UNHCR offered their support to the Guatemalan peasants who had been crossing the border since 1982 in an effort to flee political violence in their country. It was my interest in Kanjobal refugees that first took me to Las Ceibas, one of several border ejidos that welcomed their "Guatemalan brothers".
Las Ceibas was classified by the National Indigenist Institute ... as a mestizo community and attracted attention because it was the only local settlement in which most houses were made of brick and painted in pastel colors. ... The women in their brightly colored satin dresses and the men in their black trousers, and sometimes wearing a tie, were foreign to the rain forest landscape in which they lived, but too much like any poor inhabitants of urban zones to awaken my anthropological curiosity.
My initial research interest was in Kanjobal refugees, mostly bilingual, survivors of a low-intensity war, and carriers of a "millenarian culture", with whom I worked for several months ... Their hosts, Las Ceibas peasants, considered my work with some curiosity but remained distant. Over time, however, something akin to jealousy began to emerge, over what they saw as excessive attention to Guatemalan refugees.
The first of these local people to approach me were attracted by my books and my tape recorder. They told me that they too had some books and some tapes with the "Word of God", and they suggested we make a temporary exchange. It was then that I started to understand the strangeness of the local people and their settlement, for it was, I discovered, a community of Jehovah's Witnesses.
... I deplored the way in which "American imperialism" had managed to penetrate even this isolated place in the rain forest. This group of "cultureless people", I then believed, was once more the result of the "ethnocidal force" of Protestant sects. This discovery was worth only one or two short paragraphs in my field notes, followed by some anti-imperialist thoughts. My interest remained focused on "Kanjobal resistance". ...
Two years later, in 1988, I returned to Las Ceibas, now as part of a wider project comprising five border states in which I intended to analyze "Protestant penetration" at the southern border. Most of the Guatemalan refugees had been relocated in Campeche and Quintana Roo, and the rest had left Las Ceibas to join other local camps. ... I decided to return to that strange and paradisiacal place on the Jatate River.
Although I was conducting academic research, under the then head of CIESAS-Sureste, ... financing institutions had a political interest in it. The project was promoted by the Cultural Program of the Borders, an institution linked to the Ministry of Education, and concerned about the anti-nationalist impact Protestant sects might have on border regions. Thus, I unwittingly participated indirectly in still one more effort of the Mexican state to maintain the Mexicanidad of its borders ...
... I came to the Sierra Madre in 1990 and remained for several months. I returned in September 1993, and this time stayed until June 1995, living mainly in Mazapa de Madero, Motozintla de Mendoza, and El Porvenir, in the region commonly known as Mariscal. During these two years, I visited a number of Mam communities and traveled throughout the southwestern region of the Chiapas Sierra Madre ...
MAM JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES : NEW RELIGIOUS IDENTITIES AND REJECTION OF THE NATION
[In 1973], a group of Mam peasants decided to seek new paths and abandon the Mariscal region. Crossing borders of geography and identity, about sixty families migrated to the southwestern zone of the Lacandon rain forest, the so-called Canadas de Las Margaritas. Most of these families had previously been converted to a new religious creed, the Jehovah's Witnesses.
In this chapter, I explore the history of the inhabitants of Las Ceibas, one of the many ejidos founded in the borderland of Las Margaritas at that time. My long stay there allowed me to learn the history and origins of the settlement, which otherwise I would not have been able to identify as Mam. After several afternoons of conversation, the people began to tell me about their Mam identity. There may be other "mestizo" communities in that zone whose history is linked to the Sierra Madre and whose ancestors defined themselves in some historical moment as Mam that the official census has not recorded.
Because the official record overlooks their indigenous past, their identification as Mam is difficult. It is equally difficult to define what percentage of the Mam population has been converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses, for it is a minority group and their presence in the Sierra and rain forest regions stands out more for the confrontational character of their religious and anti-nationalist discourse than for their numerical importance.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' millenarian ideology ... arrived in the Mam region by the end of the 1960s, from the towns of Comitan and Tapachula. At that time the Mam population had been almost 100 percent Hispanicized and the literacy level was much higher than in other regions of the state. Comitan "publishers" were the first to reach the Frontera Comalapa region and offer the Watchtower and Awake! [magazines] to those landless peasants who in 1973 would found the Las Ceibas community in the heart of the Lacandon rain forest. The end of this world and the beginning of God's kingdom, where Jehovah's Witnesses would live happily ever after, was announced from door to door throughout the Frontera Comalapa colonies.
