Fieldwork in Chiapas? Yes!

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Fri, 10 Mar 1995 23:15:00 CST

So far, I have resisted saying anything in the thread involving
Robert Johnson. Now that he has turned to insulting nastiness on
the overt level, I can resist no longer.

Mr. Johnson, stay the hell away from Chiapas. Nobody there needs
ANOTHER gun. The EZLN doesn't have time to waste on caring for
hysterical know-nothings who would be a danger to everyone.

Do you speak Spanish? I do. Do you speak Tzotzil? I used to, and
could learn again. Do you know Chiapas? I do: I know the Selva
Lacandona by firsthand visits (with Trudy Blom on Pancho Blom's
mule) back in the 50's and early 60's, before most of the members
of the EZLN colonized the Selva. Have you ever heard shots fired in
anger? I have, both in the Korean war and in Chiapas. Did you ever
know anybody personally who was killed by (choose one) guardias
blancas, government assassins, the Mexican army, PRI-oriented Indians
or anti-Pri Indians, Ladino ranchers, local caciques and their
pistoleros, drunken government officials, or Indians dealing with
other Indians accused of witchcraft? I've lost friends and
acquaintances to all those kinds of killers. And I've seen children
dead of starvation, umbilical tetanus, diarrhea, and a host of other
preventable or treatable diseases. And I've known not a few people
killed in outright fire fights between rival groups of milperos
contesting rights of access to communal lands with each other.
Anybody who thinks the way to improve the situation is to seek more
death simply doesn't know what's going on.

I am an anthropologist. I worked in Chiapas for years, and stopped
only when it became too dangerous for me personally to continue.
And I've been back working there again, to watch the 1994 elections,
and I probably will go back again in 1995.

I'm proud of what I've done. No, I didn't stop the killing and the
exploitation and the disease and the poverty. I contributed what I
could to doing so, with occasional minor success and, as far as I
know, without such utter failure that anybody died because of what
I did. Most of all, I'm proud of not having gotten in the way of
the people of Chiapas working out their own problems and their own
destinies. The last thing in the world they need is a stupid,
uninformed, ethnocentric outsider telling them what he thinks they
ought to want.

Here in the U.S., I'm not a stupid outsider. This is where I do what
I have been educated to do: stretch the minds of my students to where
they have some appreciation of what it means to be a Chiapaneco, let
the world know when governments--particularly mine, but also those
of Mexico and Central America--are lying to them, work to keep MY
government and my nation from making a bad situation worse.

I don't expect instant results. I don't take temporary defeats as
justification for temper tantrums or ridiculous calls for somebody
else to take up guns. What you do is you go back and try harder;
you celebrate when even one arch-conservative in Chiapas realizes
that things can't continue as they have in the past. (And if you
don't know, I'm talking about such people as Bishop Samuel Ruiz
back when he was installed. He wasn't an activist back then; he
even squelched some priests who rocked the boat with pro-Indian
programs. But he wasn't blind and deaf to what was going on; year
by year his growing activism was firmly based on a willingness to
believe that Indians and Guatemalan refugees and Ladino milperos
have rights because they are humans, not pieces of dirt.) You sleep
better when women are less likely to die in childbirth because there
is a clinic available, when the incidence of parasitosis goes down
because a local water supply has been cleaned up, when a Ladino
rancher voluntarily yields his claim to a specific parcel of land
stolen from an Indian community, and you know that your professional
work has had a small part in bringing about those results.

Improvements in Chiapas will come from knowledge, not from
ignorance. Anthropological fieldwork is one way to get knowledge.
The best proof of the usefulness of anthropologists in Chiapas still
is that Chiapanecos who are most in need of assistance want us to be
there. I'm proud that most of us have deserved that confidence. If
I were a Chiapaneco, I wouldn't think that Mr. Johnson should be
allowed near the place until he grows up.

-- mike salovesh <>