The hills above the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque.
The hills above the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque. (World Watch Monitor)

The document is signed. All parties have agreed that Fidencio Jiménez, his wife, Petrona Díaz, and their children can return to their home.

The couple expects a cool welcome. Just the same, they said they will return to Santa Rosalía, and resume living the way that provoked neighbours to chase them away: as evangelical Christians.

“When I go back, I’ll see if they accept me freely, or if they make war on me,” Jiménez said in the fall of last year. He expects trouble. “I think it’s going to be a mess.”

Much of the story of Fidencio Jiménez and Petrona Díaz and their exile from Santa Rosalía is a familiar one, shared by large numbers of Christians in southern Mexico who have been pushed to the fringe of community life, or worse, because of their faith. The couple’s legal fight to obtain a written order permitting their return is a modern twist on an old, complicated — and ongoing — tale of anti-Christian pressure in one of Mexico’s most ungovernable regions.

Fidencio Jimenez and his wife, Petrona Diaz
Fidencio Jimenez and his wife, Petrona Diaz (World Watch Monitor)

The road to Santa Rosalía is one of the better stretches of highway in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, and one of its poorest. From the town of Comitán, the last major outpost before the Guatemalan border, it’s 30 kilometres north on Highway 190, one of Mexico’s contributions to the Pan American Highway, which stretches from Alaska to Argentina.

From the highway, a one-lane road quickly dissolves into dirt and enters a broad, shallow valley flanked by pines. Free-roaming ponies graze near the road that rises gradually toward 7,200 feet (2,200 metres) elevation, lurching amid rocks and scrub oak for a few kilometres before revealing a settlement of widely scattered, modest houses sprinkled over the hillsides. Many of them back up to plots of corn, surrounded by well-tended fences.

Santa Rosalia, in central Chiapas.
Santa Rosalia,in central Chiapas (World Watch Monitor)

When he arrived in Santa Rosalía many years ago, Jiménez’ grandfather discovered, after picking the volcanic rock and tree stumps from the shallow, red soil, that a successful crop isn’t guaranteed. But the land produced enough to help support the family, and the grandfather handed the property down to a son, who eventually handed it down to Fidencio. He worked his land, and did electrical and carpentry work.

In the spring of 2011, Jiménez planted his corn, repeating an annual ritual reaching back through centuries of his Tzeltal ancestry. Then he went northeast to Cancún to find work and earn some money. He found little of either. Hungry and nearly broke, Jiménez picked up on a bit of folklore: Drinking Coca-Cola, Mexico’s unofficial national beverage, would tamp down his hunger.

Santa Rosalia, Chiapas state, Mexico
Santa Rosalia, Chiapas state, Mexico (Google Earth)

Instead, he said, swilling Cokes gave him ulcers, which progressed into more significant health problems, including a form of hepatitis. Jiménez began selling his animals and borrowing money to pay the doctors. Thin and unable to eat, he ended up in the emergency room, where he was told nothing more could be done. Jiménez began living out what he thought would be his final days, bedridden at a friend’s house. Three weeks went by without eating. “Every single day, I said goodbye to my family,” he said.

That’s when some visitors arrived. They began to pray with Jiménez, for healing. These men were not from his church. They told Jiménez something new to him: You don’t need to go to your church to pray for healing. You can pray right here, now.

So they prayed, together. Two days later, Jiménez said, he was able to eat.

When he regained his strength, he returned to Santa Rosalía.

And the trouble began.

Filled with gratitude for his renewed health, Jiménez began attending Sunday services at an evangelical congregation in Natitón, a good distance away from the village. He stopped drinking. The people of Santa Rosalía, many of whom had worshipped for years with Jiménez and his family at the Catholic church, noticed.

“People started asking, ‘Where is Fidencio? He’s not coming to church,’ ” he said. Neighbours asked him pointed questions. The priest paid a visit. For two years, as Jiménez travelled to the evangelical church to worship, he heard the whispers in the village. One man asked, point blank: “Is it true you are in another religion?”