The historical experience of the region's inhabitants with the Mexican state as well as their exclusion from the modernizing project of the 1950s and 1960s might have aided the acceptance of the ideology of the Jehovah's Witnesses among many of the dispossessed peasants. The anti-modernization ideology of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a reaction against the nineteenth century's modernist philosophy and the advance of industrialization was appealing to Mam peasants, who had experienced a violent encounter with the modern Mexican state. The millenarian discourse brought to the borderland by Comitan "publishers" expounded the rejection of all the institutions of this world, especially nations and their rulers, who are presented as incarnations of evil forces. The need to form a new nation of God governed by a theocracy headed by Jehovah himself has led the [Jehovah's] Witnesses to reject all the "governments of this world".
The voices of the inhabitants of Las Ceibas are those of a religious minority within an ethnic minority and can tell us about the experience of being marginalized among the marginalized. They are the peasants "without a culture" whom indigenism has ignored. Their histories, filled with silences, willfully forgotten episodes, and contradictions, are an integral part of the history of the "other border".
In Search of Paradise
It was in summer 1973 that Ulfrano Perez invited seventeen family heads to get together in a Frontera Comalapa settlement. The seventeen had in common their lack of land, their status as "arrimados" (people living in somebody else's house, in this case the house of a relative or a friend), being sons of idiomistas, and having links with the Jehovah's Witnesses. All those gathered had come to Comalapa from the Sierra, after exhausting all possible means of obtaining from the government a piece of land in their communities. The eroded land of the Sierra could not support their children, and Soconusco's fertile lands, in the hands of finqueros, were inalienable. There was no other way but to search for new horizons outside the Sierra. During one of his many visits to the Comitan Ministry of Agrarian Reform, Don Ulfrano had learned that there were national lands in Las Margaritas rain forest that could be colonized. Indigenous peoples from the highlands had already begun to found colonies in the forest, and people were arriving from other parts of the state and the country. In this first meeting, Don Ulfrano invited participants to form a colony of "believers" in the rain forest.
"When I learned there were national lands to be distributed, I invited several people I knew, all of them believers, to go and found a colony. I thought that Jehovah God had made me find out about these lands. We knew that we had to wait for Paradise on Earth, after the battle of Armageddon, and we thought that we could wait together in the forest, far from the temptations of this world. At first there were only seventeen of us, but we soon assembled the twenty able men we needed, and more joined in, all believers."
The agrarian code, modified in 1962, stated in Article 58 that at least twenty applicants and a six-month residency were necessary to fulfill the requirements for the establishment of new ejidos on national lands. The modification, made under President Lopez Mateos, opened for colonization national lands that until then had been the property of the federal government, while reiterating the defense of latifundism.
When the founders of Las Ceibas arrived in the region in 1973, people from the highlands and Las Margaritas -- Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Tojolabal -- had already established at least ten settlements in the southwestern part of the rain forest. The best and most accessible lands had already been distributed among the first colonizers. They had received an average of twenty hectares per family, whereas Las Ceibas settlers obtained an average of only ten hectares of arable land, which nevertheless compared favorably to the average of three hectares their parents had in the Sierra region.
The Jehovah's Witnesses established [their] own method of distributing land. Contrary to other "ejidos", where those who promoted colonization were able to choose the best lands, in Las Ceibas such decisions were made collectively, in an effort to give each ejidatario the same amount of quality land.
"First a group of men went ahead to find our land. We had to walk a lot because everything was settled. We went through Santa Elena, through Pacayal, through Jerusalem, we reached Loma Bonita, until we found this clearing, it was near the river and there were national lands, so we decided to make our colony here. Then we brought our families, and all together we cleared the land and distributed it, fairly we gave each one his plot. Now we were not scattered like in the Sierra. Our colony would be orderly, and we decided to build a kiosk at the center, like in Comitan."
