Volunteering with Frayba in Acteal, Chiapas
In mid-March, I began a two-week service as a BriCO (International Brigades of Civil Observers) volunteer in Acteal, Chiapas. As I write, it is one month since we returned from San Cristobal de Las Casas, where our journey began.
Before we left San Cristóbal for our stay as BriCOs (Civil Brigades for Observation), we did a preparatory workshop with Schools for Chiapas and also a two-day preparation with the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights (Frayba), which were both very useful to understand the complexity of the problems that indigenous community’s face, as well as the social conflicts that are now provoked by the government of Mexico.
Early in the morning we met at the office of FrayBa, where we got to know our driver, who should bring us safely to Acteal, our home for the next two weeks. We also met the previous group of BriCOs that just got back from their voluntary service and we could exchange some information and tips with them. Then we started. When we reached Acteal, we were welcomed by the governing assembly of the community and also by some children that greeted us with the Spanish they knew.
Our first day was relaxed. We got introduced to the community and had the time to arrange our luggage, store our food and prepare our hammocks to sleep. In the evening we were invited to get to know the whole mesa directiva (those responsible for the indigenous community, that are part of the autonomous and pacifist organization Las Abejas de Acteal). We introduced ourselves, and the members of the mesa directiva introduced themselves to us and thanked us for coming to Acteal.
The village of Acteal has an important meaning for the members of Las Abejas. On the 22nd of December, 1997,a massacre took place in the village, where 45 indigenous people were killed by Mexican paramilitaries. Since that day, Acteal serves as the place to hold political assemblies, as the home for the members of the mesa directiva and their families, but also as a cultural center, where on the 22nd of each month a commemorative ceremony for the martyrs of Acteal takes place.
During our stay we got invited to attend the ceremony on the 22nd, which was an honor for us and a very impressive experience. Unfortunately the ceremony got disturbed by people who were throwing rocks on the roof of the place of the ceremony. Later the mesa directiva told us that things like this happen frequently. This is the reason that the BriCOs exist. We are there to show our presence, which unfortunately is more than necessary, so that attacks like this are less likely. We are also there to show solidarity with indigenous communities and to let it be known that attacks like these are witnessed and not tolerated. We learned that the social tension between different indigenous groups got fueled by the government and their tactics, named solución amistosa (friendly solution). With donations or construction work, the state tries to divide communities and sabotages their ambitions to live together as autonomous, indigenous communities.
The rest of our stay was relatively calm. We played a lot with the children, although our communication was very basic. We also talked a lot to the mesa directiva. They tried to answer all of our questions and made us feel very welcome. We often got invited to join the assemblies and the following lunch with the people from the other communities. During the assembly someone always translated for us from Tsotsil (the Mayan language they speak) to Spanish, so we could follow.
In general everyone was very kind and thankful. We could always ask our questions about the community, the organization and why things are like they are. They always tried to make things clear for us, so that in the end we got a good impression about how Las Abejas work together, how and also why they do politics in their own special way, autonomous from the Mexican government.
To experience their form of living and working together was so interesting and impressive to see, because it is so different from everything we knew before from our home countries. It really affected my thoughts in a long-term way and I am beyond thankful that we could have this experience.
Lena y Jan
Original article by SFC.