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COLUMN ONE : The Defiant Return to Chiapas : Pro-government Chamula Indians for decades violently expelled villagers who dared to differ. Thousands seemed to accept their fate--until now.


SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico — Josefina Hernandez Gomez did not have much to go home to. On the day last year when she and her extended family were driven into exile, Hernandez's hateful neighbors burned their tiny houses and stole the chickens and sheep. The unattended radish and corn crops rotted.

But Hernandez and her family, defying threats of death, did return. They sleep in the fertilizer shed while starting to rebuild.

"They burned everything. Our mattresses. The Singer sewing machine," says Hernandez, a 26-year-old Mayan mother with a baby slung over her back and two daughters at her feet. "They threw us out because we believed in God."

For two decades, powerful pro-government Chamula Indian leaders in this fertile, isolated swath of southern Mexico's Chiapas state have violently expelled members of their pious, conservative community who dared to differ. Those who converted to Protestantism or, worse, to opposition politics--those who challenged the established order in any way--were cast out.

At least 25,000 people, more than a third of the community's population of 70,000, have been expelled, according to human rights activists. And all seemed to accept their fate, until now.

Inspired by a Mayan rebellion earlier this year that shook Mexico to the core, hundreds of Chamula exiles have taken matters into their own hands and for the first time are returning home.

Their perilous action reflects a new militancy among Indians here that may be the most significant legacy of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, the rebel band whose Jan. 1 uprising sounded the call for democracy and indigenous rights.

The return challenges the traditional leaders, known as caciques , who run San Juan Chamula and other Indian towns in southern Mexico like small fiefdoms. And ultimately, it challenges the ironclad way Mexico's ruling party has controlled this rural region for decades.

"It is not so easy anymore for the government to cover the sun with a finger," said Domingo Lopez Angel, one of the first Chamulas to be expelled in 1974 and now an opposition activist. "The Indian is rising up. We will no longer let ourselves be fooled. We have seen (a change), thanks to our Zapatista companeros , who had the courage to awaken the country."

The Chamula are one of several Mayan clans who live in the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico, each with its distinctive customs and dress. The Chamula women, for example, wear embroidered blouses and black blankets wrapped as skirts; the men wear black or white sheepskin tunics.

Since the 1960s, an arrangement has existed between the authoritarian Indian caciques and the regional bosses from Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who found they could control the indigenous communities by buying off their leaders.

The caciques benefited from government patronage, including land grants, and were allowed to make money, build empires and manage their towns as they saw fit. In exchange, the caciques provided unanimous vote counts for the PRI at every election.

As time went on, the Chamula leaders saw any change as a threat to their traditions, their community and their hold on power and wealth. San Juan Chamula earned a reputation as a place hostile to all outsiders.

Although the Chamula conflict is often portrayed as a holy war between Roman Catholics and Protestants, it is, in fact, more complex. Religion, politics and economics are inextricably intertwined.

The leaders have said the exiles were expelled because they had become born-again Christians whose religion threatens the syncretic brand of Catholicism practiced in San Juan Chamula and the community's traditional dress, ceremonies and customs. Many of the exiles, as well as anthropologists and other experts, say religion is being used as a pretext for expelling political dissidents and nonconformists.

The first Chamulas to be expelled in the early 1970s were taken in by American missionaries in the region; many were converted to Protestant faiths. They settled in shantytowns on the outskirts of the nearest city, San Cristobal de las Casas, towns with names like Bethlehem and New Jerusalem. The largest, which climbs the side of a muddy hill, is called The Ant.

Those who have converted reject many of the rituals the caciques demand. Members of the Chamula community are required to supply expensive religious festivals with thousands of candles, gallons of Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, and moonshine called "pash," which is consumed in large quantities.

Not coincidentally, the caciques and their lieutenants control the distributorships for all the items required in the ceremonies.

"They wanted us to buy the booze," Hernandez said in broken Spanish, switching to her native Tzotzil language to speak to her relatives. "They like people to get drunk."

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