... Ejidal distribution at the end of the 1930s had begun to concentrate the population around municipal agencies, but in the rain forest inhabitants of the new communities not only established concentrated settlements but also made use of urban planning whereby houses were built on a rectangular grid, forming blocks. In the case of Las Ceibas, this new design has been completed with geometrically trimmed bushes around houses and the use of cement in construction.
"At first, we lived in mud and cane houses like the chamulitas around here at Santa Elena; later, when coffee began to be produced, they carried on their backs the material for their houses; only a few mud and cane houses remained, those who just did not make it."
The construction of this "jungle paradise", with pastel cement houses was possible thanks to the coffee boom of the 1970s and the arrival in 1983 of Guatemalan refugees, who provided the inhabitants of Las Ceibas with a ready and cheap workforce for the coffee harvest. Work on the coffee fincas had marked the lives of most of the inhabitants of Las Ceibas, as it had their parents' and grandparents' elsewhere. This was their first opportunity to plant and harvest their own coffee. When this group arrived in the region, most ejidos were already involved in coffee production, having failed in growing corn and breeding and selling pigs.
The shift to supporting ejidal coffee growing for export was one of the new agrarian policies promoted by the administration of Luis Echeverra Alvarez (1970-76) before the rise of the peasant movement at the national level. The agrarian crisis and peasant mobilization had led to the government's rethinking of the antiagrarian policies of preceding administrations and to the creation of new channels to support the most marginalized sectors of the peasantry. The Mexican Coffee Institute (INMECAFE), created in 1958, had so far limited itself to fixing prices, but by the mid-seventies it broadened its role by creating Economic Production and Commercialization Units (UEPEC), through which it organized producers and gave them the necessary training to obtain credits. Parallel to its technical support, INMECAFE began to support ejidatarios in the marketing of their products by offering to pay for the surplus, depending on the price of coffee on the international market.
When the first inhabitants of Las Ceibas arrived in the region in 1973, they went to work as laborers with their neighbor ejidatarios who were already planting coffee. These temporary jobs helped them to obtain their own coffee plants and become familiar with the bureaucratic processes necessary to link themselves to INMECAFE.
"When we just arrived, we began to plant a bit of corn, but we were offered jobs in the coffee plantations of those who had arrived first. This is how we started to work for them in the colonies; there we learned of the existence of INMECAFE and that we could obtain credits for fertilizers and pesticides. We were soon sowing our own little plants and Jehovah God blessed us with our "cafetal" (coffee plantation)."
From then on, Las Ceibas's economy was centered on coffee production. Corn, the staple food for Chiapas peasants, became secondary. Most ejidatarios still planted their small milpas, but the state-subsidized MASECA flour was making an appearance in border homes, and the money produced by selling coffee was used to complement their corn crop with this new product. Although the state itself promoted coffee production in the region, soon peasants were no longer depending on its support because of the inefficiency of governmental offices. Excessive bureaucracy made selling their products through INMECAFE diffcult, and in general the money for surpluses never reached the peasants. They frequently resorted to local intermediaries to sell their coffee.
The arrival of hundreds of Guatemalan refugees from 1982 on introduced new dynamics into the coffee-based economy and made possible the accumulation of capital on the best-connected ejidos. As a consequence of the razed-lands counter-insurgency campaigns promoted by the Guatemalan army, whole villages moved to Mexican territory in search of shelter on the ejidal lands of rain forest colonies. Indigenous refugees worked for very low wages in exchange for a piece of land to build their huts and plant their milpas. This surplus workforce allowed rain forest colonizers to lower the costs of coffee crops. Las Ceibas inhabitants received on their ejidal lands ten families of Kanjobal refugees. Although Guatemalan peasants professed a different religious belief, they were welcomed by the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"When refugees started to come we organized a meeting to see how we could help them. We understood their suffering. We had also lived at somebody else's house in Frontera Comalapa, with no land, . . . without a house. Satan's forces had led the government of Guatemala to massacre and they were escaping, so we decided to receive them and let them build their huts in the ejido. So then the families you have met came. ... They were not "believers", but they had to learn to respect our [community's rules]."