Jiménez said he had an equally pointed response: “‘Why didn’t you come to me two years ago when I was smelling like death? ‘ ”

“It was tense,” he said, recalling that time. “I told them, and prayed in front of them, ‘Open their eyes, open their hearts.’ I was preparing for that moment for the last two years. They did not like that, when I prayed for them.”

They told Jiménez they would take the matter to the authorities of Santa Rosalía.

The cacique of San Juan Chamula
The cacique of San Juan Chamula (World Watch Monitor)

Technically, no government official anywhere has any business saying anything about the church Jiménez attends. The very first article of Mexico’s constitution forbids religious discrimination.

The second article, however, carves out a giant exception. It grants “a general framework of autonomy” to Mexico’s indigenous communities, giving them latitude to “decide over their social, economic, political and cultural organization.”

That legal grey area is broadest in Mexico’s southern states, where the indigenous population is concentrated. In Chiapas, about a third of the people identify as Maya Tzotzil, Tzeltal or Chol. Their ancestors, fiercely independent, entered the Catholic Churches built by the Spanish invaders partly to avoid persecution by their new, heavily armed, overlords. For their part, the Spaniards permitted the Maya to bring some of their religious customs into the church as a way to help keep the peace.

During the centuries since, the tension between indigenous and national identity in southern Mexico has evolved into a complex civic, social and religious stew that seems to attract as many anthropologists as tourists to the lush forest region. Even as official Mexico places barriers between religion and government, in the legal space granted to indigenous Mexico, church leaders and town officials often are the same people.

Nowhere is the indigenous break from national culture on more dramatic display than in a town called San Juan Chamula.

Tucked in the high hills in the heart of Chiapas, Chamula sits 10 kilometres and a world apart from the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, seat of the Catholic diocese of the same name. Chamula’s Tzotzil inhabitants enjoy indigenous autonomy, enforcing their own laws. At the heart of their town is San Juan Bautista church, and though it looks like any other Roman Catholic church of the Spanish colonial era, what goes on inside has no connection to Rome.

San Juan Bautista church. Photography is not permitted inside.
San Juan Bautista church. Photography is not permitted inside (World Watch Monitor)

The first clue is the group of men outside the church with 2-way radios, who murmur the arrival of visitors into their microphone, and the boy who collects 20 pesos from each visitor. Inside, there are no pews and no altar, only fresh green ponderosa pine needles blanketing the stone floor. Here and there, worshippers kneel on the floor, sweep away the needles and set out rows of candles before them. Their melted wax glues them to the bare stone, and their sparkling light pokes through the sanctuary’s dim fluorescent gloom.

Along the walls are tables laden with large glass cases displaying costumed figures of saints, haphazard piles of flowers and other offerings at the feet of some, offered in gratitude for a healing or some other miracle. Two women and several children kneel before their candles, offering soft incantations. A bottle of Coca-Cola sits among the candles. A young girl dangles a softly clucking brown chicken by its feet. In the apse of the church, occupying the most prominent spot on the wall, is a glass case containing the figure of John the Baptist. To the left, and lower, is a case displaying the figure of Jesus.

In the plaza outside the church, clusters of men in long black or white wool jackets mill about. They are the cacique, town elders who run Chamula’s civic affairs. Many worked their way up to their positions of influence by performing years of chores for the church, such as observing devotions to a saint, organizing public festivals, or attending to the local custom of daily volleys of fireworks. Now, in the legal space cleared out for them by Mexican law, they straddle the line between church and state, enforcing both religious orthodoxy and the law.

San Juan Bautista’s exotic mash-up of Mayan and Catholic theology, and Chamula’s blend of religious and civic authority, is not for everyone. Not everyone in Chamula has appreciated the caciques’ regular collections to pay for the fireworks and other church observances. For some, it all gets too much, and they leave, voluntarily or otherwise. Those who drop out of their hometown “traditionalist” church and take up with a new Christian congregation may be driven out as apostates. By one anthropologist’s account, Chiapas is home to Mexico’s largest population of Protestants.

