By Yvonne Condes
Arizona Daily Wildcat
When Armando Romero arrived in La Grandeza, Chiapas, what he noticed first were the children. They were not in school, but they were not playing either. Many hid and a few stood nearby watching him. Finally, a 7-year-old boy approached and quietly asked, "Are you going to kill us?"
"Fear was present with these people. ... They didn't know who we were or what we wanted. They thought maybe we worked with the government, the army," says Romero, a postbaccalaureate student studying bilingual education at the University of Arizona.
What he and other peace delegates from Tucson wanted was to bring hope to this and other small villages in the southernmost state in Mexico and report back what is happening there.
On Jan. 1, 1994, a band of masked peasants, some armed with guns, others with wooden replicas of rifles, came down from the Lacandon jungle and declared war on the Mexican government. The indigenous peoples, led by the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional and the infamous Subcomandante Marcos, call themselves Zapatistas after Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. They demanded health care, education, and the right to free elections.
There are approximately 3,000 Zapatistas. More than 100 people have died, and there have been reports of lootings and beatings by the Mexican army. Peace talks have taken place on and off since the conflict began and a cease fire is in effect.
Romero diligently follows the news of Chiapas, involving himself in protests, letter writing and public speaking, but "nothing that I had seen on the TV or read in the newspaper was close to my experience there," he says.
He traveled with a peace delegation comprising representatives from Tucson's Chiapas Coalition Pueblo Por La Paz, the Tohono O'Odham, Dakota, Yaqui and Hopi Nations to Chiapas last March, with very little fanfare, unprepared for what awaited them in Mexico City.
Journalists from all over the world were camped in the airport to find out what the group's intentions were. One newspaper mistakenly reported that the delegation planned to meet with Marcos. This, Romero thinks, is where the trouble began.
After arriving in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, there were people who were not as they seemed. A man with a limp approached the group, saying he was from New Mexico and wanted to form a peace delegation there. He asked questions that were inappropriate and obtrusive, Romero says. When group members became suspicious, he left and reportedly was seen running later, with no sign of a limp. Later, a couple appeared asking the same questions, focusing on where the group was going. Fear began to set in as the group speculated that they were spies.
"That night I don't think any of us could sleep. I had my backpack against the door. I was ready to run," Romero says.
From San Cristobal the group went to the village of Emiliano Zapata. After staying one day, they hiked miles through the jungle terrain to La Grandeza, where father Miguel Roland Bartolome de Las Casas, formerly of the Catholic Newman Center in Tucson, held a mass for a man who was killed in a raid on the village.
The next day, villagers walked the delegates to the site where the man was killed, two weeks before they arrived. As they told them the story of what happened to their friend, helicopters flew overhead and the delegates had to run and hide, Romero says.
According to the villagers, children from the village were playing in the jungle Feb. 20 when they stumbled upon the approaching army. They ran back to tell their families what they saw. Some of the villagers fled and those who stayed were beaten and had much of their property destroyed. One man who fled, Hilberto Jimenez Hernandez, had his baby on his back. The army allegedly shot and killed him. He was unarmed, the villagers told the delegates. They eventually got the baby off the man's back, Romero says.
The delegation cut its trip short because of the fear they felt, Romero says. When first approached about this article, Romero was hesitant to give any information over the phone, fearing that his line was being tapped.
"I was in fear. That was only for 10 days. I don't want to imagine what is the situation for the people that have to stay there. ... I'm still afraid here," Romero said two weeks after the trip.
Romero is one of many students and faculty members concerned with what is happening in Chiapas because the issues that affect Mexico are related to issues here at home, says Ana Perches, lecturer from the UA Spanish and Portuguese department.
"I feel I am in solidarity with people of Chiapas," Perches says.
PPLP along with Derecho Hermanos and members of the UA group Movimiento Chicano de Aztl›n, or MEChA, have protested in front of the Mexican Consulate, passed out informational flyers, and helped collect food and money for Pastors for Peace. Pastors has a caravan that travels around the Southwest educating people about the conflict in Chiapas and visiting the region with supplies.
Maritza Broce, a Mexican American studies senior and MEChA member, thinks it is very important to educate herself and the public about the conflict.
"As a Chicana, I cannot ignore what is happening in Mexico. ... It is very inspiring to see these people fighting," Broce says.
The conflict does not have the same impact on everyone. Rodolfo Sanchez from Tuxtla, Chiapas, came to the UA three months ago to study English and remembers the day the conflict began.
The Zapatistas "took some places," Sanchez recalls. "I didn't know they had guns. In Mexico it is normal to take some plazas. In that day I see many soldiers, but the television didn't say (anything)."
Sanchez says there is not much people can do to change the ways of the government.
"(You) only lose your time in that. It is better not to say anything. The government, it is corruption all the time," Sanchez says.
Bilingual education senior Terry Becker says education about the denial of human rights the people of Chiapas are facing is necessary. They don't have access to land, food or water, and their chances "to exist" are being taken away by the government. There are injustices happening there that cannot be ignored, she says.
News from Chiapas has diminished over the last six months, and the peace talks have progressed little.
"I think it's sometimes discouraging, but one cannot get discouraged when one is calling for justice," says Raquel Goldsmith, UA adjunct lecturer in Mexican American studies.
Goldsmith, along with PPLP, has been passing out surveys proposed by the EZLN asking questions regarding what the public wants to see happen with the EZLN. The surveys are being taken all over Mexico, in parts of Europe and in the southwestern United States.
Armando Romero is still haunted by the images of the children in La Grandeza. He became attached to those he befriended and, while there, spent as much time as he could playing games with them and teaching them to sing "Itsy, Bitsy Spider." Regardless of the fear he felt there and here at home, he continues to write letters, keep vigils, and protest. He is planning to go on another peace mission to Chiapas over Christmas break.
Says Romero, "I think this is the only thing I can do to help those children keep singing."
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