Alcohol consumption was the main source of tension between Mexicans and refugees. Many refugees ignored ejidal prohibitions and consumed alcohol in the colony, which eventually helped to cause the deterioration of relations between both groups. Yet for five years Catholic refugees and Mexican peasants lived together peacefully, until the former decided to leave the ejido. Several families were relocated in the state of Campeche, and the others joined other camps in the region. The departure of the refugees coincided with the collapse of coffee prices, which ended dreams of bounty in the region.
In 1989, Las Ceibas peasants decided not to harvest their crop because low prices made it impossible to pay for laborers. They faced this new crisis as one more sign announcing the beginning of the end.
"People were scared because coffee is no longer valuable and they have no more money to buy their MASECA. We know that the worldly governments cause these things to happen, they fought among themselves, they do not respect their agreements and lower the prices of coffee disregarding that we may starve. But we Jehovah's Witnesses are not scared. We know that soon all this will not matter because in Paradise on Earth there will be abundance and we will need no money, we know the time is near."
To confront the crisis, many local coffee growers tried to find new ways to survive by contacting the agro-ecological cooperative societies that were beginning to form in the Sierra or by linking themselves to peasant organizations to negotiate new governmental support. As for the inhabitants of Las Ceibas, they used their free time to "publish" throughout the region.
Everyday Life at Las Ceibas
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Readers unfamiliar with the way things work inside the WatchTower Cult -- even out in the middle of nowhere -- should understand that the author's description of life in Las Ceibas OBVIOUSLY resulted from swallowing hook-line-and-sinker the "propaganda" supplied by the local JWs after their first having consulted with Mexico Branch HQ. Note that this "feminist" author was even led to believe that there were female WatchTower "Circuit Overseers". Even the founding of this colony would have had to have been approved -- if not originated -- by the "Governing Body" in New York.]
The "coffee boom" made possible the construction of a bridle path connecting Las Ceibas to the South Border Road, as well as the improvement of ejido houses. The appearance of the colony -- its cleanliness, the colorful houses and their geometrical distribution, the central kiosk, and the surrounding fruit trees -- contrasts with the people's precarious diet, which consists of bug-laden beans bought at very low prices from Guatemalan refugees (who in turn receive it from the UNHCR), corn cultivated in family milpas, and MASECA. The granaries are empty, and many of the people suffer from malnutrition.
Nevertheless, solidarity among Jehovah's Witnesses has allowed the inhabitants of Las Ceibas to weather the coffee crisis. Las Ceibas is different from other local communities not only because of the design and distribution of its houses, but also because of its internal organization. In the new community, the religious group has become the organizational axis of everyday life, and the ejidal organization mechanisms established by the Mexican government have been rejected. Here it is different from the way they do in other ejidos, because I had heard people choose their comisariado [ejidal [commissioners]] or their whole management in one day at the end of the month when they vote. They see how many are in favor of this one or that one. They count, and whoever obtains the highest number stays, and this is the way they do it with all authorities, but here it is different.
"Here the procedure we have is the way we study the Bible. Ministers talk with the person they think must be [the ejido authority] and tell him it is a hard job to be commissioner but explain to him he will have everybody's cooperation. Finally the person thinks it over, and when we meet they inform us, well, here is the person who will be commissioner or any other authority. By [s]electing our authorities this way we have no discussions or voting because there are controversies, isn't that right, sometimes to the point of coming to blows; but that is not our case. In a very favorable way our ministers make the appointments, and this is the way it has been done and there has never been any problem."
Las Ceibas inhabitants have rejected conventional popular elections, instead turning the process into a community service appointed by religious authorities. Although Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden to take public offce, at Las Ceibas the position "comisariado ejidal" (ejidal [commissioner]) is not considered a public offce but a community service, following the rules established by the religious group.
