How Bishop Ruiz built the church in Southern Mexico long before Pope Francis spoke of the peripheries

September 5, 2017

By Jan-Albert Hootsen August 2017 America Magazine 

For a place where history was made less than a quarter of a century ago, the room in the offices of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas is an unassuming one. Tucked away next to a dark hallway and a quiet courtyard, it features just a coffee table, a few chairs and a sofa.  “The furniture here was bought specifically for the negotiations in 1994,” Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco, a Dominican friar, says. He smiles fondly. “This is where the diocesan negotiators spoke with representatives of the government and the Zapatistas, trying to broker a peace agreement.” The humble space is dominated by a large portrait of Samuel Ruiz García—between 1959 and 1999 the bishop of a diocese that spans the highlands of Mexico’s southernmost Chiapas State and the man who changed Chiapas and the diocese forever.

On Jan. 1, 1994, hundreds of masked and armed soldiers of the indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (E.Z.L.N.), named after the famed agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, marched into San Cristóbal. It was supposed to be a festive day for Mexico’s political and business elites and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the day Mexico entered the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead, it became the day indigenous Mexicans rose up in arms after centuries of extreme poverty and marginalization.

As Mexican armed forces moved in and conflict began, the warring parties looked for a mediator. They knew there was only one man with the moral authority to broker a peace deal: Samuel Ruiz García. With the bishop heading negotiations, a cease-fire was reached 12 days later, ultimately resulting in the San Andrés peace agreement of 1996.

“The government knew there was no one more trustworthy than Don Samuel, and the Zapatistas could not confide in anyone else,” recalls Father Ituarte, a close friend and collaborator of Bishop Ruiz. “It was a convergence that started the peace process.”

A Pastor’s Legacy

Outside Mexico, Samuel Ruiz is mostly known for his role in the 1994 conflict. Here in Chiapas, however, his legacy is far broader and deeper. Six years after his death, he remains a towering figure in the political and spiritual imagination of Mexico’s poorest state.

Bishop Ruiz funeral

Long before Pope Francis spoke of a poor church for the poor and taking the church to the peripheries, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de Las Casas built the church in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. Bishop Ruiz is pictured in a 2006 photo. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman)

During his 40 years as bishop of San Cristóbal, he transformed the diocese into Latin America’s first real “autochthonous church,” true to the principles of the Second Vatican Council and the Second General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, two events in contemporary church history that influenced him deeply. He preached “evangelization by the poor,” instructed his priests to study local indigenous languages and trained hundreds of catechists and deacons.

In his practice, being an autochthonous church meant incorporating indigenous traditions in the church and welcoming the participation of indigenous people in a region whose inhabitants had never been treated as equals by European colonizers and their descendants. Bishop Ruiz ordained hundreds of indigenous deacons and translated the Bible into Tzeltal, one of the many local Mayan dialects.

Beyond church reform, Bishop Ruiz became one of Chiapas’s and Mexico’s principal advocates of social justice and equality. Championing indigenous rights and the struggle against poverty and racism, indigenous chiapanecos came to lovingly nickname him “Tatic,” which means “father” in Tzeltal, a local dialect. Others called him “El Caminante,” “the walker,” because of his constant travels through Chiapas. After he was ordained, he famously visited every community of the diocese riding a mule.

Bishop Ruiz’s social and religious struggle in Chiapas placed him at odds with figures of authority in Mexican politics. Mexico’s federal government accused him of espousing Marxism and fomenting the revolutionary thought that ultimately led to the E.Z.L.N.’s uprising. Landowners and the rich elites of Chiapas accused him of Communist sympathies and confronted him, sometimes violently.

He was also often at odds with members of the Mexican church hierarchy, who acted as defenders of the political and cultural status quo, and with the Vatican, which did not approve of his ordinations of indigenous deacons. In 1993, he was asked to step down. After he wrote a pastoral letter defending his reforms and his pastoral approach, Mexican bishops rallied behind him, and he would stay on for another six years.

Bishop Ruiz died in 2011 in Querétaro, near Mexico City, after leaving the Chiapas Diocese in 2000. Some of his most important reforms were contested; the Vatican banned the ordination of indigenous deacons soon after his resignation. In a February 2002 letter to Bishop Ruiz’s successor, Felipe Arizmendi, the Vatican stated it feared indigenous deacons would deviate too far from traditional church doctrine and that the liberal interpretation of the responsibilities of deacons and their wives would be a poor example to other indigenous dioceses across the globe. Some feared the married deacons were a first step toward a married priesthood.

But in death, Bishop Ruiz found a powerful ally in Pope Francis, who not only overturned the ban, but last year prayed at Bishop Ruiz’s tomb and celebrated Mass in San Cristóbal with thousands of chiapanecos.

Bishop Ruiz’s legacy looms large in Chiapas. The state has seen some success in relieving poverty and reducing inequality, but in 2017 it still remains one of Mexico’s poorest states. Contemporary disciples like Raúl Vera, now bishop of Saltillo, in northern Mexico, apply similar pastoral methods for combating poverty and defending human rights. And in the recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination of Alejandro Solalinde, a priest famed for fighting for the rights of migrants, the spirit of Bishop Ruiz lives on.

“Don Samuel was a leader who walked amidst other people, not in front of them,” recalls Father Ituarte. The current provincial of the Dominican order in Mexico, Father Ituarte had worked closely with Bishop Ruiz since he first arrived in Chiapas in 1977, at that time traveling to the state as a tourist. He still fondly remembers his first impressions of the bishop.

“I was a traveling to Ocosingo, a town in the highlands of Chiapas, to the house of the Dominicans. Don Samuel happened to be [going] there at the same time, and I flew with him to Ocosingo in a small airplane,” he says. “There was a great number of people waiting for him, more than a thousand, if I recall, and they received him with extraordinary joy. He was very close to the people there. He was the first bishop I ever met, and he appeared to be a man of the people. I was very surprised, because in 1977 he was still not as visible as he would later be.”

Father Ituarte decided to stay in Chiapas and was ordained a priest soon afterward. From 1989 onward, he would collaborate closely with Bishop Ruiz as the diocese’s general vicar and later the vicar for justice and peace. The two men became good friends.

“I remember him mostly for his clarity of thought and his simplicity,” Father Ituarte says. “He was a man of horizontal relations, never claiming any kind of superiority. What I found astounding was the amount of respect he had for everyone, including those who opposed him. As bishop, he was slandered, insulted, attacked, but he could never bring himself to talk badly about anyone, not even in private.”