The same dramas are played out across Chiapas and beyond, in indigenous villages too small and remote to attract tourist buses.

Villages like Santa Rosalía.

Fidencio Jimenez in the front yard of a friend's house in Comitan, on loan to the family.
Fidencio Jimenez in the front yard of a friend’s house in Comitan, on loan to the family. (World Watch Monitor)

“Everything started to get hot and tough there” in the spring of 2013, said Fidencio Jiménez. There were insults, and even a threat to burn his house, though cooler heads prevailed.

“They said, ‘We’ll give you some time. You do what you think you should do.’ “The message was clear: Return to the Santa Rosalía church. Resume payments for the festivals. Drop the prayer meetings in Notitán. Or get out.

His son, attending high school down the highway in Comitán, started getting hassled. Another son was accused of throwing rocks through a neighbour’s window. A third son, attending the school in Santa Rosalía, was expelled. Electricity to the Jiménez home was cut.

Then they came for the tools. Dozens of men jumped the stone fence, and one of Jiménez’ sons ran to his father.

“‘Dad, they’re coming to take my equipment,’ ” the boy said, according to Jiménez. The men advanced, then stopped. Jiménez stood, silently looking over the intruders, then fetched his tools and handed them over. After a silence, the men walked away.

By summer, the family had enough. “For two years, it was very hard to live like that,” Jiménez said. In late July he, his wife and their youngest children left Santa Rosalía.

They resettled down the highway, in Comitán, in a house belonging to a friend of Petrona. Like thousands of indigenous Mexicans before them, already generally disconnected from the broader national culture and opportunities, they found themselves in one of the shanty towns flanking cities such as Comitán, San Cristóbal and Tuxtla.

The house is tiny, a squat block of grey cinder brick, about 60 square meters. The cement floor is immaculate. The outhouse stands just inside the gate to the dirt yard. To the side of the yard, an ancient table saw and a few other woodworking tools sit under a lean-to. Small chairs circle a pile of smouldering embers. Petrona brings out a tray of sweet drinks. Fidencio nurses a concoction meant to soothe his scarred stomach. He murmurs a brief prayer, then sips.

Video: The neighborhood near Comitán where Fidencio Jimenéz and Petrona Díaz live

He does construction work and makes bricks in Comitán, earning about 700 pesos a week. He said he sends the money to a friend and a bank, who together had loaned him about 12,500 pesos to cover his medical expenses. The family lives mostly off the carpentry and construction wages earned by a 17-year old son.

A younger boy emerges from the house, carrying a shoe-shine kit. He collects a kiss from his father, then walks through the gate into the dirt streets leading down the hills to the city.

The family also gets a regular government cheque, part of Mexico’s negotiated relationship with indigenous citizens. Petrona Díaz returns to Santa Rosalía each month to pick it up and look in on family – parents, kids and grandchildren – who remain in the village.

“My neighbours don’t talk to me. They’re really mad at me,” she said. “I don’t really talk to people. I talk to my family members.” She checks on her empty house and the fields. So far, both are okay. On a visit in the summer of 2013, the Santa Rosalía authorities made her an offer: she and her children could return to the village, without Fidencio.

She declined. The family continued to live and work in Comitán, chipping away at the debt.

Life in Comitan, where Jimenez is earning money to repay medical debts.
Life in Comitan,where Jimenez is earning money to repay medical debts (World Watch Monitor)

If it was the couple’s faith in God that kept them devoted to each other and to their family, it was Luis Antonio Herrera who showed them how to go home.

An accountant by training, the unassuming Herrera is a former adviser to the San Cristóbal mayor on matters ranging from social services to recycling. He also has a knack for navigating the Mexican legal system, and volunteers his expertise to the benefit of indigenous Christians who find themselves at odds with their local town councils and church leaders.

It was late June when Herrera got a call from a local pastor connected to a number of his cases. Jiménez had been asking around his new Christian circles, looking for guidance.