The way the inhabitants of Las Ceibas use their free time has changed significantly. Alcohol and music have completely disappeared from community life, and now young people get together in "social gatherings" where they organize "biblical games", as described in Pedro's testimony. Contrary to neighboring indigenous communities, at Las Ceibas the day's work does not begin at 4:00 or 5:00 [AM], but at 8:00 or 9:00 [AM]. And the workday ends at 3:00 [PM] so that the rest of the afternoon can be dedicated to individual or community study, depending on the day of the week.
With the disappearance of religious feasts and alcoholic beverages, consumption patterns have also changed. Satin or silkaline is very common among Las Ceibas women, as are white shirts and ties among men, giving them an urban air that is surprising in the middle of the Chiapas rain forest. Women have acquired a new role in the community: although they still do the housework, and also care for the family orchard and domestic animals (pigs, hens, and ducks), now they have greater participation in the religious group.
They can even become Circuit [Overseers], and their social space has widened outside the home, as they are allowed to "publish" in neighboring communities. The use of birth control is allowed only if the aim is to have more time for service to the congregation. Women's interest in religious activities is striking. They are usually the majority in weekly meetings and actively participate in the question-and-answer session that follows the reading of texts.
In spite of the religious group's characteristic conservatism in opposing feminist movements at the international level, in the context of rural Mexico, it has broadened the universe of women's participation, and revalued their intellectual capacity, giving them new responsibilities in the public sphere. Community life is ruled by an internal law established by Jehovah's Witnesses' local authority, which forbids, among other things, selling or drinking alcoholic beverages in the ejido. Underage youngsters are not allowed to meet in public places after eight o'clock in the evening. The violation of any of the Internal Law regulations entails a private sanction the first time; a public one the second; and expulsion from the ejido the third.
There is no ejidal jail as in other local colonies, and major crimes, such as theft or physical assault, are punished by expulsion. People who transgress the community's laws are taken before a Special Commission headed by the congregations' ministers, which decides the sanction that is to be applied. A person who steals can actually be expelled from the ejido, but before that a different procedure has to be followed. The person is scolded, and if after committing such a grave fault, [they do not repent, and do not humiliate themselves to show their] subjection to the ejido, then there is nothing to do but to expel them from the colony. ... The jail is in effect replaced by the ideological control of the group, which attempts to direct and rule everyday life. Such control is manifested in the people in charge, who oversee the study and behavior of all converts, every [Jehovah's] Witness being responsible for someone and at the same time under someone else's responsibility.
From the moment they can read, children begin to have responsibilities within their group, leading the study of younger children and teaching them to read and to write from a text called "My Book of Bible Stories".
Some scholars have pointed out that because of this authoritarian structure Jehovah's Witnesses are welcomed particularly among migrant populations, who have abandoned their original homes and thus lost their own life structure. Comparing Jehovah's Witnesses' labor in the Mexican towns of Merida and Guadalajara, Patricia Fortuny writes: "The (WatchTower) Organization is authoritarian and patriarchal par excellence, but these characteristics translate into positive features for all members since they find protection and certainty there, factors absent from society at large. ..."
The Strength of Utopia and Anti-national Discourse
The religious utopia promised by the Jehovah's Witnesses to their converts has been reinterpreted in different ways in different historical contexts. In South Africa and central Africa, Jehovah's Witnesses' ideology was reinterpreted at the beginning of this century and upheld as part of an anti-colonialist movement called Kitawala, which presented the battle of Armageddon as the end of European control over African territories.
Similarly, discourse on a new utopian society has inscribed itself on the collective imaginary of Las Ceibas Jehovah's Witnesses and has influenced the way social justice is understood. "There will be no rich and no poor; there we will need no machines, or credits or fertilizers; the earth will give us everything. In "Paradise on Earth", we will no longer be in families, because we will all be young. There will be no age or class differences. That is the way we know it is going to be."
Influenced by the way in which they imagine "Paradise on Earth", Las Ceibas inhabitants criticize and challenge the reality they face every day. For adults, utopia will be attained only after Armageddon by Jehovah's will, but some young people wonder if this Paradise can begin to be constructed right now. It is precisely the internal contradictions of the discourse of the Jehovah's Witnesses that allow converts to make several readings at the same time. On the one hand, it promotes political demobilization by stating that only Armageddon will end the injustices of this world; on the other, it speaks constantly of the illegitimacy of the power held by nation-states and the possibility of constructing a new nation based on social justice that extends beyond all borders.
