[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
In the rural village of Llano Alto in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico, a group of gardeners meets regularly to share experiences in cultivating organic kitchen gardens that produce various kinds of herbs and vegetables for domestic consumption. Supported by the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research (INESIN, an MCC partner organization
for which I work), these gardeners come from families that have been working the land for centuries, with most dedicating themselves exclusively to growing beans and corn, the major staples of the local diet. The idea of growing an organic vegetable and herb garden in one’s backyard is a fairly novel idea. When families have extra cash on hand, they might buy these “extras” to supplement their staple diet—otherwise, they do without. The INESIN initiative aims to foster greater food sovereignty in Llano Alto, supporting farmers in this rural community to provide balanced diets for their families. The initiative has proven successful: the kitchen gardens have attracted the attention of other farmers, leading to an expansion of the group from nine to 19 gardeners. At INESIN we view this expansion positively, yet we also know that expansion could introduce delicate dynamics into the life of the group, as now the gardeners no longer share the same religious affiliation.
INESIN began facilitating the gardeners’ group through a contact at the Church of the Nazarene in Llano Alto. Although INESIN explained upfront to the gardeners that neither INESIN nor the gardeners’ group itself is a program of the church, for the last eight months the majority of the group’s meetings have been held at or around the church. INESIN has found that churches are often good starting places for gardeners’ groups because the church space creates a sense of trust; once a gardeners’ group is formed and operational, however, INESIN encourages it to move outward into the broader community. At a recent meeting with the Llano Alto group, my coworker Marielena delicately brings up the possibility of expanding beyond the church. “Now that the gardens are growing and
we have new members, it’s a good time to begin meeting at each other’s houses,” she suggests. A few faces of the newcomers look relieved. One man explains, “Since we are not part of this church, we feel uncomfortable meeting here, like we’re disrespecting the space by invading it.” Two women from the original group disagree. “This is where we’ve always met. We don’t have the space to host people in our houses anyway.”
The discussion goes on, with the group reaching an agreement that future meetings will be hosted at the homes of group members who volunteer. But as in the case of many conflicts, what makes this particular conflict interesting lies not so much in what is being said, but rather beneath the surface of this conversation about the spaces of gardens, houses and churches.
There have long been tensions over both politics and religion in Chiapas, but the effects of the 1994 Zapatista uprising have deeply intertwined the two. Although the uprising was not clearly a movement about religion, the Zapatista movement benefited from the energy of a socially active Catholic parish influenced by liberation theology. At the same time, a
paramilitary organization in the region drew upon the resentment of the evangelical church feeling like a persecuted underdog. Political and religious tensions at times erupted into violence, most glaringly in the massacre of 45 indigenous pacifist Zapatistas in the community of Acteal in 1997.
These political and religious tensions have persisted among people of different faiths in Chiapas. Several peace organizations have developed over the past 20 years, many through the support of the late Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz, a significant actor in the peace process during and after the uprising. When Ruiz and others dreamed about what INESIN would look like, he commissioned a group of people to “get Catholics and Protestants together to do something. Anything. But don’t talk about religion or differences. Not at first. Just get them together and talking.”
The social landscape in Chiapas has witnessed many changes over the past two decades. In the case of the community in Llano Alto, social conflicts simmer among evangelical churches, rather than between Catholics and evangelicals (Catholics have their own internal struggles in other communities). Yet Ruiz’s original commission to INESIN applies here as well, with INESIN looking to foster ecumenical relationships at the community level through collaborative initiatives around common interests.
In the case of Llano Alto, INESIN’s collaborative initiative focuses on the common interest of food sovereignty. INESIN staff give workshops on organic fertilizers and seed saving (and sharing); gardeners in the project tend each other’s plots and make small talk. When political and religious tensions arise at the community or state level, the members of the group have lived experience with “the other” that is broader and more gracious than mass media portray.
A colleague in the region once told me about a mediation session she facilitated between Protestants and Catholics. At the end of the session the two groups began talking in their native language of Tsotsil, an indigenous language commonly spoken in the highlands of Chiapas. My colleague asked someone to translate for her, as she felt so good about the progress that had been made and wanted to know where the conversation was leading. As it turns out, the two groups were talking about beans, the one thing they felt they might be able to talk about together, perhaps one of the only things they felt they had in common. This story reflects INESIN’s broader experience, in Llano Alto and elsewhere, that engaging in something so simple and complex as growing our own food is intimately connected with the simple and complex task of living peacefully together.
Lindsey Frye serves with MCC in Mexico as ecumenism promoter for INESIN, an MCC partner.
For further reading in English:
Hayden, Tom. Ed. The Zapatista Reader. New York, NY: Thunder Mouth’s Press/Nation Books, 1997.