When he first arrived in Chiapas, Bishop Ruiz was was not yet the towering figure of social justice he would later become. The first-born son of poor parents in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, he grew up in a staunchly conservative Catholic family environment during a period of turmoil, when devout Catholics engaged in open warfare with Mexico’s then revolutionary and radically anticlerical government, a period known as the Cristero Wars. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico’s foremost historians, described Bishop Ruiz’s father as sympathetic to the sinarquista movement, a far-right social and political campaign he deemed “deeply Catholic, but [one that] can also legitimately be described, in its racism and exclusivism, as fascist.”

Growing up and studying at the seminary in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, Bishop Ruiz espoused conservative Catholic thought; that continued when he entered the Colegio Pio Latinoamericano in Rome. León was one of the core regions of the sinarquista movement, which carried significant influence in the local seminary because of its strong opposition to social Catholicism and the separation of church and state (and later to liberation theology).

According to Mr. Krauze, Bishop Ruiz saw sinarquista initially as “a movement that shook things up, a necessary step in the civic and political education of society.” Less than 15 years later, however, much in his thinking had changed. After a five-year stint as the rector of the Seminary of León, he moved to Chiapas as its new bishop, and his conversion to social justice activist and church reformer began.

Sensibility for the Poor 

“When he first came to Chiapas, he saw the servitude of the indigenous to the owners of coffee plantations, who only allowed the peons to work on small patches that were originally indigenous [land]. There was already a movement towards indigenous workers occupying farms in rebellion against the elites,” Father Ituarte says. “Don Samuel saw from the beginning that the condition of the indigenous wasn’t the will of God, but that it was an effect of injustice.”

“I always tell people that Don Samuel took the Second Vatican Council seriously, that he believed in it,” Father Ituarte says. “Translating Bibles into indigenous languages and placing them in the center of evangelization was an instruction of the council. He wasn’t the first to do so; Protestants here already worked on translations, but he immediately assumed it as his responsibility.”

“Indian Dog” 

Father Ituarte speaks from his office at the diocesan chancery, a striking, colonial building next to the city’s cathedral, one of southern Mexico’s most iconic colonial structures. The colonial center of San Cristóbal, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, still retains much of its old charm despite European-style coffee houses that now line the ancient colonial plazas and the ubiquitous smartphone shops and internet hotspots.

The city also barely conceals a vast, centuries-old gap between rich and poor. Barefoot indigenous Mayan women dressed in colorful traditional garb roam the streets begging for change while European tourists and white and mestizo Mexicans relax in the traditional community’s modern restaurants and coffee shops.

San Cristobal Street
A street in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas (Photo by Kevin Clarke)

In the late 1950s the state was still a semi-feudal region, divided among powerful landowners who ruled their coffee plantations as fiefs, much as their colonial ancestors had done in the centuries before Mexico’s independence. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, with its agrarian reform and redistribution of land from the powerful ruling elites to the rural poor, had largely missed Chiapas. In the 1950s, indigenous Mayans in San Cristóbal would still step from the sidewalk when they saw a white man, and the racial slur perro indio (“Indian dog”) was commonly used.

On the large coffee plantations on the countryside, most indigenous workers lived as peons in semi-slavery for the ruling elite. Basic services like health care and education were completely out of reach for the state’s poorest, as was participation as equals with the white and mestizo population in the church. Baptism would often be the only real contact the Mayan communities had with Catholicism.

“Ruiz was shocked to see the extreme poverty of the indigenous population here,” says Pedro Arriaga, a Jesuit priest who is the spokesperson for the San Cristóbal diocese. “The first thing he thought when he came here was that all indigenous chiapanecos should wear shoes and should speak Spanish, but that was before he realized how deeply rooted slavery was here.”

Bishop Ruiz almost immediately clashed with the state’s elites, especially local political bosses and plantation owners. When previous bishops visited the diocese’s rural communities, they would spend the night at one of the large estates. Bishop Ruiz broke with that tradition and stayed at the homes of indigenous workers.

“He would tell the finca owners when they offered him coffee, that the coffee was paid for with blood,” says Father Arriaga.

Father Arriaga heads the Jesuit mission in Bachajón, a small town with a significant Tzeltal Mayan population. A rural community of approximately 5,000 inhabitants in the northern jungle region of the state, it is now a three-hour drive from San Cristóbal, but that connection between the state’s major cities is relatively a recent luxury; in the 1970s, a trip to Bachajón from San Cristóbal would take two days on foot.

It was here, in towns like Bachajón, that Bishop Ruiz undertook a massive effort to train thousands of catechists and deacons to serve areas that had few priests. Bishop Ruiz was not satisfied with just translating the Bible into the local languages, he set out to master the languages himself, placing the indigenous traditions squarely at the top of church priorities.

“In terms of his pastoral and liturgical influence, the central theme was how he approached the diaconate,” David Fernández Dávalos, the Jesuit rector of the prestigious Iberoamerican University in Mexico City says. “He began educating married people, men as well as women, in the San Cristóbal diocese to become permanent deacons in local churches. It was a long process, which probably took up to 15 years before the first few deacons could be ordained.”

According to Father Fernández Dávalos, the indigenous deacons became the backbone of the San Cristóbal Diocese. “Nowadays, you can’t understand the workings of the San Cristóbal Diocese without understanding the work of the permanent married deacons, of deacons accompanied by their wives.”

“When I first arrived here in 1967, the training of catechists was already well on its way,” says Father Arriaga. “Students were given courses to read and understand the Bible and reflect on it by a method of questions and answers. The system of catechists and deacons fit in well with the indigenous cultures here.”

Many catechists would later become permanent deacons. That was the experience of 60-year-old Matteo Pérez. An indigenous Mayan whose mother tongue is Tzeltal, he remembers Bishop Ruiz fondly as “Tatic Samuel.”

“Everyone here of my generation still talks about him. He invited us into the church and trained us to take part in the process of evangelization,” he says. “But his influence went much further than teaching us the word of God.”

“Before Tatic Samuel came, we were never proud of who we were,” Mr. Pérez says. “Many if us didn’t know how to read or write. He promoted education and told us we had to improve our lives.”

