Back in His Native California after Being Thrown out of Mexico after 21 Years Working
By Robert Collier
San Francisco Chronicle
September 10, 1995
Since the Zapatista rebel uprising began in southern Mexico on New Year's Day 1994, the Mexican government has periodically accused clerics and foreigners of instigating the rebellion. On June 23 of this year, the government made good on its warnings, expelling three foreign priests -- including the Rev. Loren Riebe, a Los Angeles native.
Riebe, who had ministered for two decades to the Indian poor of Yajalon, a county seat in the Lacandon Jungle region of Chiapas state, was accused by the Interior Ministry of "engaging in political activism in a clear and intense participation in national political issues" and encouraging land seizures by pro-Zapatista peasant groups.
Many observers interpreted the expulsions as a sign that the government would take a tougher stance toward the Zapatistas, who are surrounded in their jungle strongholds by tens of thousands of army troops.
Catholic leaders in Chiapas condemned the arrests, saying they amounted to an attack on Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who is a prominent advocate of a leftist church doctrine known as Liberation Theology. Ruiz is mediating the deadlocked peace talks between the government and the rebels.
Since his expulsion, Riebe has moved back to Los Angeles, trying to build public pressure on the Mexican government to allow his return. He talked to The Chronicle during a recent visit to San Francisco.
To most Americans, Chiapas now is old news. After the intense surge of interest early last year, nothing much seems to have happened. Has Chiapas become just another endemic, back-burner problem?
Well, the expulsion of the three of us was just part of an intense heightening of military activity in Chiapas this year. There are tens of thousands of government troops there. In my parish, since I was expelled, the state police have been going village to village, house to house, with very accurate lists of our Indian catechists and political leaders and telling the folks, "If we threw the priest out, imagine what we can do with you."
Our expulsion seems to have been an attempt on the part of at least one sector of the Mexican government to weaken the position of the church as mediator for peace. That sector, allied with the army and the wealthy, wants a final solution to the problem, to send the troops in and just get rid of everybody and everything that gets in their way. Things are getting more and more tense. This situation is not play-acting.
Q: So what got you into trouble with the government?
A: What started snowballing for us was working in education for the Indian people. The Diocese (of Chiapas) made a fundamental commitment in the mid-1980s -- together with our bishop -- for a real discernment, to take an option to be with the poorest of our diocese. This meant that almost all our activity was dedicated to this program of empowering and training religious leaders in each of the Indian communities.
In Yajalon, what we did first of all was to look at your reality. What do you live in? What kind of things are happening in your life? What kind of salaries are you earning? That's how you find God. That's your immediate contact. It's a total revelation. The Indians themselves began to realize all the pain and the hurt that was in their lives.
They told us they wanted their own store, their own small clinic, education for their kids. So we started these, where they could get treated like real human beings. We had a (boarding house) for Indian kids from the villages in the mountains, so they could attend junior high school and high school. We had more than 100 kids living there, on a 15-acre ranch owned and operated by the indigenous people themselves. They were able to work their way through high school. And we had a program for college. We had 21 Indian kids attending colleges throughout the country.
Q: But one thing led to the next, and . . . ?
A: Then, as the indigenous people began to really remember the dignity that they had as people, interesting things began to happen. Because, as very concrete folks, they began to wonder why they didn't have health care and why the white people did. And they began to wonder why they didn't have schools. And they were wondering why every time there was some kind of a legal problem, the judges and the police were paid off by the white folks. And they wondered why their kids were hungry and dying of all kinds of diseases.
So they began to organize within the law to pressure the government to give them education and health care and a justice system that works. The wealthy people in town thought it was very dangerous. They wondered why we were wasting all our time and money on the Indians. Rumors were always being spread that the boys' ranch was where the priest was storing all the guns for the coming revolution. And there was a lot of repression by the government.
Q: What type of repression?
A: They'd go in and beat up the Indians and burn down their homes. For many people (the repression) was a very discouraging thing and for others it made them more political. And after they found that working within the law was very dangerous in our area, some of them of course turned to armed warfare, the Zapatista uprising -- something that I never expected because the Indians are very passive and patient folks.
Q: Why passive?
A: Their approach to life is a very nonviolent thing. The majority of the people we work with are committed Christians, and it's really, really hard to find justification in the Scriptures for that kind of violence. But the position of the Zapatistas and the position of the more politically aware people in my parish is that this is a war of self-defense, against poverty, against injustice, against sickness and death. They're defending themselves against their lack of land, which has been taken from them.
Q: Would you agree that it's a war of self-defense?
A: Oh yes, I think so. And that's the way they (the Zapatistas) see it.
Q: So you justify the violence?
A: I don't justify -- that's what the government has been accusing the church of. But one has to understand why it's happening. What no one mentions in my case is that there are no Zapatistas around Yajalon. There have been no problems. There have been no land takeovers, either, as there have been elsewhere in Chiapas.
Q: But the government has accused you of instigating landless peasants to take over large farms.
A: That's ridiculous. The last land takeover in the municipality of Yajalon was 15 years ago.
Q: How rich are the rich? In a place like Yajalon, even they must be pretty poor.
