New Book on Central America and Oaxaca Benefit

Media Mouse has posted a new book titled Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time by contributor Jeff Smith. The book is being published online in advance of a December 14th benefit for the struggle in Oaxaca.

Media Mouse has posted a new book online by longtime Media Mouse contributor Jeff Smith. The book is titled Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time and it is a product of Smith’s travels to Guatemala and Chiapas and his work with the Guatemalan community in Grand Rapids over the past 19 years. Along with the book, Smith is completing a documentary titled Reversing the Missionary Position: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time using video footage from his trips to Central America and Mexico. The documentary will premiere in Grand Rapids on December 14 at the Wealthy Theatre. The December 14th screening is a benefit for the struggle in Oaxaca and will feature both a showing of the film as well as a concert by the local band Cabildo (flyer).

From the Introduction to Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time

“Fray Diego de Landa throws into the flames, one after the other, the books of the Mayas. The Inquisitor curses Satan, and the fire crackles and devours. Around the incinerator, heretics howl with their heads down. Hung by the feet, flayed with whips, Indians are doused with boiling wax as the fire flares up and the books snap, as if complaining. Tonight, eight centuries of Mayan literature turn to ashes.
Memory of Fire: Volume 1 – Genesis, Eduardo Galeano

In January of 1992, just days before the cease-fire in El Salvador, I was sitting in the Central Plaza watching the crowds of people with my traveling partners. We noticed a large crowd in the center listening to a man speaking in English who was accompanied by a translator. I decided to walk over to investigate what was going on when I realized that the man speaking was a preacher from the US. No sooner did I realize this that I turned around and rejoined my friends shaking my head in disgust.

When the crowd finally dispersed I noticed that the street preacher was headed in our direction. Right away he began to speak to us in English and inquired about our being in El Salvador. We told him we were tourists because one never knows when there are people listening in (orejas) on your conversations. Before we could say any more this guy began asking us if we had “come to know the Lord.” We all said no, much to his disappointment, but we were curious enough to know what he was doing here. He said “to spread the Gospel and to win souls for Christ.” We asked him if he was doing anything for these people in the way of food, housing, jobs, ect. He told us no and that those things were not relevant as long as people saved their souls. At that point I remember telling him that he was no different than the long line of Christians who had come here to impose their will on these people. I said if you wanted to preach religion, maybe he might want to follow the model of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero.(1) Looking at me with a confused expression, our missionary friend simply said, “Who was he?”

This encounter reflects for me a fundamental tenet of the relationship that Euro-Americans have had and continue to have with people throughout Latin America. Over the past 500 years Mayans and many other people have had various forms of intervention in their communities by people claiming to know what is best for them. Whether they have been missionaries, statesmen, Peace Corp workers, anthropologists, relief agencies or even solidarity organizations – all of them, in some form or another, have gone to these countries with the position that they were going to “help these people”, “show them how it is done”, make their lives better or simply to “save” them from themselves. The corporate owned media in this country has contributed to this view since it rarely puts into context why there is rampant poverty, street children sniffing glue, political violence, government corruption and ecological devastation. The cumulative effect of watching news stories about Latin America that is mostly disaster related can leave viewers with the sense that “these” people can not take care of themselves. Whether it is on the nightly news or a CARE ad showing malnourished children, the North American public is fed images of dependency and backwardness. From my studies of the local TV news coverage of Latin America it is rare that we are given the opinions and perspectives of Latin Americans on what is happening there and a virtually nonexistent view from Latin Americans who hold no positions of power. (

More and more people are beginning to question this notion of superiority and imperial mentality that permeates all social institutions in this country. Beginning with the observations that took place surrounding the 500 years of resistance by Indigenous peoples throughout the Western hemisphere, some people in the US are confronting their own relationships with the First Nations of North, Central and South America. This is due in part to an increase in solidarity groups sending people to various countries by way of invitation to stand with people in their struggles for justice. Attitudes are also changing because people are becoming more familiar with the rich literary and cultural traditions that give a radically different view of the past 500 years. This transition has not been without resistance, some of it which wants to aggressively cling to the history of the victors, while others are scrambling to find “examples” of well intentioned people that they can hold up so as to not feel completely guilty about being in positions of privilege. One such example, which is even being elevated by the religious left and some solidarity groups, is Bartalome de las Casas. Las Casas, a Dominican priest/bishop who once enslaved Indians himself has been canonized as the “Defender of the Indians.” It is true that Las Casas denounced the enslavement of Indians, argued that they had souls, and left us with a detailed account of the consequences of the genocidal policies directed towards Indians in the Caribbean, Meso-American and South American regions. These are contributions that should not be quickly dismissed when critiquing his involvement in the early years of the European invasion, but they are not adequate reasons for blindly embracing him as the great “Defender.”

