Out of the Land Itself
The Zapatistas are a group of indigenous, Mayan, people living in Chiapas, Mexico where their people have been brutally oppressed by the government since the first white settlements. As their land has been taken, so has their livelihood, and they recognized in the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on January 1, 1994 further oppression. They chose on that day to rise up as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), taking a stand of resistance.
Our first reading, “We Do Not Exist, We Just Are” is a poem shared by Comandante David and Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos in 2001 at an event that marked the seventh anniversary of the Zapatista uprising.
We are wind, Us,
not the breath which blows on us.
We are word, Us,
Not the lips which speak to us,
We are step, Us,
Not the foot upon which we walk,
We are heartbeat, Us,
not the heart that pulses,
We are bridge, us,
Not the soils which the bridge joins,
We are roads, Us,
not the point of leaving or arriving,
We are place, Us,
not who occupies that place,
We do not exist, Us
We just are,
Seven times we are,
Us, seven times,
Us, the repeating mirror,
The reflection, Us
The hand which just opened the window,
Us, the world calling out
to the door of Tomorrow.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah* small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
Drive cross-country in the summer in the Midwest, and you will see little else but one thing. Rows upon rows upon rows of corn. Each row is perfectly planted so that if you look out of the window of the car just right, you can see straight down the rows, your eyes picking up almost a stop-action effect as the car speeds along. The dark earth shows in between each row, void of weeds or any other plant life. Mile after mile, field after field, all of it straight rows of corn.
Drive cross-country in the state of Chiapas in the south of Mexico, and you will still see corn. Round a bend near the top of a rise in the highlands, and the steep hillside is dotted with the pale, dry stalks. They stand out in their height and their faded color. The corn on these hillsides grows among all of the other vegetation, surrounded by a diverse and light green field of plant-life. These plants are not hemmed in by rows or order. They make their presence known, and you cannot help but see them. Sometimes, near small houses, barely more than shacks, you might see a field of corn surrounded by a fence, but such fields are small. The growing of this corn is far from a multi-billion dollar industry. It feeds the people.
These people, the indigenous, Mayan people, trace their heritage back through the corn itself. They are the People of the Corn, created by the gods out of corn in order to worship them. For centuries, corn has been central to their lives and their livelihoods. As the corn is central, so is the land. When the Spanish began to settle the area, the inconvenient people who were already there farmed the best land – the plains nearest to the coast. But, as they were inconvenient, the Spanish drove them off of the land, with violence, slavery, and sickness. Those coastal lands became home to the Spanish cattle ranches, leaving no room for the corn or the People of the Corn. Over time, the people were pushed further into the highlands and into the rainforests, where they would have to clear land in order to grow their corn. Even now, long after Mexico gained independence, the Mayan people continue to be inconvenient, they are seen as less than human, and the government does what it can to continue taking land away from them, bringing ruin to the poor of the land.
It has always been about the land – throughout all of history. The land is the root of our being. No matter from where our ancestors came, people have always put down their roots and formed a connection with the land. Identity stems out of the land, its nature, the plants and animals that emerge from it, blossoming in expressions of culture. Everything on which we subsist, food, energy, building materials connects back to the land from which it came. It does not matter how much credence we put onto intellectual property – our economy cannot be separated from the earth out of which everything comes. We have forgotten this, and it has blinded us to the harm we do in the name of profit.
In 1994, The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, went into effect, opening up the land of Mexico to the great corporations of the United States and Canada without tariffs – free trade, no taxes.
With no thought to the needy or the poor of the land, with no thought to the natural balances of the land itself, these corporations have begun open-sky mining – a process that does not burrow deep below the mountain for ore but instead detonates the entire mountain, bit by bit. They use millions of gallons of water a day to extract the ore – leaving it tainted with cyanide to poison everything and everyone downstream.
With no thought to the loss of life of plants and animals or of farmland, these corporations continue to build massive hydro-electric dams on the great Rio Grijalva, which flood hundreds of square miles of land. Entire towns and villages have been flooded by these dams, again driving people off of the land to which they are tied. We have often thought of hydro-electric power as clean energy, but as the flooded plants decompose, they let off gasses that mix with the water to release carbon-dioxide, contributing to global warming.
With no thought to the land or the people, our corporations have purchased huge swaths of the Lacandon rainforest as carbon offsets. These trees are now protected from being torn down for lumber or to clear the land. What can the Mayan people who have been driven into this very rainforest to live because they cannot own land elsewhere do? They must live there, but they are forbidden to take down the trees in order to plant their own crops.
With no thought to the livelihood of the people, the corporations that sell highly subsidized American corn have taken advantage of free-trade to flood the Mexican market with corn at an unbeatable price. The People of the Corn who used to sell this crop to survive will never be able to compete, as the Mexican government ended all corn subsidies as NAFTA went into effect.
The oppression of the land is inextricably tied to the oppression of the people. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land.” Amos speaks to this connection. It is the land that brings about the grain and the wheat that the rich he condemns wish to sell – “the ephah small and the shekel great” – the smallest possible weight of grain for the greatest possible price. Although Amos prophesied in the eighth century before the Common Era, does this sound familiar? Those in power, those with wealth seeking to expand that wealth, no matter the price to the poor and the oppressed – the people of the land, the people of the corn.
Amos recognizes the travesty and asserts that such behaviors can only bring about destruction. He proclaims that the land shall tremble, shall “rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again.” It is through the land itself that destruction shall come as retribution for exploitation.
