“Voice of the Valley” News Report

By Eduardo Stanley, Pacific News Service

Traducción al españolFRESNO, CA – December 14, 2004 – When Samuel Ruiz, three-time candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize and Bishop Emeritus of Chiapas, Mexico, visited Fresno on November 19, he saw some of the same problems that indigenous populations face in Mexico.

“They used to say we should give a voice to the voiceless, but indigenous people talk. The problem is that most people don’t listen to them!” Ruiz said to an attentive audience. He was invited to Fresno by the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front (FIOB, in Spanish), where he was awarded the “Xini Nuu” (Community Leader) prize. Last year, the organization honored Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu and artist Lila Downs.

Mr. Ruiz’s visit to Fresno began with a meeting at Casa San Miguel, a neighborhood occupied by indigenous families from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. This neighborhood was built four years ago to relocate families living in a precarious area south of Fresno, which was highly contaminated due to toxic dumping by the Chevron company. FIOB played an important role in the collective effort to relocate these residents.

Mr. Ruiz chatted with neighbors, showing interest in their working and living conditions in California. “Governments should help eliminate the economic problems that create the conditions for migration,” he said. He added that this is not a phenomenon unique to Mexico and the United States, where the “unequal and combined development” between the two societies leads one to provide cheap labor to the other more “developed” country. “Nevertheless, immigrants don’t come here empty-handed; they bring their culture, their traditions, and their skills.”

Samuel Ruiz was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1924, and became a priest in 1949. Ten years later, he was named Bishop of Chiapas, an extremely poor region with 80 percent of the population is indigenous. In 1992, he presented Pope John Paul II with his Pastoral Letter, “In This Hour of Grace,” in which he summarizes part of the social situation of Chiapas. A year later, the Mexican ecclesiastical bureaucracy asked him to resign, a move that was protested by the thousands of indigenous people who supported him.

The rise of the National Liberation Zapatista Army (EZLN, in Spanish) in 1994 produced a radical change in Mexico. Mr. Ruiz, who speaks three indigenous languages, played a crucial role during the peace talks. In 1998, he quit his position as peace mediator in an act of protest against the Mexican government for its aggressive behavior in the area. A year later, he renounced his role as Bishop of Chiapas. However, he continues to remain active at different levels, working toward peace and the defense of indigenous rights.

“Many people think Mexico is a Third World country because it has so many indigenous people,” he said ironically. “Now Mexico is starting to realize what it has lost by not respecting them.”

Mr. Ruiz believes that the social system, which generated the current social inequalities, has reached its limits. “For indigenous people, the relation with mother earth comes from within. Western culture, instead, values it as legal property [for] its economic value.”

He cited the importance of recovering language to create new concepts of values that are absent in the dominant individualistic culture. “For example, indigenous cultures’ concept of ‘citizen’ is translated as ‘one who has the right to walk on the land that belongs to him or her.” He added that human rights should not be limited to the rights of individuals, but should include the community’s rights.

Mr. Ruiz showed optimism about a more just society. “It amazed me the human creation of computer viruses to destroy data and hard drives. We need to create an antivirus, a social vitamin to affect the establishment’s hard drive, to change it in a positive way.” Such a vitamin, said Mr. Ruiz with a smile, would come from the socio-cultural values of indigenous people.


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