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Remembering Acteal — Understanding Christmas

December 24, 2007

By Suzanne Rumsey

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

On December 22, 1997, paramilitary forces in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas opened fire on a group of indigenous Tzotzil people gathered in prayer in their chapel.  When the shooting finally stopped, 45 children, women and men lay dead, 16 had been seriously wounded, and 58 children had been orphaned. 

The following day, Monseñor Samuel Ruiz, then-bishop of the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas where the massacre occurred, spoke to his people:

If we have forgotten that the true Christmas comes in the tragic context of oppression and domination, of insecurity and of closed doors, of persecution and exile, and even of real genocide, the events of these days in [Acteal] have come to recall it to us. 

Photo: Monseñor Samuel Ruiz celebrating the funeral mass for the Acteal massacre victims: Jutta Meyer

Those gathered in the chapel belonged to “Las Abejas” — The Bees, an organization formed five years previously that had declared itself to be committed to non-violence in the face of growing violence and repression in Chiapas.  Those who attacked them were the same paramilitary forces, backed by the police, the Mexican army and local political bosses that had forced them to flee their homes in the region in the months previous, and to settle in the community of Acteal.  Those who died, were wounded and orphaned are among the now countless victims of the low-intensity war that has quietly raged in Chiapas since the indigenous Zapatista uprising on January 1, 1994.  That war continues to this day, justice for the Acteal martyrs remains elusive, and those who ordered this horrific crime against humanity continue to enjoy impunity.

About 45 children, women and men killed, 16 seriously wounded, 58 children orphaned.  Statistics have a way of distancing and numbing us to human tragedy.   But just as Christmas is about the birth of ONE precious life, Acteal is about the death of 45 precious lives.  As one reads through the list of the names, ages and cause of death of each of those killed, one encounters Juana Pérez Pérez, a 33-year-old woman, and María Gómez Ruiz, a 23-year-old woman, both of whom were in the third trimester of their pregnancies.  Their babies also died. 

At the first anniversary mass held in Acteal to commemorate the massacre, Monseñor Ruiz shared the following testimony:
… right here where we stand, during the massacre, when a bullet had already passed through the chest of the wife of our brother catechist, Alonso Vázquez Gómez, killing her together with the baby in her arms; he, upon seeing her fall, went to help her and said, “Woman, get up… woman, get up,” but she did not move.  Then lifting his arms toward heaven he exclaimed: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing…  Momentarily, two bullets passed through his head and he fell dead among them.

In the same sermon, Monseñor Ruiz described Acteal as a national and international “monument to peace and to the hope of resurrection”.  Ten years on, Acteal continues to be that monument.  Thousands have journeyed there, among them representatives of PWRDF, the Canadian churches and ecumenical coalitions.  Thousands more will gather there this December 22, and together with Las Abejas will name the 45 victims, mourn their deaths, and call for justice.  
Christmas is about new life and hope in the midst of darkness, but it is also the beginning of the story of Christ’s journey towards death and resurrection. 

Acteal is about death, but also resurrection, new life and hope in the midst of darkness as the community of Las Abejas continues to be a light of non-violent witness in the midst of continuing violence. 

Once again, Monseñor Samuel Ruiz: 
The greatest good fortune the world has known — the birth of our flesh of the Word of God — came about in the sorrowful context of the greatest suffering.  The true light broke through the darkest cloud.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Let us remember the Acteal martyrs and in so doing, understand Christmas:
1.    María Pérez Oyalte — 43 years old
2.    Martha Capote Pérez — 12 years old
3.    Rosa Vázquez Luna — 24 years old
4.    Marcela Capote Ruiz — 29 years old
5.    Marcela Pucuj Luna — 67 years old
6.    Loida Ruiz Gómez — 6 years old
7.    Catalina Luna Pérez — 21 years old
8.    Manuela Pérez Moreno — 50 years old
9.    Manuel Santiz Culebra — 57 years old
10.    Margarita Méndez Paciencia — 23 years old
11.    Marcela Luna Ruiz — 35 years old
12.    Micaela Vázquez Pérez — 9 years old
13.    Josefa Vázquez Pérez — 5 years old
14.    Daniel Gomez Perez — 24 years old
15.    Seabastian Gómez Pérez — 9 years old
16.    Juana Pérez Pérez — 33 years old
17.    Maria Gómez Ruiz — 23 years old
18.    Victorio Vázquez Gómez — 22 years old
19.    Veronica Vázquez Luna — 22 years old
20.    Paulina Hernandez Vázquez — 22 years old
21.    Juana Pérez Luna — 9 years old
22.    Rosalina Gómez Hernández — 4 years old
23.    Lucia Méndez Capote — 7 years old
24.    Graciela Gómez Hernández — 3 years old
25.    Marcela Capote Vázquez — 15 years old
26.    Miguel Pérez  Jiménez — 40 years old
27.    Susana Jiménez Luna — 17 years old
28.    Rosa Pérez Pérez — 33 years old
29.    Ignacio Pucuj Luna — 62 years old
30.    Maria Luna Méndez — 44 years old
31.    Alonso Vázquez Gómez — 46 years old
32.    Lorenzo Gómez Pérez — 46 years old
33.    María Capote Pérez — 16 years old
34.    Antonio Vázquez Luna — 17 years old
35.    Antonia Vázquez Pérez — 21 years old
36.    Marcela Vázquez Pérez — 26 years old
37.    Silvia Pérez Luna — 6 years old
38.    Vicente Méndez Capote — 5 years old
39.    Guadalupe Gómez Hernandez — 2 years old
40.    Micaela Vázquez Luna — 3 years old
41.    Juana Vázquez Luna — 1 year old
42.    Alejandro Pérez Luna — 15 years old
43.    Juana Luna Vázquez — 45 years old
44.    Juana Gómez Pérez — 51 years old
45.    Juan Carlos Luna Pérez — 2 years old
46.    58 children in 21 families left orphaned.
47.    10 children and 5 adults seriously wounded.

— you are present among us.

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