Mr. Pérez became a deacon in 1975, one year after Bishop Ruiz organized the first Gathering of the Indigenous in San Cristóbal, the first grassroots conference by and for indigenous people since Europeans arrived in Mexico almost 500 years before. The event is considered an awakening of indigenous conscience in Chiapas, and historians suggest it helped pave the way for the Zapatista uprising 20 years later.

The Zapatistas and Don Samuel

There is no longer an official dialogue between the Zapatistas and the diocese, priests in Chiapas say, but contact with the so-called caracoles (“snails,” so named in reference to the cochlea as a community center that “hears” the pleas of the people), the administrative centers of the E.Z.L.N., continues. Priests often celebrate Mass and provide spiritual services at caracoles. Attempts by America to speak with Zapatista representatives about Bishop Ruiz’s legacy were unsuccessful, but signs of his influence among the members of the former guerrilla army are hard to miss.

In the north of San Cristóbal, the Zapatistas founded the Universidad de la Tierra (“University of the Earth”), which provides so-called revolutionary education, focused on the environment, indigenous emancipation and the relationship between people and the land they inhabit, with the indigenous chiapaneco culture and traditions at its teaching core. In one of the buildings, a shrine is dedicated to the bishop, and his image is often featured in Zapatista mural paintings.

You can’t talk about the Zapatistas without talking about Don Samuel,” Father Ituarte explains. “He created a degree of consciousness that made the existence of the E.Z.L.N. possible. We didn’t start or support them as an armed group, but we’re conscious that those who started the movement touch upon the same issues as we did.”

The Zapatista uprising ultimately ended in the San Andrés agreements of 1996. The Mexican government and the insurgents agreed upon indigenous autonomy, respect for indigenous heritage and care for the Mayans’ ancestral lands. The conflict was far from over, however, and violence between the army and indigenous groups continued, culminating in the 1997 Acteal massacre.

The massacre, named after the small town of Acteal, took place on Dec. 22, 1997, when a paramilitary group armed by a local political boss killed 45 people. Police refused to intervene. Many describe it as the saddest moment of Bishop Ruiz’s life, as he spent Christmas of that year burying the victims.

Basic services are without a doubt more available now throughout the state, even in harder to reach rural areas and highlands. Moreover, according to the latest yearly “Poverty and Social Neglect” report of Mexico’s federal Social Development Secretariat (Sedesol), Chiapas is no longer the nation’s poorest state, overtaken by Guerrero and neighboring Oaxaca.

Positive as those numbers may be, they are also a bit deceiving. More than 75 percent of chiapanecos still live in poverty, more than 30 percent in extreme poverty. Land disputes and political violence are still rampant and are now joined by a new, potentially far graver problem: drug trafficking and organized crime, often in collusion with local political strongmen.

“We are now facing drug trafficking and far higher levels of corruption,” says the Rev. Marcelo Pérez. A parish priest based in the town of Simojovel, Father Perez also heads the diocese’s social ministry. “Poverty levels haven’t dropped,” and government statements that report otherwise are lies, he says bluntly.

Father Pérez would know; his social work in Bishop Ruiz’s tradition brought him into direct conflict with local strongmen and criminals in 2015. Unknown individuals placed a price on his head, a threat not to be taken lightly in a state where almost 1,500 people were murdered last year.

He attributes many of the problems the state faces now to political corruption and government aid programs. “The communities nowadays are very fragmented, very divided because of politics,” he says. “It’s an economic attack of sorts. Corruption has increased. The politically well-connected hand out fertilizer, T-shirts, water tanks as a way to create dependence, which they try to sell as success. But they’re paternalistic projects; they create people who are dependent on the government and [who] work less.”

Father Ituarte agrees. “There are now social classes in the indigenous communities that reflect the social classes of capitalism,” he says. “There are now great indigenous capitalists, who have their own workers. Poverty is still what marks Chiapas, but it no longer encompasses all indigenous people. There are now rich and poor Indian; there are indigenous drug traffickers and indigenous politicians associated with organized crime. Many of them now live in the cities; they no longer work the land.”

One thing has changed: By now Bishop Ruiz is a figure universally accepted as one the most important in Chiapas’s history, even by the elites. By the closing years of his tenure, political candidates would visit him to boost their images. Few now question his influence or accuse him of being a leftist instigator, as many did in the past.

But according to Pedro Arriaga, there are still signs that Mexico’s political elite are not entirely comfortable with the legacy of Bishop Ruiz. When Pope Francis visited his tomb last year, Father Arriaga was in charge of media relations. He recalls how Televisa, Mexico’s largest broadcaster and generally considered to be pro-government, refused to place cameras showing the pope praying at the bishop’s tomb. It refused to broadcast images of a choir composed of survivors of the Acteal massacre.

“That’s how the media in Mexico still work. They wouldn’t give the survivors of Acteal a chance to denounce the violence. They wouldn’t show Don Samuel as part of the visit,” he says.

But such subtle obliterations did little to diminish the significance of Pope Francis’ visit to Chiapas last year, generally considered a show of support to the continuing influence of Bishop Ruiz on the church’s approach to Mexico’s indigenous communities.

“It was very clear to me that the visit of Pope Francis, the fact that he came here to pray at the tomb, was a way of acknowledging the legacy of Don Samuel,” says Father Ituarte. “Like Don Samuel, the pope has an enormous sensibility for the poor, based on his experiences with the poor in Buenos Aires. He could not have come to Mexico without visiting Chiapas.”

The Zapatista uprising forced the Mexican government to pay more attention to its most impoverished state. In the wake of the armed conflict, new roads were built and most major cities, like the state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Tapachula and San Cristóbal, are now well connected with smaller towns like Bachajón. Indeed, Bishop Ruiz almost instantly set out to create awareness of the extreme poverty and marginalization of the indigenous chiapanecos, but he also took steps to improve their own self-worth. Celebrating Mass in their own languages empowered the state’s impoverished farmers.The awakened social consciousness of Bishop Ruiz was further encouraged by documents emerging from the Second Vatican Council and the Medellín conference, where issues raised during the council were further discussed.

This article also appeared in print, under the headline “In Southern Mexico, tracking the legacy of Bishop Samuel Ruiz,” in the August 21, 2017 issue
 People attend Pope Francis' celebration of Mass with the indigenous community from Chiapas in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico, Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis affirmed the right of Mexico’s 11 million indigenous people to live in a land “where oppression, mistreatment and humiliation are not the currency of the day.” He did so when he celebrated Mass for 100,000 of them in a field at San Cristobal de Las Casas, in the Southern state of Chiapas, on the third day of his visit here.

