Reason to Hope

Fr Emilio Travieso is a Jesuit priest from Miami and a part of the Antilles province based in the Dominican Republic. He has just finished his PhD at Oxford university where he was researching Jesuit Misión de Bachajón in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, where the Jesuits have accompanied the Mayan Tzeltal people since 1958. He came to speak to us about his research.

Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico with one of the largest indigenous populations. The local Tzeltal language is the only indigenous language, out of sixty-eight used in Mexico, that is also a written language. Most new generations are bilingual with Spanish, however most older generations only speak Tzeltal. Chiapas is the top coffee producing state in Mexico, which is in the top ten producers of coffee in the world. Coffee is the second most traded commodity globally after oil, so why are the people of Chiapas so poor?

Fr Emilio explained to us that big corporations control the markets and take the raw basic coffee seed and export it from Mexico to go through the process to become the coffee that we can drink. It is often then imported back into Mexico. Fair trade doesn’t remove this barrier of local production but simply gives a slightly fairer price to the growers.

Yomol A’tel is a cooperative formed in 2000, which allows the local people to produce and sell their own honey and high-quality coffee. They now have their own Capeltic coffee brand which is sold in five or six coffee shops across Mexico City. Their tag line is “juntos trabajamos juntos caminamos juntos soñamos” which means “we work together, we walk together, we dream together.”

Each family is allotted a plot of land to grow their own food; everything is grown themselves except for oil, sugar and salt.

The local people are now earning more than 30% more income than they were before, and it is giving young people a reason to stay. “Although some young people may still choose to move to Cancun or the US for work, the important thing is that they now have a reason to stay if they want.” Fr Emilio said. “Often they have to migrate into the US illegally and even in Cancun, on the Eastern peninsular of Mexico, they are not treated fairly due to the colour of their skin.” The cooperative has created jobs such as accountants as well as farmers.

The Tzeltal people work “in harmony with the environment”. Compared to the large coffee plantations that cause top soil erosion due to the over production, their way of growing the coffee beans is “shade grown”. This means that they grow under the canopies of the trees ensuring the soil is kept fertile and moist, enhancing biodiversity not just protecting it.

This community has adapted to the Catholic Jesuit tradition in a very unusual way. In a region covering 650 villages and 300, 000 people there are only five or six priests. This is because marriage is a very important part of the local culture and so is gender equality. Instead there are around six hundred married deacons who serve at mass, often alongside their wives, conducting a new type of Catholic worship. Additionally, about 20% of the local adult population has a community service role through the church ministry. This covers everything from catechism to their own justice system where they try to restore harmony and reconcile people rather than a prison or fine system.

Fr Emilio recalls, “there were often seven or eight members of the community serving at mass and sometimes the service would run on for hours. Once there was an eight-hour mass that even included a lunch break! The traditional Mayan culture really comes through in the church with a typical alter covered in the four types of corn. I really admire how the community has created their own type of worship interlinking the catholic faith without losing their traditional Mayan cultural practises.”

Fr Emilio’s next destination is Haiti where he has been sent by the Society of Jesus for his next work.

You can read more about Fr Emilio’s work here.

Posted on 03rd July 2018