The [Jehovah's] Witnesses see themselves as a new nation composed of people from all over the earth who have given up their original nationality, as it were. Whilst living under different forms of worldly government, they are really only temporary residents, aliens, because they belong to this supranational new nation, subjects of God's Heavenly Kingdom, whose laws contained in the Bible they must obey. Because of this attitude toward worldly governments, in several countries Jehovah's Witnesses have been considered "traitors to their country".
... Because of their rejection of national symbols, such as the flag, the coat of arms, and the national anthem, together with their refusal to participate in obligatory military service and in state parties, Jehovah's Witnesses have been identified as "the national enemy", whether by socialism, capitalism, fascism, anticolonialism, or colonialism. ... In the case of Mexico, the children of Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to participate in pledging allegiance to the flag have been expelled from public schools. ... In Las Ceibas, Tzotzil teachers, adhering to the bilingual system of the SEP, have had to adapt to community decisions. When all registered students refused to participate in "Civic Monday" ceremonies, they finally completely discarded the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
For many Las Ceibas inhabitants, the state is a necessary evil that is condemned to disappear. While it exists, they tolerate it and follow all the laws that do not go against their ideological principles and accept its support, as in the case of INMECAFE, but do not expect much of it.
"When we realized that INMECAFE people were stealing the money of our sales we were not surprised; we know that worldly governments are a creation of Satan and that cheating is part of their strategies."
For some, the rejection of "worldly governments" is expressed in their skepticism of the electoral process. During the 1988 elections, one of them said:
"Even if the Cardenistas had won (... a leftist coalition) there would be no justice, because Jehovah will not allow any man to boast he has built a just society before the arrival of God's kingdom. Only in 'Paradise on Earth' after the battle of Armageddon will there be justice in this world."
"I do not think we must obey the government if we know it is a creation of Satan, if we obey it we let ourselves be cheated. We must act according to what we believe to be just as said in the Gospels. If worldly governments are unjust we have no reason to obey them, don't you think?"
This rejection of "unjust governments" led the Jehovah's Witnesses of the Cuauhtemoc ejido, in the neighboring municipality of La Trinitaria, to disregard the religious group's prohibitions and vote during the 1988 presidential elections for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. ...
... Among some Las Ceibas elders, in spite of conversion, there still persists an old religious-magic mentality that seeps through their new forms of religiosity.
"We [Jehovah's] Witnesses cannot be "witched" because Jehovah protects us. Over there at Comalapa, a woman began to study the Bible with us, but then she did not want to continue and became spiritist. She founded her own Center. One day she was talking with the spirits of evil, with the naguales. They told her they could not enter her house because she had Jehovah's Witnesses books in her room."
This belief that Jehovah protects his followers from the negative influence of "naguales" is quite common among border (Jehovah's) Witnesses. An elder from Ejido Cuauhtemoc told me: "When I was (Commissioner), I was very strict, and many got angry at me because I made them work in community tasks. Then some sorcerers threatened me that I would suffer some harm. One night these sorcerers appeared in the shape of dogs, but they did not come in. The next day they told me some men had been guarding my hut and that is why they were not able to witch me, ... but there was nobody. The angels looking after their people defended me."
The technological world described by Jehovah's Witnesses' publications -- computers, atomic bombs, microwaves, and artificial intelligence -- is alien to the reality of Las Ceibas inhabitants, who reinterpret this information according to their own reference points. The perception of health dangers caused by pesticides and fertilizers is linked to their rejection of "new technology" and "modernization", a position promoted by the Watchtower Society. Las Ceibas experience confirms once more that social subjects themselves give content to doctrines. Since doctrines are neither transforming nor conservative by themselves, it is the historical and spatial conjuncture, particularly of social groups, that provide them with content in either sense.
