December 22, 2016
In Chiapas, a southern state bordering Guatemala known for its beauty, people live in poverty despite rich natural resources. They’ve been neglected by the government since “the beginning” says my father-in-law. Structural oppression is an established norm. For people living in the USA, this oppression would be unacceptable. That’s the word that kept coming to my mind as Waldir and I made our way through the state, driving a rental car over dangerous roads supposedly taken care of by the federal government: unacceptable.
The government pays for propaganda lauding the safety of the state. Waldir and I drove through mostly rural areas (no internet or phone reception, for example), but when we arrived in cities, we saw big billboards featuring a picture of a clean, well-dressed, smiling little girl that read: Chiapas: The Safest State in Mexico. Over our four days of travel, contrary to the billboards, we saw children who weren’t clean or well-dressed. They played on the side of the roads, at the edge of the jungles, in the dirt. Flea-infested, hungry dogs wandered around them.
Years ago, around the same time that the president of Mexico made a free trade agreement with the United States, a group of civilians called Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN)—the Zapatista Military of National Liberation—rose and demanded justice because of the poverty of southern Chiapas. Among many grievances voiced against the government, the Zapatistas asked why the president made this trade deal as it allowed the people of Chiapas to die from poverty.
My own anger against the government rose on our second night in the state when, after the sunset, Waldir and I found ourselves on a treacherous road to Ocosingo, driving over continuous deep, large potholes as we slowly winded through the jungle in the little rental car. The curvy roads were dangerous enough; factor in thousands of potholes, steep drop-offs, black darkness, and only half-repaired sections of road that force you to drive into one lane (the lane that oncoming traffic drives on)—and it’s a recipe for disaster. Our bodies tense and hearts racing in fear as we realized we’d driven into dangerous territory—something didn’t feel right, but by this point, an hour in, continuing forward was better than turning around—Waldir raised his voice in frustration as he drove. I held on to my seat, praying. Waldir had decided to take this route because it was over an hour faster than the alternate route, and when we began the drive, we didn’t know we’d be moving into a dangerous area not only because of the roads but also because of bands of robbers known for placing barriers across the highway in the night.
We didn’t encounter robbers, but one of our car’s tires slashed while crossing a pothole. By God’s grace, the flat tire happened in the one stretch of jungle without curves in the road; since we were on a straight stretch of land, any local vehicles speeding through the jungle would have time to see us before slamming into the back of our car. Had we been stuck on a curve, we likely would have been hit.
Rain fell as Waldir changed the tire. Although it took nearly an hour before we got going again, only two cars drove by and they didn’t stop (for which we were grateful). This was not a situation where we wanted cars to stop to “help”—fear of robbery is strongly present traveling in this area. As I said though, at the time—even though we were scared—we didn’t know what a local from Palenque would later tell us: Never take the road to Ocosingo, even in daylight. Better to drive a few hours out of your way to avoid it altogether.
After Waldir got the spare tire on, we got back on the road, prayed we wouldn’t get another flat, and felt great relief when we finally made it to Ocosingo around midnight. We crashed at a cheap hotel, got back on the road the next morning, and made it to the famous “Cascadas de Agua Azul” (Blue Waterfalls)—many waterfalls with turquoise water you can swim in—where we hiked to the source of the falls with a local guide, Ivan, who told us about the jungle that surrounded the water. There are lots of jaguars in the area but they’re afraid of humans and they don’t attack; besides, they’re nocturnal so our chances of spotting one were slim (although I would have loved to see one; I’m a cat lover). Ivan is part of a team that protects the jungle and the animals but unfortunately, he told us, there are “bad people here, too” who hunt jaguars for their skin. Recently they caught five hunters who had killed a jaguar; they were sentenced to eight years in prison. I was surprised and heartened to hear that these hunters were prosecuted since many, many people get away with horrendous crime in Mexico (especially the drug dealers) and since so often I hear about corrupted police officers who protect trafficking and/or accept bribes.