A: No, they're very wealthy. There are 16 millionaires, American-dollar millionaires, in this little town. And the people who work on their ranches, if they're being paid, most live there and work on the old system of the rancher lending an acre of land to an indigenous family to plant corn and beans, and they pay half of that harvest back to the landowner for the opportunity of working on his land.
They still address the landowner as patron. They still kiss his hand. If a ranch is sold or traded among the wealthy, the Indians on that ranch go along with the property. If someone is earning a salary, like during the coffee harvest, a good salary in our area is considered nine Mexican pesos a day, which is about $ 1.50 American per day for a man. A woman would make probably 70 cents a day, and children work for about a quarter or 30 cents a day.
I know the wealthy very well. I've been there a long time. I've baptized most of their kids. They're racists. They sincerely believe that Indians are poor because they're drunkards, ignorant and lazy, and so obviously they're not good for anything but to work.
Q: But why do the wealthy live in such an isolated place as Yajalon if they have that much money? That's serious back country.
A: They're seriously back- country people. They don't know what to do with their money. I mean, they don't take a vacation. They kind of get some of their kids educated, but the kids never work at their profession if they get one. They go back to taking over dad's ranch.
And their idea of a good time is to have a baptism or a wedding and for everybody to get drunk out of their minds. They put out nice big bottles of whiskey and spend thousands on a dress and bring a band from God knows where. That's their idea of being wealthy. It doesn't go beyond that.
They're extremely ignorant folks. We could only get them organized sometimes to put a new roof on the church or paint the church, you know, that kind of religious activity. They'd go along as long as their names were put on a big sign.
Q: What do the landowners say about you?
A: It wasn't me that they were after. Even when the local landowners had a big march through town (on February 19) against the bishop, there were only a couple people against me. Even when they yelled at the bishop for being the assassin and the Antichrist and called him Comandante Samuel, head of the Zapatistas, and yelled for "death to all foreigners" -- and I looked around and said, "Hey, the only foreigner I know around here is me" -- they probably didn't make that connection. It was just their desperation and their anger.
But some were very angry at me afterward, when all of a sudden they couldn't baptize their kids. I said that organizers yelling "Death to the bishop" on Sunday can't come to church and baptize their kids on Monday.
Q: You expelled them from church?
A: We suspended the organizers of this march, about 15 folks.
Q: Those 15 were basically just the landowners?
A: Almost all of them, yes.
Q: Yajalon is right in the middle of Zapatista territory, the so- called red zone.
A: There have never been any armed Zapatistas in Yajalon. On the fringes of the Yajalon area, in other counties, there is a lot of Zapatista activity. But it's awfully hard to tell. I think with my position the Indians only let me know as much as they wanted me to know about some of their activities. The Indians are very closed- mouthed with me.
They use the term la organizacion. They don't use the word Zapatista around me. They're very careful with that. It's gotten to the point where we can't even use the legitimate Spanish word organizar because everybody understands something else by it. If we talk about the need to get organized about the coming parish fiesta they'll think we're talking about la organizacion (the Zapatistas).
Q: What's the Indian ethnic group up there? Do you speak the language?
A: Tzeltzal. After so much time with them, you can't help but learn to speak (Tzeltzal) pretty well. But still, they also have this great thing that when it's none of your business what they're talking about, they start using a vocabulary that in 21 years in the Tzeltzal zone I almost never hear. So I can't understand a word they're saying. It's not an offense, but they adjust their vocabulary to the need. They're very, very intelligent folks.
Q: So Zapatistas do exist in Yajalon?
A: There's a sympathy. I guess you could call it a civilian support structure for them.
Q: You spent a total of 19 years in one town, 21 in Chiapas. How often did you leave?
A: I was up in the States at least once or twice a year to do fund raising and to get word out about what happens in that part of the world. I've been helped by the archdiocese of Los Angeles. We also have relations with a parish in Eureka, Sacred Heart Parish. Also in Ukiah, Mary of the Angels. And we just started a relationship with Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa, St. Vincent's Parish in Petaluma, through friends of mine in the priesthood who would give me the opportunity to speak to their people, get some financial help. We also have a group helping us in Scottsdale, Ariz., and one in Gainesville, Fla.
Q: If you were the only foreigner in Yajalon, it must have been a lonely place for you.
A: It is, it is, unless you're involved with the folks. They become family. Very slowly, very mistrustfully at the beginning, but these are just really good human beings. I don't think I can ever become an Indian, and they can never become who I am, but there's an awful lot we share.
* 1943: Born March 18 in Los Angeles
* 1970: Ordained as Catholic priest after graduating from St. John's Seminary in Camarillo (Ventura County)
* 1970-74: Parish priest at St. Anne's Parish in Santa Monica
* 1974-76: Parish priest in highlands town of Tenejapa, Chiapas, in Mexico
* 1976-present: Parish priest in remote jungle town of Yajalon, Chiapas
* 1994: Zapatista guerrillas take over five towns in Chiapas highlands. Fighting lasts 12 days before a cease-fire is declared
* 1995: June 23, Riebe and two other foreign-born priests expelled from Mexico on June 23 by national security officials for alleged pro-Zapatista agitation among local Indians
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