In the heart of man and in the memory of many of our peoples is imprinted this yearning for a land, for a time when human corruption will be overcome by fraternity, when injustice will be conquered by solidarity and when violence will be silenced by peace,” the pope told his indigenous congregation. Most of them were from Chiapas, where they count for 28 percent of the population of the state, but thousands also came from Mexico’s 36 other dioceses, as well as 300 from Guatemala and 150 from El Salvador.

Francis first delivered his homily in Spanish, and when he finished it was translated into Tzeltal, up to now one of the two languages approved for the liturgy. He began by recalling the biblical story of how God led the Israelites from suffering and slavery in the country of the Pharaohs to the land of freedom, and then told his indigenous congregation that God “suffers as he sees the pain, mistreatment, and lack of justice for his people.” Even more, he shares their longing to live in a different land – “a promised land” – and has shown “his solidarity” with them by sending Jesus, his son who became man “so that darkness may not have the last word and the dawn may not cease to rise on the lives of his sons and daughters.”

Francis knows well the history and situation of the 68 indigenous peoples of Mexico, and he also knows the history of these peoples in other parts of the American continent. As a Jesuit in Argentina he learned much about this, and as pope he has repeatedly spoken in favor of their rights and called for respect for their cultures. He did so most forcefully when he spoke to the Popular Movements in Bolivia last year, and he did so too in speeches on his first day in Mexico.

He is the first pope to come to the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, which was founded in 1528 and was one of the first cities in the Spanish colonies of North America. At an altitude of 7,281 feet, it was once called Ciudad Real and later San Cristobal, to which the name Las Casas was added later in honor of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first bishop of Ciudad Real and forceful advocate of the rights of the indigenous peoples. The city was the political capital of the State of Chiapas until 1892, and is today its cultural capital.

Francis chose to come to Chiapas because he knows it is the least developed of Mexico’s 32 states, economically, socially and culturally. And though it is rich in natural resources, 75 percent of its people are poor, and 32 percent live in dire poverty according to Jesuit Father Pepe Aviles, who has worked here for 30 years.

In his homily, Francis spoke out strongly about this tragic situation. He recalled that “on many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society. Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them.”

Pausing at that point, he commented, “How sad this is!” As he has done in other situations in these days, so too here he issued a call to conversion to all who have been, or who are responsible for this grave situation that offends the dignity of God’s sons and daughters. “How worthwhile it would be for each of us to examine our conscience and learn to say, ‘Forgive me! Forgive me brothers!” he stated.

Then, looking out at his indigenous congregation, that included people of all ages, from babies in their mothers’ arms to the elderly huddled under various kinds of headgear, a great many of them wearing their traditional dress, Francis told them: “Today’s world, ravaged as it is by a throwaway culture, needs you!

In this context he acknowledged their great respect and care for nature and the environment, and noted how it contrasts with the way the world is treated by others. Quoting from his recent encyclical on the care of our common home, he affirmed yet again that “we can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history.”

He told the indigenous people that in this regard, “you have much to teach us. Your peoples, as the bishops of Latin America have recognized, know how to interact harmoniously with nature, which they respect as a source of food, a common home and an altar of human sharing.”

Pope Francis is very concerned at the risks that the young indigenous people face today because they are “exposed to a culture that seeks to suppress all cultural heritage and features in pursuit of a homogenized world,” and they are subjected to efforts “to subdue and lull” them “into a kind of lassitude by suggesting that nothing can change, that their dreams can never come true.” On Saturday he called the Mexican bishops to greater commitment to the indigenous people, and to day he urged the young people to defend themselves against these onslaughts on their culture by clinging “to the wisdom of their elders!

The crowd listened in total silence while he spoke, but immediately he finished they applauded. They did so even more enthusiastically when it was read to them in Tzeltal.

Francis arrived at Tuxtla Gutierrez airport early Monday morning from Mexico City which is his base during his five-day visit here. From there he flew by a Puma helicopter to San Cristobal, where the people cheered and waved on his arrival.  He celebrated Mass under a blazing sun at an altar erected on a dais in front of a painted wooden imitation of the ancient façade of the cathedral of San Cristobal. The background also included representations of Maya culture; they were the dominant people here before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. Francis used some words from the local languages in his homily, and at the Mass prayers were said and the scriptures were read in languages of the original peoples in this state. The music too reflected that culture.

As we have seen on his foreign trips to Latin American countries and in the United States, Francis has always called for respect and protection of the cultures of the indigenous peoples. He is convinced that the church should do more in this regard, and told the Mexican bishops this on his first day here. He knows that Rome has been very cautious about this and 14 years ago stopped the program to have permanent indigenous deacons which Bishop Samuel Ruiz had started and which was most successful. Since becoming pope, in response to the request from the local church, Francis had the whole question studied again and then gave his approval for the program to be reinstated.

At the end of Mass today, he took another step in affirming the rights of these people by issuing a decree formally authorizing the use of nahuatl in the liturgy. This is the language most used by Mexico’s indigenous peoples but up to now it did not have Rome’s approval, whereas other languages such as Tzotzil and Tzeltal did.

Once the Mass was over, Francis went to the bishop’s residence and there had lunch with the local bishop and representatives of the indigenous peoples. Then, before leaving for Tuxlta Gutierrez he paid a visit to the cathedral of St. Cristobal where he prayed at the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, an advocate and defender of the rights of the indigenous peoples.

Commenting on the pope’s visit, Father Pepe Aviles, S.J., told the press that by coming here Francis “has supported what we were doing in all these years” and he has given “encouragement, hope and strength” to the indigenous people and to the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas that had “opted for the poor more than 40 years” when Samuel Ruiz was bishop.

That afternoon, Pope Francis travelled by helicopter from San Cristobal to Tuxlta Gutierrez where he held a very successful and inspiring meeting with families in a stadium, before returning to Mexico City.  Tomorrow, he will travel by plane to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, which became infamous some years back for the violence linked to the drug wars. He’s sure to address the drug trade and the violence on his visit there, and to issue a call to those involved to be converted.

Long before Pope Francis spoke of a poor church for the poor and taking the church to the peripheries, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de Las Casas built the church in southern Chiapas state.

Inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and gatherings of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, and Puebla, Mexico, he showed a preferred option for the poor, rubbed the rich the wrong way and ran afoul of the Vatican with his pastoral approach, especially with his ordination of married, indigenous deacons.

