A light for seeing the unseen

The long dusty road had no number. For all intents the small communities strung out along it had no names. A packed, recycled school bus carried people and their produce down it every day, though.

The long dusty road had no number. For all intents the small communities strung out along it had no names. A packed, recycled school bus carried people and their produce down it every day, though. It brought me to a village the locals called La Garrucha.

This community of 50 or 60 families sat on the edge of the Lacandona rainforest at the southern end of Mexico, bordering on Guatemala. The forest still provided the materials for most homes in La Garrucha 16 years ago.

Most families found shelter beneath palm-thatched roofs held up by sturdy posts, with tightly aligned smaller poles providing siding to single rooms that served as eating, living and sleeping spaces. A few metal-roofed homes with milled boards enclosing them had begun to appear back then.

Families relied on farming small plots of land for their food and cash needs. For some, the few affordable technologies included a fire-hardened stick for creating the hole for the corn seed and a machete for clearing and weeding. A few could rent a small tractor and plow.

Something set the people of La Garrucha apart. They had organized. Along with other communities spread out through the southern and eastern sides of the Mexican state of Chiapas, they refused to be invisible. In 1994, Zapatista communities rose up against the centuries of exploitation and marginalization. They demanded that their basic human rights be respected.

World media briefly shone a light on their cause. This protective glare quickly faded, and as it did their vulnerability to the powers that be returned with increased force. The military drove the people from La Garrucha in 1996.

After much suffering, they returned and sought to rebuild their lives. I came to the village as an international peace observer under the auspices of the Human Rights Centre Bartolome de las Casas the next year at the invitation of village leaders. They understood that a foreign witness living among them would lessen their risk of being attacked. A little light would again shine on them. The issues did not go away. My son Liam participated in same program but in two different communities three years ago. Light continues to be needed.

Professor Lisa Guenther from Vanderbilt University reminded the audience at the Beringia Centre last Sunday that human rights without institutional protection becomes empty very quickly. Those who need their protection most then have the least access to them. The poor, the shunned and the forgotten become, in the words of Hannah Arendt, the great political and social thinker, deprived of “a right to have rights.”

Pushed into darkened corners of our collective consciousness, the unseen among us can be excluded to the degree that they are literally dead to the world. Professor Guenther defined this phenomenon social death. Who have we cast out of our world?

Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, stated, “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” We cannot isolate others without their very isolation ultimately having an impact on us. The hundreds of our school children who participated in the annual All Schools Food Drive this past week in support of the Whitehorse Food Bank shone the light of empathy and concern on the hungry in our midst. Who among the forgotten can we hold in our hearts this Thanksgiving weekend?

This coming week the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition’s yearly Poverty and Homelessness Action Week program will continue efforts to strengthen our commitment to the marginalized in our community. A presentation of the documentary Gold Fever, which examines the impact of Canadian mining on Mayan people in Guatemala, will take place at the Old Fire Hall on Wednesday at 7 p.m. And on Friday, a fundraiser for Morgan Weinberg’s Little Footprints, Big Steps work in Haiti will be held at the Westmark from 5 to 8 p.m.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.