Pope In Mexico: Indians In Chiapas Turn Their Backs On Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Mexico, one of the world's most Catholic countries. But other religions are gaining ground, especially in the state of Chiapas, where even Islam has made inroads. Adopting a different religion, however, can be ris

The Catholic cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas (meg and rahul)
The Catholic cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas (meg and rahul)
Frédéric Saliba

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS – Dressed in a long white robe topped with a dark red taqiyah cap, Manuel Gomez, 61, walks along one of the main roads in San Cristobal de las Casas in the south of Mexico. "I was born Catholic, became Presbyterian. Today, I am Muslim," says this Tzotzil Indian who has called himself Mohammed since his conversion to Islam in 1995.

Just like him, tens of thousands of people from this little town in the state of Chiapas, the birthplace of the Zapatista revolutionary movement, have turned their back on the Catholic faith.

The Muslims may remain relatively few, but Protestants and Evangelicals make up more than a quarter of the Chiapas population of 4.8 million. These mass conversions, occurring against a backdrop of violent expulsions from the state, worry the Mexican clergy receiving Pope Benedict XVI in Guanajuato state this weekend.

In his decrepit house, Mohammed prays five times a day. "I have been invited to Mecca twice," he says with a smile. The humble fruit and vegetable seller had never left Chiapas before adopting the Muslim faith. His wife Nura (Joana) wears an Islamic headscarf, but has kept her traditional tzotzil dress made of goatskin. "There is no question of rejecting our ancestors' culture," emphasizes Mohammed.

Not far away, at the end of a dirt track, a renovated building houses an Islamic Morabitum school from the Sufi branch of Islam. "About 20 students learn the Koran phonetically there," explains the imam Hajj Idriss, also known as Esteban Lopez, who leads Friday prayers. The 60-year-old Spaniard came to Chiapas in 1995 to introduce Islam to Mexico. Since then, about 500 members of the indigenous community have converted to Islam in Chiapas alone. "Our influence remains modest compared to the Protestants," acknowledges the imam.

The scale of Protestant influence is demonstrated by the presence of about 10 evangelical churches in the city of 190,000, including Adventists, Baptists, Methodists. "In the 1930s, the first missionaries translated the Bible into indigenous languages," explains Aida Hernandez, religious specialist at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (Ciesas) on the outskirts of Mexico City. "Chiapas now has the most protestants in Mexico." Their proportion in this state (23.35%) has almost doubled in 20 years, according to the Mexican National Office of Statistics.

On Sunday morning in another working-class area in the north of the town, the Pentecost Temple ‘Solo Cristo Salva" (Only Christ saves) is packed. Inside, Manuel Dias, a 20-year-old Tzotzil Indian, plays enthusiastic Halleluiahs on an electric organ. In front of him the faithful raise their arms toward the sky, clap their hands and dance to rock, pop and salsa rhythms with their eyes closed. "Look at how the faith is stronger here," Pastor Rafael Ruiz beams, before giving his sermon in Spanish and Tzotzil.

Price of conversion

For Gaspar Marquecho, anthropologist at the Universidad Autónoma in Chiapas, "The Indians are disappointed in Catholicism, which still carries the stains of colonial memories and the authoritarianism of mixed-race priests. The Evangelical churches, which respect the people's syncretism, respond better to their needs for spiritual fulfilment and a sense of community in the face of poverty, illiteracy and discrimination."

Vicente Garcia, a 33-year-old Pentecostal Church member: "stopped drinking thanks to God." But this street vendor paid a high price for his conversion. "The Catholics hunted my family," said this former peasant, who was expelled from San Juan Chamula. From the 1960s until the 1990s, this market town located about 10 kilometres north of San Cristobal de las Casas was the scene of violent religious divisions.

The conflict took over the whole region. "It was either leave or die," admits Pascuala Lopez, a 25-year-old Indian whose house was set on fire in the village of Huiztan located to the southwest of the town. "Crimes are committed less frequently today, but the tensions still remain," says Marquecho.

Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas from 1959 to 1999, has fought against this violence since the late 1960s. A defender of Liberation Theology, which combats social injustice, Ruiz weaved close links with Subcomandante Marcos, who launched the Zapatista uprising on Jan. 1, 1994 in San Cristobal de las Casas in favor of Indian emancipation.

"But Marcos never wanted to get involved in religious conflicts, encouraging the evangelicals to defend themselves," said Marquecho.

Sandra Canas, an anthropology researcher at the University of Texas, explains: "In reality, the community conflicts are not religious, but political and economic. By converting to evangelicalism, the Indians are breaking with the corrupt, authoritarian system of local leaders whose domination is based on Catholicism. The local leaders therefore chuck them out so that their authority is not questioned."

The expulsions have been condemned by Felipe Arizmendi, current bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas. "We fight for religious freedom by promoting a Church that welcomes cultural diversity, something long abandoned by the Church in Chiapas." In charge of his diocese since 2000, he wants to regain lost ground by reinforcing the state ecclesiastical network, where the number of priests has grown from 66 to 90 in the past 12 years.

"Our 60 seminarists all learn an indigenous language," he says proudly. "The Pope's visit will reinforce our evangelical work."

For Imam Hajj Idriss, Islam has been spared the worst of these conflicts: "There are not many Muslims, so we are not a threat to the Catholic leaders." At least, not yet.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – meg and rahul

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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