The beauty of Chiapas—the jungle, abundant fruit, rivers, great Mayan ruins we visited at Palenque on our 4th day of the trip—starkly contrasts the difficulty of life for people in the state. After Waldir and I spent our day in Palenque at the ruins and then visited an ecoparque—a rescue reserve for wild animals where we saw monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, turtles, parrots and various birds, a bamboo forest, etc.—we decided to walk from the tourist part of the area into the city where locals shop, eat, and live. Within just a few minutes, just outside the area of restaurants for tourists and the local shops, we didn’t feel safe, and we turned around. Waldir shook his head as if to say, “This is a great shame.”
When we’re in Mexico, Waldir sometimes gets lost in thought and then turns to me with an idea or question about how to help his brothers and sisters in Mexico. As tourists, as we enjoyed richly beautiful and safer areas of Chiapas, I lightheartedly asked Waldir, “Would you ever want to move here?” and he said yes, “to help my brothers and sisters.” He talked specifically of helping in the church. We also talked about economic development. On a different day, I had made a comment about that fact that I sometimes say, “The gospel is the answer.” But people living in such great oppression need structural change. They need basic physical resources. Yes, people often become more self-reliant and lift themselves out of poverty with gospel knowledge, but for people living in such oppression, there is no way out.
That last night in Palenque, after walking into the town and then coming back to the tourist area, we went to a café for dessert since we still felt hungry after eating dinner—which is rare for us, but we’d been running around all day in the hot sun and hadn’t eaten. It felt like a luxury. After we finished our dessert and sat at a table outside talking, someone approached us and asked for money. I sat facing Waldir, and as I turned around to look at the voice who spoke to me, I saw an emaciated man, probably in his 60s, standing in front of us, torn, filthy t shirt and pants hanging on his little body. We’re used to this; in the country of Mexico and in our home base in Boston (especially in Harvard Square), every day we see people asking for money. But during that trip to Chiapas, I hadn’t yet seen someone in the area who looked like he or she was legitimately starving. Ironically, on the night that we went to buy dessert—a symbol of the fact that we have money to spend on not only dinner but on more food after—here was this man, our brother born into very different circumstances than us, standing by our side. We gave him some money but as he walked away I couldn’t stop looking at him, and I turned to Waldir, and Waldir dug in his pockets to find more. By this time, the man had walked into a restaurant across the street and I thought the waiters might kick him out, but I watched as even they let him ask for money from the restaurant’s customers. Even the local waiters pitied this man. I waited a minute or two and he came out of the restaurant and started walking down the hill back toward the local section of the city. As I made my way toward the man, a little boy ran out of the restaurant, holding half a sandwich, saying, “Sir, this is for you,” and then I handed the man the money I held, saying, “God bless you,” and “take care.” I walked back to the café, crying, and felt too embarrassed to sit back down there; I went to the car and wept as Waldir paid our check.
The next day, Waldir and I got back in our rental car, drove to one last waterfall before the 7-hour drive (the long drive to avoid treacherous roads and roadblocks), back to the airport to take our flight into Mexico City. However careful with money we may be, however much we may talk about our student loans and cost of living in Boston, the fact is: we’re incredibly wealthy in comparison to the majority of people living in the world. We’ve got the privilege of food and clothes and shelter and also of education and the ability to get loans for education and of vacations and of being able to freely move in and out of places, going to nice areas of Chiapas to enjoy the beauty and then leaving when we want to leave. Most of all, we’ve got our Savior, Jesus Christ. I believe the people we saw in Chiapas have the same Savior. I believe He loves them equally. And I do believe that many of the people we met in Chiapas are happy. I don’t believe our friends are constantly thinking, “We’re in poverty and we’re unhappy.” I think people do what they need to do to survive. And I know my conceptions of “poverty” and “happiness” are likely very different from that of my brothers and sisters living in parts of the world I know little about (whether “wealthy” or “impoverished” by my standard). I do know that I’ve been fortunate in just about every way a person can be fortunate. As I reflect on the state of Chiapas, I think about the scripture: “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick, and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:39).
It’s almost Christmas, and as I think about my brother who approached Waldir and me at the café, I wonder if he feels the love of his Savior. Does he know that he is known– cherished–by a God?
And although I believe the Savior’s love can reach the darkest of places, I wonder: Would I believe in a Savior if I were starving?