“‘We need your help,’ “Herrera said the pastor told him. About a week later, Jiménez received threats that his house would be burned. A couple days after that, he was in Comitán, telling Herrera his story.

The two decided to play it quietly. Jiménez filed a denúncia, a request for the local government to watch closely over his house and protect it from arson. Making a full-blown complaint would have alerted Santa Rosalía that Jiménez was on the legal offensive.

Arson threats were made again July 14, and tensions ran high in the village. Village authorities cut water and power to the house, and issued their ultimatum. On July 20, the family decided to leave.

Toward the end of July, Herrera called everyone to the table for mediation. It did not go well. The prevailing message from village elders, he said, was “‘We don’t want evangelicals in the town.’ “

With no solution in sight, Jiménez and Herrera decided to elevate the denúncia to a demanda, akin to a lawsuit. They filed the case in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the Chiapas state capital and a state office known to be more aggressive than the more timid government outposts outside the capital. Jiménez and Díaz demanded compensation for their damaged crops. They also sought punishment, on religious-discrimination grounds, of Santa Rosalía elders for running their children out of their schools and the family out of town.

“We asked the higher authorities to be more focused on the legal issues than on negotiations,” Herrera said. “If we just negotiate, it could take years.” The prospect of legal sanctions, however, added urgency.

The fiscál, the state attorney assigned to the case, called everyone to the table Sept. 10. Five representatives of Santa Rosalía were present. They insisted Jiménez and Díaz should remain expelled because they had abandoned the traditionalist Catholic church for a Protestant denomination.

The fiscál, Jaime Méndez, responded that their argument exposed the town to a charge of religious discrimination. Then he said something unexpected for a government official.

“God is the same God of the Catholics and Protestants,” Méndez said. “Fidencio has shown you respect and tolerance on the way you follow God, or am I wrong?”

No one said he was wrong.

Signatures on the agreement.
Signatures on the agreement (World Watch Monitor)

A document began to take shape. It began with the acknowledgement that in Mexico, including Santa Rosalía, “there is freedom of religion, as one of the fundamental rights of every inhabitant.” Then it spelled out the terms of the family’s return to the village: The town would restore water and electricity, let Jiménez work his land, collect wood and receive visitors, and permit his children return to school. For their part, Jiménez and Díaz agreed not to hold public worship services or build a church. They would not take their message door-to-door, but neither would they be held responsible for anyone else who left the village traditionalist church.

And they agreed to contribute 200 pesos a year to the church to help pay for the celebrations.

“He understands it is a small price to pay for freedom,” Herrera said.

The document was signed by Jiménez and Díaz, as well as by Herrera and the pastor who had alerted Herrera to the case, the state officials on hand, and by the five Santa Rosalía delegates, one of whom affixed his thumbprint.

Corn peeks over a fence in Santa Rosalia.
Corn peeks over a fence in Santa Rosalia (World Watch Monitor)

Sitting in a sunny hotel courtyard in October, their signed agreement only a few weeks old, Jiménez and Díaz spoke wistfully about their return to Santa Rosalía, now promised but still months away.

“It’s hard for us,” Jiménez said. “I’m not used to working in the city. I miss my house, my kids, my grandkids”.

Not that they expected it will be easy in their home village, either.

“I think it’s going to be a mess,” he said. “That’s why I’m working right now. I’m getting prepared. When we go back and they try to kick me, I’m not going to move a finger.”

In the weeks that followed, Jiménez said he heard from another family that had been discovered associating with a Christian community outside the village. They remain in Santa Rosalía, however, mindful of the agreement the church authorities had signed.

Jiménez said the legal victory he and his wife won will benefit others in the village who break away from the traditionalist church. He vows to speak openly about his faith in his home town, and to return to the work he left when he was chased out. He missed out on working the 2013 corn crop, but now it is April, time to prepare the new crop for the new year. The paper is signed; the money is repaid. It’s time to go home.

“I know they are not going to receive me happily”, he said, “but I know I must go back.”

on the agreement.