Field Report: Sovereignty without Adjectives


Emilio Travieso, SJ, is a DPhil student in the Oxford Department of International Development working under Dr. Laura Rival.  He does research in partnership with grassroots organizations that are building sustainable, healthy, and just food systems. Below is the first in a series of reports from the field where Emilio will explain his work and its place in the larger Jesuit mission. 


Sovereignity Without Adjectives
In my last field report, I wrote about the work of Yomol A’tel, a group of social businesses that is “doing coffee differently.”  They have successfully gained control over the value chain in a way that frees small farmers from the exploitation of the mainstream system.  This economic freedom, combined with environmentally sustainable methods, ensures that farmers can continue to produce their own maize, beans and other staple crops, thereby ensuring their food sovereignty.  The goal of Yomol A’tel, then, is to build the economic and food sovereignty of the Tseltal people of Chiapas, Mexico.

Or so I thought.  As I get to know this Jesuit initiative more closely, I am discovering its interconnectedness with the rest of what the Jesuits are doing in Chiapas, through the Misión de Bachajón, of which Yomol A’tel is a part.  The Misión de Bachajón covers a territory of 3,000 km2, including over 630 rural Tseltal communities.  It is a religious work designed to build up an “autochthonous Church,” deeply rooted in Tseltal culture.

This autochthonous Church, while fully Roman Catholic, has its own particularities.  Most of the pastoral ministry, for example, is led not by the handful of Jesuit priests, but by over 300 permanent deacons, together with their wives, who are from the communities where they serve.  There are over 2,000 catechists, as well as over 20 other types of ministers, such as “caretakers of Mother Earth,” who promote agroecology as a sacred practice.

The latter is reinforced by the Mayan altar, a synthesis of indigenous and Christian symbols, arranged on a bed of leaves laden with different-colored corn, flowers, and other natural objects.  Catholic liturgies here start with the lighting of the candles of the Mayan altar, accompanied by pine-resin incense and ritual dancing.  Far from a superficial gesture, the Mayan altar is the fruit of years of reflection by the “indigenous theology” team, whose work is yet another of the ministries promoted and accompanied by the Misión de Bachajón.

These ministries are organized according to the traditional Mesoamerican “cargo system,” whereby nearly all adults in a community engage in voluntary service, with increasing degrees of responsibility as they grow in age.  This indigenous social system, adopted by the local Church, does not separate the religious sphere from other aspects of communal life.  Thus, the community entrusts its own “problem-fixers” and judges with the ministry of resolving conflicts (aiming always for reconciliation), rather than making use of the governmental justice system (which tends to focus on punishment).  After experiencing the divisive effect of corrupt political parties, the Misión communities are now reflecting on how to strengthen their local self-government in order to achieve further political sovereignty.

The Tseltal language is essential to the Tseltal way of life.  Thus, the Misión has not only translated the Bible and other religious texts, but also carries out all of its everyday business – down to bureaucratic paperwork – entirely in Tseltal.  This degree of linguistic autonomy is unique among indigenous communities in Mexico, and rare in Latin America.  

However, new connections to the outside world – roads, television, and Spanish-speaking schoolteachers – have made it a challenge to keep the language fully alive.  So, the Misión de Bachajón has set up its own radio station, run entirely by young people, that offers Tseltal-language programming.  Having their own mass media outlet not only gives the people access to the information that interests them, it also motivates young people to create new cultural expressions.  One very popular example of this are the Misión de Bachajón’s youth mariachi bands, whose contemporary Tseltal music is transmitted by the radio station along with more traditional music.

Any language encodes an entire worldview, and indigenous languages in particular also transmit a wealth of information about local ecologies and biodiversity.  Thus, intertwined with the survival of a local language and its surrounding biodiversity is the survival of plant-based medicinal knowledge.  To strengthen all of these aspects together, the Misión de Bachajón promotes traditional medicine by fostering the exchange of both knowledge and plants among the hundreds of communities in the region.  This, also, is one of the Church ministries, a “cargo” entrusted to the women and men who care for the sick in their communities with natural medicine.  

As I become more aware of all of this work, meant to give a people greater control over its own life, I have come to realize that economic sovereignty and food sovereignty are not only interlocked with each other, but that both are part of a larger whole.  Economic sovereignty and food sovereignty are inseparable from all the other forms of sovereignty: religious, political, linguistic, cultural and even medicinal.  

Ultimately, the Misión de Bachajón’s goal is not a collection of many types of sovereignty.  As the director of Yomol A’tel puts it, the goal is “sovereignty without adjectives.”