge of indigenous herbs, and to remember themselves as the healers who had given care to their communities for tens of thousands of years. To do this, they shook off 500 years of persecution as ‘brujos’ or witches. And against proximate threats of violence, they traveled in pairs. Yet again, they re-became ‘promotoras de salud’–promoters of health.

"Health is the well-being of the people and the individual, who have the capacity and motivation for all types of activities whether social or political," declared the Zapatista community Moisés Gandhi in 1997. "Health is living without humiliation; being able to develop ourselves as women and men; it is being able to struggle for a new country where the poor and particularly the indigenous peoples can make decisions autonomously. Poverty, militarization and war destroy health."

Surely on Thanksgiving Day, these are words any true pilgrim would be thankful to digest.

Note: Dissident Women: Gender and Cultural Politics in Chiapas. Edited by Shannon Speed, R. Aída Hernández Castillo, and Lynn M. Stephen. Book Fourteen in the Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series: Books about women and families, and their changing role in society. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net.


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