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Behind the Chiapas Revolt: Corn Gods, Dummy Rifles : Mexico: To the Mayan militants, NAFTA will permanently sever them from their origins. They would be less-than-human men of wood.

January 09, 1994|Victor Perera | Victor Perera, who teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, is author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" and "Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of Southern Mexico," with Robert D. Bruce (both UC Press).

BERKELEY — The wooden rifles borne by some of the Tzeltal Maya militants of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation are more than crude simulacra of AK-47 or Galil automatic weap ons fashioned by desperate Indians unable to obtain the real thing. The dummy rifles are poignant symbols of the indigenous peasants' 500-year-old history of defeat and humiliation by the West; they are also cultural artifacts that connect the insurgents to their origins.

Embedded in the "Popol Vuh" or Quiche Maya Book of Council is an ancient creation story, variations of which are found in all the Maya linguistic groups. As recounted in the Quiche version of the "Popol Vuh" translated in the 16th Century, the gods made three attempts to create mortals beings capable of pronouncing their names and venerating them in the manner to which they wished to become accustomed.

The first experiment was earthen creatures, who were deaf and dumb and incapable of movement. The mud creatures fell apart and dissolved in water.

The second experiment was wooden creatures, who outwardly resembled the men and women of today. They were agile hunters capable of reproducing themselves, building their own homes and fashioning their utensils, but they were bloodless, and had no souls. They possessed the faculty of speech, but their praise of the gods was hollow, and they did not know how to keep their calendar. This defect so angered the gods that they brought down a great flood on their creatures, and caused their own animals and utensils to turn against them, until they were crushed. The survivors climbed the trees of the forest, becoming monkeys.

The gods deliberated long and hard before deciding on their third experiment--to mold men and women of corn. The maize plant was sacred to the gods; so the creatures whose blood and sinews they fashioned from the husk and kernels of white and yellow corn partook of their divinity. The men of maize had such far vision that the envious gods dimmed their eyes "as the face of a mirror is breathed upon." These men and women were the ancestors of the Mayas, who flourished and created one of the great civilizations on the American continent.

The campesino of Chiapas reduced to carving and bearing a dummy wooden rifle broadcasts not only his desperation but his profound sense of humiliation. Five hundred years of Western dominance threaten to extinguish his divine spark and reduce him to a creature of the second creation, a less-than-human man of wood.

Tzeltal Mayas who left their hillside and jungle homes to join the insurgency told interviewers of their fear that NAFTA, an acronym whose meaning they only dimly understood, would lead to the loss of their last link to their Mayan ancestors: their milpa , or corn field. In their small parcels of inherited or purloined soil, the Mayas of Chiapas and Guatemala--to which Chiapas belonged until a century ago--plant their corn and beans. In this manner they preserve, however tenuously, their ancient covenant with Heart of Heaven, who created them in the image of their ancestors.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, as the insurgent campesinos have been warned by their leaders--with good reason--will drive them from their homesteads, or ejidos , and force them to work in maquiladoras , the assembly plants that will spread to southern Mexico from the northern border. The NAFTA threat is the most recent of a litany of grievances the Tzeltal Mayas and their neighbors have nurtured for centuries.

In the Lacandon forest where thousands of Tzeltals scratch out a bare subsistence, the Mexican government gave huge tracts of hardwood forest to 400 Lacandon Mayas, who have lived there for centuries. The government then proceeded to denude the forest of its mahoganies and cedars, for which they paid a pittance. The thousands of dispossessed Tzeltals who were crowded into small homesteads in the Lacandon forest aggravated their plight by introducing the dominant culture's chain saws and Zebu cattle, thereby completing the forest's depletion and subverting their traditional Mayan agriculture.

The Tzeltals' desperation accounts for the appeal of Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary and Nahua Indian from the state of Morelia, who fought for a more equitable reapportionment of public lands. Zapata, a visionary mystic as well as legendary combatant, conceived of a utopian "neolithic village"--in Octavio Paz's phrase--that has taken root in the Mexican soul. Zapata's idyllic villagers work equal shares of communal lands and coexist peacefully, with dignity and justice.

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