Pope Francis will visit Chiapas Feb. 15 and celebrate Mass for indigenous peoples, including local Mayan languages in the celebration. He also will pray at the tomb of Bishop Ruiz, who died in 2011 at age 86, in the San Cristobal de Las Casas cathedral. It’s seen as a show of respect for a churchman often at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, though a pioneer in a pastoral approach since adopted by the pope.

Pope Francis “can’t come to Mexico without visiting Our Lady of Guadalupe. He couldn’t visit Chiapas without saluting the legacy of Samuel Ruiz,” said Gaspar Morquecho, an anthropologist in San Cristobal de Las Casas. “We’re talking easily of a half century of social ministry work and starting in the ’60s, having a preferential option for the poor.”

The trip to Chiapas — part of a six-day visit to Mexico — highlights the pope’s preoccupation with indigenous issues and a population that has abandoned the church in large numbers across the Americas.

While speaking in Bolivia last July, the pope apologized for the role of the church in the “so-called conquest of America” nearly 500 years ago.

His presence is expected to also bring attention again to the 1994 Zapatista uprising, when an indigenous-led rebel group demanded social, cultural and land rights. The indigenous issue in Mexico, where such populations are often impoverished and living in the most marginalized of municipalities, remains so sensitive in Mexico that local church officials said the Mexican government preferred that the pope visit elsewhere.

But for the pope to travel to Mexico and not San Cristobal de Las Casas would be unthinkable, especially since he reversed a ban the ordination of indigenous deacons imposed after Bishop Ruiz’s retirement. Pope Francis also has approved liturgies in indigenous languages.

“(Bishop Ruiz) constantly had to defend himself to the Vatican and defend his work,” said Michel Andraos, associate professor at the Chicago Theological Union and a frequent visitor to Chiapas. “He kept telling them, ‘I’m Catholic. These are the texts of the Second Vatican Council, and I am following the teachings.'”

In late 1959, St. John XXIII elevated Bishop Ruiz to serve a mostly indigenous population, many of whom worked in exploitative conditions on coffee farms, received little if any education and did not speak Spanish.

Observers say Bishop Ruiz did not start off as a rebel, but rather took issue with the poverty of indigenous peoples in Chiapas. He became known as “Don Samuel,” or, “Tata,” “Father” in the Mayan languages. His diocese even included a ministry for care of “Madre Tierra,” Mother Earth.

Discrimination ran deep in Chiapas, to the point indigenous people were prohibited from walking on the sidewalks of San Cristobal de Las Casas.” The Mexican Revolution hardly reached Chiapas, leaving large landowners who formed the local elite and enjoyed close relations with the church hierarchy.

Don Samuel broke with this dynamic (because) he discovered the reality of the poor and saw that the Gospel could bring about change,” said Dominican Father Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco.

The discord with the elites was a product of Bishop Ruiz’s pastoral approach, which valued indigenous traditions, trained local leaders, spoke of social justice and put an emphasis on participation. Father Ituarte said it organized indigenous people in ways seen as threatening by landowners, some of whom branded the bishop a communist.

Bishop Ruiz learned indigenous languages and tirelessly traveled the diocese, which covers an often-inaccessible highland region, arriving with mules in remote Indian villages. He went on to develop an “autochthonous church,” which would incorporate indigenous traditions and allow them to participate, at least partially, on their own terms.

The system of domination had the indigenous only arriving at the church door. They were baptized, but nothing more. … Don Samuel’s idea is that the indigenous must enter the church, be an active part, with all of the rights,” Father Ituarte said. “The church has been acculturated in various places, (and) we believe the indigenous of the Americas have the right that the church be theirs, too, drawing on their cultural and identity.”

Bishop Ruiz trained hundreds of catechist instructors. Some of them went on to become permanent deacons, trained to serve areas without many priests. Priests say only men in the indigenous Mayan cultures can be considered authority figures, while their wives are automatically seen as authorities, too.

The issue of embracing an indigenous theology brought accusations of mixing Marxism with faith and implementing the concepts of liberation theology. The Vatican banned the ordination of indigenous deacons after Bishop Ruiz’s retirement.

The bishop’s influence went beyond church matters.

“All the presidential candidates stopped in to see him, some to greet him, but some to talk politics,” Morquecho said.

In 1974, Bishop Ruiz organized a conference of indigenous peoples, the first grass-roots gathering of its kind since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Observers say it sparked indigenous awareness and ultimately led to the 1994 Zapatista uprising, in which the rebels took up arms against the government and used tactics of which Bishop Ruiz disapproved.

“People from his pastoral teams, catechist instructors, deacons and candidate-deacons were in the ranks” of the Zapatistas, although they gave up their church positions, Morquecho said.

“If it hadn’t been for Don Samuel, there wouldn’t be a Zapatista army,” Father Ituarte said. “The diocese never proposed creating a people’s army. … But the increasing conscience in these communities made it possible that the Zapatista army emerged.”

Bishop Ruiz became a mediator in the dispute, despite government misgivings.

“At one point they blamed him, but they quickly realized the only person that could mediate was Don Samuel,” Father Ituarte said.

“The causes pushed by the Zapatista were the same ones we had been pushing for many years — the campesino struggle, the indigenous struggle,” though not armed conflict, Father Ituarte added.

The bishop’s final years in Chiapas proved difficult. The 1996 San Andres Accords to address some of the Zapatista grievances were not fully respected, the Zapatistas alleged. The following year, paramilitaries massacred 45 members of a Catholic pacifist group known as Las Abejas (The Bees) during a prayer meeting, just three days before Christmas.

“It was the saddest Christmas of (Bishop Ruiz’s) life,” spent saying funeral Masses for the victims, mostly women and children, said Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga, current diocesan spokesman.

Bishop Ruiz retired in 2000 and left the diocese shortly thereafter. His coadjutor, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, was sent to the northern city of Saltillo, a move some priests in the diocese say was a sign of discontent within the Mexican church hierarchy with the pastoral approach and church role in the Chiapas political situation. The number of Catholics leaving the church for other congregations also increased, leaving Chiapas with the lowest number of Catholics in the country.

The bishop’s legacy still lingers, however. Bishop Ruiz’s successor, Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, has embraced a similar pastoral approach, something not seen in other Mexican dioceses after polemic leaders are replaced, observers say.