The land did indeed tremble during a trip that I took to Chiapas a year ago in January. As our group of seminarians and friends listened to the very poor of the land, oppressed Mayan women trying desperately to make a living in a world that will not make room for them, one of them stopped the conversation to point out that the room was shaking. Suddenly, looks of bewilderment and realization struck the faces of our group as we realized that the strangeness we had felt while sitting in our chairs was actually an earthquake. Pictures of groups of indigenous women weavers hanging on the wall rocked back and forth as we paused to hold sacred the power of the land itself.
Prophesy aside, the will of God aside, there is wisdom to Amos’ words that oppression of the people and the land shall bring about destruction, and it shall affect everyone. After this past summer of record heat and widespread drought, it becomes ever more difficult to deny that we are experiencing global warming. Global climate change, directly caused by the wealth-seeking actions of both those “other” “powerful” people and by us. I am complicit when I participate in our society that relies on globalization and unfair trade, labor, and environmental practices. I am complicit in the oppression of the people and the land. The destruction we experience from the land, I, too, have had a hand in causing. As has each of us.
Each of us is complicit when we look for the lowest prices, purchasing goods that corporations have produced in sweatshops. When we as stockholders or owners of mutual funds expect a return on our investment, driving corporations to increase profits by moving operations overseas. When we do not challenge our government in its support of nations that practice near-genocide. We are complicit when we hear the sound of dropped coins but do not listen for the cricket. We are complicit when we do not take the time to see – to see the oppressed people of the world.
I believe that Amos’ wisdom extends beyond the literal interpretation of destruction of the land, as well. “All of it [shall] rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again.” All shall rise like the Nile, be tossed about and sink again.
When a people became fed up, forced off of their land again and again, wrapped up in red tape, and seeing no future in a country that would rather they not exist, they did not give up hope. These people, these Mayan people in Chiapas, said “Ya Basta!” “Enough is enough!” They came together, deep in the jungles where they would not be seen, and they planned. They dreamed. They gathered what resources they could - food, supplies, clothing. They acquired uniforms, ski masks and bandanas to hide their identities, and a few guns. With the help of a man from Mexico City, Subcommandante Marcos, easily recognized by a pipe held between his teeth through the black fabric of his ski mask, they built an army, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, led by their own Commandantes, men and women. And, they rose up like the Nile on a day that the world would remember. On that day, January 1, 1994 – as NAFTA went into effect – their forces claimed four cities as their own. They did this without firing a single shot.
Ya Basta! Enough is Enough! Their demands, simple and basic, were twelve in number: freedom, democracy, justice, peace, land, education, health, housing, food, development, cultural rights and women’s rights. Of course, the government did not recognize these demands, and it fought back, turning the state of Chiapas into a militarized zone. But the work of the people had only just begun.
They had dreamed. The hand which just opened the window, Us, the world calling out to the door of tomorrow. They envisioned a new life for themselves, free of the pressures of the government.
And so, they built their dream. The Zapatistas created their own cities and villages – 34 in number – communities that could be fully autonomous of the government. They could provide fully for themselves. They formed collectives of artisans to make beautiful things to sell. They built their own farms to grow their food. They reinvented government to be egalitarian and truly democratic. They built a university for themselves just on the outskirts of San Cristobal – the Universidad de la Tierra, University of the Land. Their children began to learn together, all kinds of skills that they would bring back to their communities to continue to be autonomous.
These communities exist today, still wearing ski masks and bandanas, the marks of their resistance, still facing military and para-military attacks. These communities exist today. The people rose like the Nile, tossed about their reality, and settled back into another world. Otro Mundo Posible – Another world is Possible.
All shall rise like the Nile, be tossed about and sink again.
This is the drastic change to our economic and political systems that must occur in order to tackle oppression that exists on a global scale. It is a terrifying thought. Something so great to happen as to rise in a way that mixes everything up, leaving nothing the same as it once was, unrecognizable, and put it back down in a new sense of order. Nothing left the same. Reinvent humanity.
This idea has been around for thousands of years, the need to start over. Noah’s flood, the decree in Leviticus for a Jubilee year when all of the economics shall revert to their original status, the cyclical nature of Hinduism, the dream of the founders of this country to begin something separate and new that had potential for life, liberty, and happiness for all, the movement that deemed itself able to ‘Occupy’ the financial system in order to bring about change, and the Mayan calendar that predicted December 21, 2012 to be the end of an era with something vastly different and better to come. Maybe something so radical as starting over is a dream. An impossible and amazing dream that true change might come about.
Therein lie the threat and the hope. True upheaval and change threatens everything that we know, for everything we know comes out of systems of oppression. True hope because when everything sinks back in a new sense of order, we might get it right. We may find a way to build a land in which everyone has that which they need. Everyone.
Think about what this might look like for you. Think about what little upheaval you could create in your own life, in the life of your community, that will allow things to fall into different places. How can you create for yourself a new sense of order? Could it contribute to your involvement in ending oppression of the land and the people?
Take this forward – we are called not only as Unitarian Universalists, but as human beings to participate in the recreation of our world. Dream big. Find a way to help make it happen. And, when you drive across the Midwestern landscape this summer, catch a glimpse of the earth between the rows of corn. Remember that we are connected to that land, just as the Mayan people of Chiapas. Remember them when you see the corn. Remember them and be renewed in your efforts for change.
May it be so.