What must be challenged are Las Casas’s motives for speaking out on behalf of indigenous peoples. In a collection of propositions that he wrote entitled Rules of Confession, the Bishop of Chiapas said “…once the native rulers have voluntarily and freely accepted the faith and been baptized as Christians, they become bound by another title than before to acknowledge the Spanish sovereignty.” (Las Casas, by MacNutt, pg. 282) Las Casas’s intention was to convert these people to the “true” faith, which in my mind is a blatant display of imperialist thinking. Several scholars have also pointed out that Las Casas advocated for the enslavement of Blacks and Moors instead of Indians to work for the Spaniards. (Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, Katz & Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, Forbes)

Las Casas was also guilty of participating and in some ways developing an economic and social system that devastated Indigenous groups throughout the hemisphere. Osage/Cherokee scholar George Tinker says “We must never forget that Las Casas, the hero of the 1992 Quincentenary, was just as committed to the conquest of Native Americans as were Cortes and Pizarro. He only hoped to do it less violently. He accomplished much of his goal by creating the reduccion missionary system (2), used so effectively – and destructively – by later generations of European Jesuits, Franciscans, and even Protestants in both the northern and southern hemispheres.” (Missionary Conquest, pg. 19)

Las Casas is an example of what I would call a liberal conquistador, one that seeks to dominate others in a fashion less brutal than a mercenary, but just as devastating when one considers the long term effects. I chose Las Casas, not because I wanted to single out a religious figure, but because he incarnates the best and the worst of European and Euro-Americans that have come to the Americas with the best of intentions. He can act as an interior mirror for all of us who honestly want to be a part of the liberation of the Americas, by challenging our motivations for what we do and who it ultimately benefits. For me this is fundamental to the work of solidarity.

What I have sought to do in this book is to reflect on the fact that it has been I who have been “saved” because of the people I have worked with in Guatemala/Chipas and those in Grand Rapids who are from Guatemala. In many ways it is I have who been transformed by these people and the experiences I had with them. I do not want to give the impression that I have some romanticized notion of who Guatemalans/Chiapans are, rather I am saying that it is I who really gained from these encounters. It is sort of a reversal of the missionary position, where instead of going to change others I became changed. Who I am today and what I do is in large part because of my encounters with the people of Guatemala and Chiapas.

What I hope to communicate in these pages is that solidarity was not just something I participated in on my journeys to Guatemala and Chiapas, it was something I learned and am learning because of the struggles they have allowed me to participate in. They have taught me profound lessons on community, organizing, and the importance of having a vision. I learned that for them to obtain real freedom I had to learn to listen to what it was that they wanted. I was taught solidarity by not wanting to impose my will, my desires on them. In religious terms, it is as if I was being proselytized by them and sent back to the US to make converts here. I could not simply come back from my trips and claim that I had done “my time.” No, this is not solidarity. Solidarity requires an ongoing relationship and doing whatever it takes to improve, to build upon that relationship. The kind of solidarity that the Guatemalans/Chiapans have taught me is learned solidarity. This type of solidarity requires that after standing with the people in Guatemala/Chiapas that I work here in the US to change the policies that make it nearly impossible to achieve lasting change in their countries. The main difference between dogmatic religion or political ideologies and learned solidarity for me is that learned solidarity is based on real principles of democracy, equality and mutual respect, not just paying lip service to it. Learned solidarity is the desire and the experience of standing with people, of having a presence with them regardless of differences or world-views.

One experience I had of learned solidarity came during my first stint in Guatemala while working with Peace Brigades International. I was working with a newly formed group of Guatemalan widows called CONAVIGUA. They were meeting in a church courtyard in Chichicastenago one afternoon when a group of soldiers entered and made threats. The women defiantly stood their ground and the soldiers left. That night one of the women said to me that they were grateful for our presence that day, but then she went on to tell me something that I can never forget nor ignore. She said, “It is important that you are here, but more important that you return to your country to tell the people what is going on here. The way you live determines how we live.”

This book is the product of learned solidarity. It is divided into three sections, each reflecting on the various ways that this learned solidarity has impacted me. Part I of the book is entitled Q’anjobal Mayans Invade Amway Territory. I share thoughts on being bit by the Central America bug, part of the Sanctuary movement in the 80’s and how I negotiated cultural solidarity in an area permeated with Christian conservatism.

Part II is called Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos – We Plant, in order to Eat, in order to Plant. This is a saying I learned from a Mayan farmer that reflects the simplicity and consistency in the lives of the Mayans I met in Guatemala and Chiapas. Here I gleaned sections from my journal entries from various trips between 1988 to 2001, where I have had numerous opportunities to accompany and observe the relentless persistence of the Guatemalan popular movements and the participatory democracy of the Zapatista communities.

Part III, The Way You Live, Determines How We Live, is a collection of articles that I have written over the years on various aspects of how US policy impacts Guatemala and Chiapas and what we might do to change those policies. As Noam Chomsky has always pointed out, the responsibility of the citizens of countries that dictate global policies are key in determining the outcome of many liberation struggles around the world.

I am forever indebted to the people I have met and learned from in these pages. My encounters with them have transformed my life forever. It is because of them that I am the person I am today. It is for them that I dedicate this book.

(1) Romero devoted the last years of his life to the poor of El Salvador, but also spoke out vehemently against the injustice committed by the government and the army. He also criticized the US support of both these institutions, a criticism that probably led to his assassination on March 24, 1980.

(2) The reduccion system was implemented by the Dominicans in 1543 as a way to bring the Indians into centralized areas after the displacement caused by the violence from the initial years of the conquest. The Dominicans argued that this was a way to protect the Indians from further harm. The result, however, was that the concentration of Indians made it possible for the church to “christianize” them and for the Spaniards to further confiscate their lands. ( Handy, Gift of the Devil, pages. 21-24 and Tinker, Missionary Conquest, pages. 18-20.)

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