Last week the Chiapas guerrillas and the government reached a historic agreement in the most prominent of a series of six negotiations regarding the rights and culture of the indigenous people of Mexico.
The fact that this agreement was only the first of the six should not lead anyone to underestimate its importance. In Chiapas, for the first time since the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, the original peoples of that land are recognized by their fellow countrymen as full equals, men and women deserving, and capable of formulating, their own human and civil rights.
The indigenous peoples have now articulated what their culture demands, rejecting the pronouncements of outsiders. Now these first Mexicans have insisted on and received recognition of the pride they hold in their traditions. They have laid out for the government their understanding of the concept of democracy and how they intend to participate in the political process and vote. And the rest of Mexico too has heard them.
What is taking place now in Chiapas will have repercussions across the country. This is the first time that "the Indian question" has been freed from the traditional prejudices and stereotypes that Mexico's European and Creole classes have imposed on these issues.
Ultimately the dialogue in Chiapas should lead to modifications in the Mexican constitution that will change the lives of the indigenous Aztecs, Toltec, Mayans and other peoples who ruled the land when Hernando Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors arrived on its shores 477 years ago. And for that, Chiapas state's Zapatista guerrillas and those who supported them and voted to ratify the agreement should be commended. The government negotiating team also deserves praise. To resolve a conflict, each party must agree, and that is happening in Chiapas.
This agreement just begins a process, however, and there are still many things that can go wrong. But what has been accomplished so far seems irreversible. It is a beginning. Down the road lay acceptance and peace.