08 May 2008

Missionaries fill government void

Boy riding donkey

Missionaries fill government void

The News

SAN MIGUEL HUAIXTITA, Jal. – Trekking through the craggy region surrounding her home in this indigenous Huichol community in the northern part of Jalisco in early March, María Ramírez Muñoz stumbled.

She fell into a canyon and broke both legs. Six bed-ridden weeks in a thatched-roof hut with an intravenous antibiotic stuck in her right knee ensued, before she was finally airlifted, her husband Simplicio at her side, to a public hospital in Guadalajara.

Dagoberto Cirilo Sánchez, a pastor from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had saved the day, flying her in his Cessna 206 to get the attention she needed.

Cirilo has his share of admirers in San Miguel Huaixtita, a settlement of 491 Huichol in Mezquitic, one of the 25 poorest municipalities in Mexico.

But he's also at the center of a brewing storm: While he provides medical services on a regular basis, fulfilling needs unmet by the state government, Cirilo also preaches his gospel to the Huichol. His presence – he's been coming to the area for 16 years, and every week, conducts worship services in San Miguel Huaixtita – unsettles some Huichol leaders, who mistrust outsiders and disapprove of the growing number of converts to Cirilo's faith, who tend to leave their Huichol ways behind.

Cirilo, a former Air Force pilot, understands their dilemma.

"Some people here really don't care for me," he said. "But having an airplane makes me somewhat necessary."

Missionaries in Mexico have long stepped in to fill a void left behind by inadequate government attention, and Cirilo is no exception. The conversion of indigenous people, too, has caused controversy among local communities since the time of the Conquistadors.

But his struggle with the Huichol is somewhat unique, in part because the Huichol customs being rejected by converts are hardly the most wholesome of traditions. Consumption of peyote and alcohol, for instance, are two rituals often passed over for prayer. The Huichol themselves are also engaged in a battle over their own customs.


Cirilo has also established himself in the region, making it difficult for the Huichols to simply kick him out. His plane, they admit, is essential in a region where overland trips to major centers can take days and basic services like power, telephones and medical care are considered luxuries.

His assistance, which includes medical flights, horticulture projects and programs that help Huichol youths pursue studies in Guadalajara, comes with few strings attached.

"We like him because been helping us out for so many years," said Simplicio López de la Cruz.

But his relationship with the Huichols is in jeopardy, as they come to see him as just another missionary who has come to steal their people and erase their history.

"What often happens is that the pastors leading these religious groups will invite the local people to permanently forget their customs and traditional ceremonies," said Samuel Salvador, a Huichol lawyer affiliated with the University of Guadalajara.

"[They are] ripping out the Huichol customs by the root."


The Huichol, like many other indigenous groups in Mexico, have long kept to themselves, maintaining the ways of their elders, and avoiding aspects of modernity not deemed absolutely necessary.

But modernity is creeping into Huichol territory, which covers northern Jalisco and parts of Nayarit, Zacatecas and Durango, thanks to migration, new roads and increased contact with outsiders.

The regular journeys that many Huichol men make to the lush agricultural regions of Sinaloa and Nayarit, where they labor for low wages as field hands in the annual coffee, tomato and tobacco harvests, are said to be contributing to culture clashes within the Huitchol themselves.

According to UNAM sociologist Sergio Sarmiento Silva, those who return from stints outside the region return having abandoned customs like wearing traditional Huichol costumes. They also import vices like alcoholism.

Not that the Huichol don't have their own home-grown problems.

In 2005, a Jalisco official who oversees domestic violence issues in the northern part of the state told the newspaper El Universal that "at least 90 percent of [Huichol] men frequently consume alcoholic beverages, and in addition, are violent with their wives," prompting outcry from Huichol leaders and defenders.

Many other elements of Huichol culture persist, too. The Huichol language is still widely spoken – especially among women – and traditional forms of governance are also carried out. The local shaman still advises an elders' council on who should be the next leader after having a peyote-induced vision.

Cirilo rejects accusations that he is trying to destroy Huichol customs.

"I only speak about Jesus Christ," he said. "If that's changing culture, I plead guilty."

He also said he feels no guilt over seeing Huicholes abandon the consumption of tejuino, a fermented corn beverage, and peyote, at traditional ceremonies.

"It's not like having a social drink … It's getting drunk for two solid days," he said. "Those that accept the Christian faith don't want to drink alcohol, don't want take drugs. Thus, they're automatically left out of the customs."

According to Cirilo, many converts desperately seek an escape from the influence of their local shaman, who they say threatens to inflict maladies like crops failures, scorpion attacks and failed pregnancies on converts.

"The Huichol culture is rooted in fear," said Cirilo, who has himself been cursed by numerous shamans over the years.

"So many Huichol are terrified of what the shaman will do to them."

Cirilo cited the case of the people of Aguafría, a hamlet in Mezquitic, as an example of rule through fear. Earlier this decade, the entire population converted to Seventh Day Adventism, and eschewed regular Huichol ceremonies.

In 2005, two slaughtered donkeys were dumped in Aguafría with a note that read, "You'll be next."

Shortly after, 46 inhabitants were officially expelled from the community.

Cirilo filed a religious discrimination complaint with the National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH, which recommended this month that the Jalisco state government take action against the aggressors and do more to compensate the expelled Huichol for their property loss.

[The Jalisco government] has always insisted that this is an agrarian issue," Cirilo said. "They have never accepted that this is an issue of religious tolerance."

The former inhabitants of Aguafría now live in near the Agua Milpa Dam in Nayarit state in conditions the CNDH has described as "deplorable."


In spite of their reluctance to embrace missionaries like Cirilo, local Huichol leaders recognize that current government programs go nowhere.

Reyes Carrillo de la Cruz, a local Huichol leader in Guadalupe Ocotán in the state of Nayarit, regards the federal Procampo farming program with disdain. Procampo allots each farmer a fixed sum for every hectare he owns. But according to Carillo, farmers simply spend their annual payment on beer.

Meanwhile, according to Carillo's son Diego, the government also fails to provide enough staff for the local primary school, and has given no support to establish a local fishery. The local federally funded health clinic is furnished with empty medicine cabinets.

Like it or not, these unmet needs open the door for missionaries like Cirilo, Diego Carillo said.

"The missionaries come with clothing, food and medicine," Diego Carrillo said. But when people convert, "it rips families apart." 

Cirilo knows where he stands, but plans to continue with the flights and sermons in the heart of Huichol country, even though his work is at times frustrating.

Simply delivering assistance, he said, can backfire. In 1993, he arranged the delivery of 20 tons of corn to San Miguel Huaixtita after the corn harvest was wiped out.

Unbeknownst to him, the town had used some of the money donated to their cause to enlist a team of mules to haul an enormous quantity of liquor into San Miguel Huaixtita.

The missionary woke up one morning to find some 1,500 Modelo beer cans littering the hills.

"What I spent on corn, they spent on beer," he recalled somewhat bitterly, adding that paternalistic projects simply don't work.

"Our method isn't to give things, but rather offer services," he said.

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