Las Ceibas Jehovah's Witnesses have broadly developed their resistance to and symbolic rejection of governmental institutions through a Messianic discourse criticizing their present conditions and through a restructuring of community life according to their own rules. This critical attitude results from both their religious beliefs and their history of marginalization and oppression. At the same time, they have rejected and challenged other forms of productive and political organization, considering them also as "worldly things".
Las Ceibas Mam have extended the feeling of belonging beyond community, regional, or even national frontiers, to consider themselves part of a new imagined community: the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Different Contexts, Different Identities
Religious identity has become the main reference point for Las Ceibas inhabitants. Above all else, they define themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses, then as peasants, and only in certain contexts as Mam indigenous people. The persistence of some religious-magic elements within the new belief system and the reinterpretation of writings reaching the ejido do not go against this religious group's effective construction of a new feeling of belonging. The new community has been constructed based on the images brought by religious texts, by contact with the head of the organization through letters, and by local networks established with other believers in the state. Their identity as Jehovah's Witnesses is claimed even over their national identity.
"We Jehovah's Witnesses have no nationality; we are all children of Jehovah God. We know that borders were invented by men. In Paradise on Earth, we will all be like brothers and there will be no borders."
Their close link with Jehovah's Witnesses in other countries, as well as with the [WatchTower Society World] Headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, has helped Las Ceibas inhabitants to construct this feeling of belonging. Contrary to what happened in Africa with the Kitawala movement, or in the French Antilles with Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, who remained independent from the general headquarters of their movements, Jehovah's Witnesses in Las Margaritas rain forest have not acquired an institutional independence from the New York headquarters. The international organization has granted them some independence in relation to local regional powers, but not in relation to [NYC] Headquarters. In spite of its physical isolation, Las Ceibas has maintained ongoing communications with the Jehovah's Witnesses' government, contrary to other communities, where, once the congregation formed, it has developed with great independence.
Las Ceibas congregations are in the Frontera Circuit, extending from Frontera Comalapa to Laguna Miramar, including the borderland regions of the municipalities of La Independencia, La Trinitaria, and Las Margaritas. This circuit is under the responsibility of a [Circuit Overseer], who visits the region once a year to assess the activities carried out and the development of the congregations. The circuit itself is part of the Comitan District, which comprises Las Margaritas rain forest and the plains and is one of the three districts into which the state is divided. The three Chiapas districts are among the 124 districts into which the so-called Mexican Branch is divided, headed by three members of the Branch Committee.
In Las Ceibas, the first ministers were selected by the [Circuit Overseer] from among the oldest converts in the congregation, depending on their commitment to and participation in the religious group. From then on, any position is granted by following a complex consultation system. In the same way, periodic reports are sent on the development of activities, the growth of the congregation, the sale of publications, and circuit and district meetings. All this information is processed in a computerized system in Mexico City, linked to New York. Links with the outside world are reinforced by the distribution of periodicals such as Watchtower and Awake! that are published in New York and reach the ejido after a long trip beginning in that American city.
Because of technological advances -- so severely criticized by Jehovah's Witnesses -- they have been able to exert an important influence over their branches in the southern border region of Mexico. To be ministers it is no more a matter of the whole congregation, but one goes ahead and another minister is needed because the group is increasing. Then the attitude of the person is studied, his participation in all activities: such as going to preach from house to house, or doing a Bible study with another person in his own house, or children's instruction, together with his growth in spirituality. All this is recorded in the central offices. Then those who are already ministers see whether they qualify and if they have the necessary amount of knowledge; then they write a report that is sent to the branch in Mexico City, to be sent by them to the World [Headquarters] of Jehovah's Witnesses, in Brooklyn, New York. So that [in New York City] they decide whether they are accepted or not. It is the Governing Body who makes the assessment, but above all what we have learned in the Bible is that this appointment is by God's Holy Spirit; so that is how a person becomes a minister.