Father Ituarte said Chiapas’ indigenous people are slowly showing more assertive attitudes, make gains in areas such as commerce, politics and education, and assuming more prominent positions in society.

“The transformation in Mexico and its vision of the indigenous world has a lot to do with Don Samuel,” he said. He left “a church that is alive (with) a people, who have rediscovered their dignity, values their identity and gives its support to those in the majority, the indigenous peoples.”

Universidad de la Tierra en Oaxaca

Our conceptions

We understand apprenticeship as an aspect of daily life that can be cultivated, and we understand studies as an autonomous and enjoyable activity of free people. The research we conduct, including not only the theoretical and abstract but also their application to an aspect of our reality, are for us exercises in reflection in action. In this context, a practice we privilege is intercultural dialog, an element that permits us always to have an analysis from diverse angles.

A central theme that unites us and to which we are committed is the construction of autonomy. As Unitierra, we are adherents of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandonian Jungle of the EZLN: We believe that no real solution can come from above, from where the powerful merely distribute contempt, dispossession, exploitation and repression. For solutions we instead seek the reconstruction of society from below in the constant effort to recuperate “verbs” such as to learn, to eat, to heal, to live: That is, to recuperate our autonomous capacities to live in dignity constructing a convivial mode of life. We are aware that affirming the dignity of each one of us and of our relationships with others and with nature represents a challenge to the dominant systems.

Our methods

Method of apprenticeship:

To learn from the world, more than about the world: To learn by engaging in the activities that are constitutive of what we would like to learn, as apprentices of those who have been dedicated to these activities.

To learn to transform reality and serve others, particularly in one’s own community and region of origin.

To place the control over the apprenticeship in the hands of the apprentice, according to her/his own rhythm and manner of working – rather than in tutors, teachers or bureaucrats.

To learn to learn for oneself: To master how to learn that which one wants or needs.

To learn to learn with others, in study circles, workshops, seminars or conferences.

Method of research:

We call our research activities “reflection in action”. These processes are rigorous, disciplined, documented and public. These are not personal interpretations – capricious, improvised, superficial or private. Anyone who faithfully follows the exercise and its requirements must arrive at the same results.

Our principal modes of work are observation, dialog, systematic reflection and documentation.

The lines of reflection in action followed so far have included the following: Intercultural comparison of oral cultures with textual and post-textual civilizations; the theory and practice of the convivial society; the pluralistic study within learning communities; pathways to autonomy (with particular emphasis on food sovereignty) technological innovations and recuperation of knowledge and tools – ecological dry toilets; home-made greenhouses, solar energy devices, bicycle pumps, ecological briquettes, etc.; the cultures of corn; the creation of autonomous media and the communalization of the media; the good life, beyond development; from informality to community (of direct workers in the social factory – tradifas – to the area of community). Beyond modernity and postmodernity, in the framework of systemic crisis/collapse (postcapitalist and postpatriarchal).

Internal organization

Unitierra is an open space that forms around groups either of particular interests, of apprenticeship, or of work. To articulate different efforts, there are general assemblies that unite everyone who participates in a continual manner in a work or apprenticeship group.

Some of the people in Unitierra dedicate a substantial portion of their time and activities to Unitierra and from that derive an income. The rest come regularly, to participate in some activities, but without dedicating themselves entirely to Unitierra.

There are no formal hierarchies in Unitierra. For the organization and administration of our activities, we have created a council of coordination that in turn is coordinated by one of the members on a rotating basis. Belonging to the council is determined by the responsibilities and obligations that some undertake with Unitierra to coordinate an area of activity. There are also commissions for specific activities.

Our Scope

1. Freedom to Learn

We regularly engage in activities of practical apprenticeship and common study — both inside as well as outside of our physical space — which are generally open to any interested person.

We organize collective apprenticeship at the local, regional and national levels through forums, exhibitions, audiovisual materials, printed materials, and the use of conventional and alternative media.

We offer accompaniment to those who seek personal programs of apprenticeship and study, for example, to learn specific skills, to explore a field of knowledge and action, to conduct research, or to get involved in the activities of Unitierra in order to “learn by doing” in study or work groups.

2. Reflection in Action

We maintain a weekly seminar, “Pathways to Autonomy”, which as of 2014 is in its thirteenth year, and we periodically organize seminars, apprenticeship workshops, reflection on specific themes, programs of common study for longer timeframes, presentations and discussions of books and other materials, conferences, and diverse events. Currently the seminars that are being conducted are:

Beyond patriarchy;

Rethinking the world from the perspective of Karl Marx and Ivan Illich;

Al derecho y al revés: Considers the use of juridical procedures when the state of law has deteriorated into an undeclared state of exception; juridical pluralism; the formal structure of freedom.

Alternatives to “education” and “health”: Theories and practices to learn and to heal

From informality to communality

The nature of the crisis/collapse of the dominant system

We conduct reflection and systematic documentation on the so-called ‘informal sector’ (for us the direct workers in the social factory and their heirs), which includes the study of the current crisis and its consequences, the options open and in particular the situation and perspectives in the area of community. To the extent possible, this study includes a comparative analysis at the international level.

3. Regenerating Our Communities

We participate in social transformation efforts and construction of autonomy. These efforts seek to regenerate the social fabric of urban neighborhoods and surrounding communities of the central valleys of Oaxaca, as well as some other areas of the state, through collective learning of autonomous forms of community action and self-management (our activities include accompanying cooperatives, collective construction of eco-technologies, creating urban gardens, and accompanying community groups).

4. Free Media

We dedicate part of our physical space to use by collectives of printed and audiovisual media so that they can produce their materials and so that we can coordinate collaborations with them.

A radio studio is under construction to allow internet transmission and recording space.

We have dissemination activities by means of texts, theater, radio, internet, and other media.

5. Interaction

We support the creation of autonomous activities by groups that approach us from different parts of Oaxaca, the country or the world, as collectives, cooperatives, centers of production of alternative practices and technologies, free media projects, and others.

We receive visitors, students, professors, researchers (national and foreign) for whom we design and arrange specific programs of activities that include study circles in our physical space and visits for specific experiences. In these and other ways we facilitate and support their interaction with the Oaxacan cultures.


Unitierra was created in response to the radical reactions against schools that we observed in many indigenous communities and that were formally expressed in 1997, in the Oaxacan Indigenous Forum, when the communities in the State publicly declared: “The school has been the principal instrument of the State to destroy indigenous communities and cultures”. This was a public recognition of a historical truth: The Mexican system of education, like that of many other countries, was created to “take the Indianness out of the Indian”.