Different Contexts, Different Identities
This new transnational community plays an important part in the collective imagination of Las Ceibas inhabitants, as the main community with which they identify has ceased to be the "Mam people", and has become instead the Jehovah's Witnesses. History is, nevertheless, still being claimed in their narrations of origin, and is recovered as a form of legitimation at certain historical conjunctures. Before the new multicultural context of the rain forest, Las Ceibas inhabitants began to assume a "peasant" identity that they opposed to the "Chamula" identity, a generic term they use to refer to all indigenous peoples from the highlands. The makeup of their colony, the use of pastel colors, their urban clothes, and their fluid handling of the Spanish language have become symbolic markers to differentiate themselves from the Chamulas: Chamulas live in a different way.
"If you saw their houses, even if they have money from selling coffee, you don't even notice it, because they still live the same. Women almost do not understand Spanish. ... They are not very civilized, this is why it is more difficult that they accept Jehovah's word."
There is, up to a point, a derogatory attitude toward the Chamulas and Guatemalan indigenous people who do not know the "Word of God", and are not proficient in Spanish. Yet the consciousness that they share an identity as indigenous and idiomistas seeps up to the surface when the point is to legitimize a knowledge that starts to be valued by indigenist institutions working in the region.
After several decades in which their indigenous identity had brought them discrimination and exclusion, the Mam of Las Ceibas confront a new governmental discourse underlining "the value of native cultures", ... From their contact with offcials of the Indigenist Coordinator Center of Las Margaritas and the indigenist radio station XEVFS, "The Voice of the Southern Border", Las Ceibas inhabitants began to notice the new value being placed by the state on indigenous cultures.
In April 1987, La Voz de la Frontera Sur began to broadcast in Tojolabal, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil, reaching forty municipalities in the borderlands, the highlands, the rain forest, the Frailesca, the center, and the Sierra of the state of Chiapas with a four-thousand-watt signal. In its programming, XEVFS vindicates the value of traditional knowledge of resource management, herbal medicine, and agriculture in general, while recovering the oral history of local indigenous peoples. On July 23, 1988, the first program in the Mam language was broadcast, thus beginning the radio series "Mam Word and Music", in which Sierra Madre inhabitants share their history and experiences with XEVFS listeners. ... this series was the beginning of a cultural rescue movement in the Sierra, and for the rain forest inhabitants it represented the creation of a new space where Mam identity could be reclaimed.
Las Ceibas inhabitants decided to participate in these radio programs as Mam indigenous people and have broadcast several recordings in Spanish about their problems of colonization and stories told by elders on the origins of the Mam people. Participation in these radio programs was discussed at the community level, and it was decided that they did not contravene their religious precepts, as it was only a question of remembering the traditions of the "ancients".
Their position concerning this knowledge is ambivalent. On the one hand, they reject and fear popular religiosity, while they do not deny the power of witchcraft and witch medicine. On the other, they make a distinction between the "negative" and the "positive," points of this knowledge ... Visitors who know nothing about the history of Las Ceibas see only another mestizo community, one of the many that exist in the region. This is how it is classified by the INI. The inhabitants themselves do not speak about their Mam identity unless directly asked in certain specific contexts. For example, noticing my interest in the narrations of old Kanjobal refugees in the ejido, Pedro gave legitimacy to his own history by claiming his Mam cultural roots.
Since the creation of the Solidarity Funds for the Promotion of the Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Peoples ..., Las Ceibas inhabitants officially claimed their Mam identity by proposing a project to the INI. It was an ecotourism project that included the construction of cabins near the waterfalls and an adjacent center for handicraft training where "Mam women can recover their handicraft tradition and sell their products to visitors." Cabins were indeed built, but, because of lack of funds, the project was never finished.
The Las Ceibas Jehovah's Witnesses, by broadcasting their history [and no doubt their religious beliefs] to Sierra inhabitants through La Voz de la Frontera Sur, temporarily established a link to those listening relatives, friends, and compadres who had been left behind in the Sierra and from whom they had been separated for so many years. Through radio programs relaying the stories of their origin, Las Ceibas inhabitants now vindicate themselves as Mam, peasants, and Jehovah's Witnesses -- reversing the order in which they usually define themselves. A linear and essentialist perspective of identity would not help us to understand or even hear these voices that try to tell their stories. They are narrations that tell us about a sense of permanence constructed day by day, with long periods of silence and denial, continuity and affirmation.