As a result, we created our university, open to receive youth without diplomas, even if they had never been to school, to learn the skills of a trade or field of study through apprenticeship with someone practicing in the field – a midwife, an agrarian lawyer, a geographer, an urban agriculturalist, a builder using adobe… — we called it a university to laugh at the official system and to reclaim an old tradition of the first universities, in which a group of friends learns and studies together, around a table, not to obtain a degree or advance in the educational pyramid, but rather for the mere pleasure of doing so, for the passion that a topic of study inspires in them.

Unitierra was born as a coalition of civil organizations both indigenous and non-indigenous:

Technical Consultancy of Forest Communities; Bibaani; Centeotl; Triqui Cultural Center; Center of Intercultural Encounters and Dialogue; Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promoters of Oaxaca; Committee of Volunteers for Reforestation and the Protection of the Environment; State Coordinator of Coffee Producers; Foundation Communality; Institute of Nature and Society of Oaxaca; Opción; and Services of the Mixe Community. Two of these organizations have disappeared and one has left, but the rest as well as other indigenous and non-indigenous organizations continue to be linked to the initiative.


With the passage of time, different generations have come through Unitierra and been transformed by it. For this reason we say that Uniterra is like a hammock: It adapts to the body, motivations and objectives of those who participate in it, rather than requiring those who participate to fit themselves into the restricted square frame of the forms and agendas that define the institutional world. The practice that has been maintained during the last 12 years and that could be considered the spinal column of Unitierra is the Seminar “Pathways of Autonomy”, which takes place every Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. This seminar creates a space of reflection for action that is open to all, from which have emerged over the years many different practical proposals.

Since 2003, the seminar has focused on studying the thought of Ivan Illich, whom we consider one of the central thinkers of the 20th century. His work anticipated by decades the evolution of the dominant institutions, the crisis to which they will inevitably lead, and the form in which people will react when these institutions meet their end. His ideas lucidly articulate what can be called “the people’s discourse” in the hour of the crisis. The study of Illich has led us to follow some of the lines of reflection that he left open, such as the role of text in the configuration of the modern mind. Since February of 2008 the seminar has been dedicated to reflecting on the convivial mode of life and the pathways of autonomy, intercalating analysis of context. In addition to the seminar “Pathways of Autonomy”, there have been other seminars and spaces of reflection, such as the “diploma” (without diplomas!) for Barefoot Researchers, the school of Warriors without Weapons, the “diploma” on investigative journalism, the seminar on the thought of Karl Marx and Ivan Illich, the study of unsalaried work and the collapse of the capitalist system, the seminar on critiques of patriarchy, the seminar on alternatives to institutionalized education and health, and the seminar on juridical themes, among others.

Cultural Regeneration

As a result of the analysis of our own practice, in 2003 we saw the necessity of extending the learning spaces to communities and not just to persons interested in learning a trade. We began to work with the communities themselves and with urban neighborhoods, in a struggle for cultural regeneration. We believe in the statement that indigenous communities have been articulating: “They tore off our fruits, broke our branches, burned our trunks, but they could not dry out our roots.” In this way, in 400 communities in Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, we began the initiative of regeneration in which thousands of people have participated and which has generated many diverse transformational initiatives. We already have extensive audiovisual and written documentation, based on the activities of the communities and neighborhoods themselves, as well as on materials that were developed to support the team from Unitierra that worked with them.

Public Campaigns

Over the years we have organized different public campaigns, which for us represent another form of collective learning, shared with the whole society. Among these are:

No corn, no country – The campaign began in 2003, with a graphic museum exhibition in Mexico City (with a duration of nine months and a million visitors), a book, disks, brochures, radio and television segments, and other activities. Currently the motto is used for a variety of groups throughout the country to create actions that are consistent with the original approach of Unitierra. One of its expressions in Oaxaca is the Committee In Defense of Corn, whose campaigns include resistance to transgenic corn.

Profound America — Also in 2003, there was an encounter in Mexico City uniting people from 36 communities across the American continent, to reflect on the indigenous forms of existence in order to affirm them and link efforts. We published a book, with our counterpart from Peru. Publications and diverse activities are maintained in various countries of the region as a result of the network.

Ecological Defense – We support the conception, funding and maintenance of the Oaxacan Commission for Ecological Defense and the Oaxacan Water Forum, as mixed organizations of conjoined action by all sectors of the society and government, in union with the Institute of Nature and the Society of Oaxaca, which promote and administer them.

Interaction – We have engaged in specific efforts of collective learning through distinct media:

Editorial (Ediciones ¡Basta!);

Radio Unitierra (in the internet) and accompaniment of community radios; we directly contribute to equipping 25 of these and collaborate with many others.

Electrionic media, including workshops on their use (pages such as Oaxacalibre, program series in the internet such as “Days of Fury”, etc.);

Fora, fairs and festivals, such as the two convocations of the National Forum of Alternative Technologies, with the participation of organizations from ten states and five countries, and the First Festival for Autonomy in the Railway Museum in the city of Oaxaca.

Unitierra and social movements

Unitierra has always been profoundly immersed in processes of social and political change. In particular, 2006 was a year in which the national and local political context powerfully shaped the actions of all the collectives, civil organizations and independent social spaces of Oaxaca, including Unitierra. In the first place, the Other Campaign and the Thin Zero passed through Oaxaca at the beginning of their travels through the entire country. The caravan spent time in our facilities and created the opportunity to listen to us, to unite the struggles of the common people, the indigenous communities, women, students, agricultural and urban workers, and humble and simple people. The caravan came to invite us to celebrate our differences and unite in the struggle so that the community commands and the government obeys.

A few months afterwards, the popular insurrection in Oaxaca, which was articulated in the Popular Assembly of the Communities of Oaxaca (APPO), made this proposal its own and demonstrated that even in the cities the community can govern itself in a communitarian and democratic manner. In this process of insurrection, Unitierra participated in different ways: In the Civil Space, in free media coverage (such as the page, which became a significant source of information about the movement), in the organization of an initiative for dialog to widen civil participation in the movement, and in many other activities.

Unitierra has participated intensely in many other movements and initiatives: The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which since May 2011 has engaged in a complete rejection of the war the government has been waging against the people; the movement We Are 132, which arose among the youth throughout the country in response to the return of the new PRI and its media propaganda; the Permanent People’s Tribunal, a space of constructing justice from below on different topics, among which we have participated above all in the topic of the protection of corn.

More recently, in August of 2013, people from Unitierra participated in the “Little School”: “Liberty according to the Zapatistas”, having the opportunity to experience Zapatista communities and listen to their teachings on liberty and the construction of autonomy. It is now our commitment to share what we learned from them.

The Promotion of Independent Efforts

Unitierra has promoted diverse independent spaces, which maintain their own autonomy. Among these:

The University of the Earth. Unitierra shared its experience with the founders of Unitierra Chiapas, Unitierra Califas (in the Bahía de California), and Unitierra Puebla, which operate independently but at the same time in relation with us. In addition, different groups in different parts of Mexico and the world have had inspiration in Unitierra and create or begin nascent efforts in their locales through their exchanges with us. One of these is the chocolate cooperative Chocosol – Toronto.

Oaxacan Water Forum. Unitierra contributed to the foundation of, and participates in, the operation of this space of transformative action regarding water, in which also participate three levels of government and many diverse actors of the civil society of Oaxaca. The Forum has been promoted and operated by the Institute of Nature and Society of Oaxaca (INSO), which participated in the foundation of Unitierra and collaborates with it. The Forum has elaborated The Common Plan for the Common Good, which defines the actions and policies to follow regarding water throughout the watershed in the central valleys of Oaxaca.

Autonomous Center of Intercultural Creation of Alternative Technologies (CACITA). Unitierra supported the creation of CACITA and has collaborated with it in the production of alternative practices and technologies in Oaxaca.

Oaxacan Autonomous House of Solidarity with Self-Managed Work (CASOTA, active since 2011). Through the Center of Documentation Ivan Illich, installed in CASOTA, we participate in this independent effort of a network of autonomous initiatives, which create activities oriented towards contributing to the strengthening, organization and autonomy of popular neighborhoods and indigenous communities of Oaxaca.

Circle of Autonomous Paths. Since the reflection regarding the Zapatista resistance in the seminar Paths of Autonomy, the ‘Autonomous Paths’ Circle of Information and Support was created, which engages in actions of dissemination and solidarity with struggles from below and to the left, which articulate themselves within the framework of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandonian Jungle.

Regenerating our Communities

The rending of the social fabric, the growing violence and the lack of opportunities for study and work for the youth, which increasingly affects the country, are part of a context that in Unitierra we have called the collapse of the capitalist system, and these have caused severe harms to the living conditions of the urban, suburban and semi-rural communities of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, which among other things are suffering very serious problems of water, sanitation, waste, and food.

This process of decomposition has led to serious community problems such as the weakening of the uses and customs, an increase in violence in different spheres, substantial environmental damage, internal community divisions, increases in migration, dispersion, and social and political conflict. It does not seem possible that the situation could improve through solutions that come from above; to the contrary, these are likely to further the deterioration.

Universidad de la Tierra en Oaxaca

Regenerating the social fabric.

In response to these challenges, in 2003 the University of the Earth in Oaxaca (UNITIERRA) initiated efforts of Cultural Regeneration in 400 indigenous communities of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, beginning with workshops of reflection and action and by means of the circulation of written and audiovisual materials produced jointly with the communities. In the second half of 2011, Unitierra continued with these efforts and initiated the project “Regenerating Our Communities”, visiting 18 communities and neighborhoods of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.

The efforts of Cultural Regeneration consist in people, families and communities promoting for themselves changes that permit them to tackle their current challenges. The focus is on effective transformation, which produces tangible results in the short, medium and long term and which is based in the autonomous efforts of the communities.

The project is based in processes of learning in action, workshops in which the neighbors in the communities construct and use ecotechnologies –alternatives related to the problems of water, waste and food – based in the spirit of tequio (free community work), the mutual support and the sharing of knowledge. The communities decide the area of learning in which they would like to begin (water, waste, food) and once a group of neighbors meets the group begins the workshops, which are adapted to the rhythm of the community. In the medium term, the hope is to strengthen the organization of the community and for the same community to decide which other areas it would like to learn, and which other regenerative actions it would like to undertake, with the accompaniment of Unitierra.

Through the project “Regenerating Our Communities”, workshops on learning in action have been created that in some cases involve meetings with the communities to construct collectively the problematic and its possible solutions, sometimes including participation in the community assemblies where we share our proposals of cultural regeneration. Also, diverse ecotechnologies have been constructed, such as wood-saving stoves, household water filters, solar heaters, and ecological dry toilets; workshops have also been given on urban cultivation and waste management.

Important challenges have also presented themselves: The principal of these is reweaving community organization. In some communities the social fabric has been so damaged that it is extremely complicated to contribute to community actions. Another challenge is government action and the political parties, which represent the main factor in community divisiveness. Despite these and other difficulties the communities are always more and more convinced that the changes will not come from above but rather that they themselves are the ones who must take their problems and solutions into their own hands.

In each community the rhythm of the regeneration is distinct but already some important results can be observed: More than 200 families have participated in workshops of learning in action; diverse ecotechnologies related to the protection of water have been constructed in a collective manner, and families are increasingly reducing, reusing and recycling waste, and planting vegetable gardens – achievements that constitute significant changes in the conditions of life in the communities. Among the achievements of the project, a highlight is the formation of local promoters, who are people of the same community who give workshops of learning in action and respond to the efforts of regenerating the social fabric, based on which the autonomous efforts can begin to be a reality and Unitierra can participate simply through the work of accompaniment.

In the upcoming years the project will hopefully continue as a result of the momentum of the communities and also extend to other communities throughout the region. The project will hopefully also contribute to improving the material conditions of life and deepening the political work with the communities, that is, the daily construction of solutions based in communitarian organization, thus reweaving the social fabric and strengthening the autonomy of the neighborhoods and communities.

How to Support Us

The University of the Earth is a learning space open to all. We do not charge for our activities or services and we do not want the possibility of learning together to become impacted by economic relationships. For some activities we propose voluntary contributions or we organize ourselves so that everyone contributes something according to their means.

We do not receive financing from the State. We seek personal and collective self-sufficiency. Some activities require funding, and for these we obtain resources through organizing structured learning or research visits for national or international groups, through foundation support for specific projects, and through donations from people interested in sustaining our space.

To donate, you can make a deposit to:
Centro de Encuentros y Diálogos Interculturales .AC.