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A very sad news for the oppressed in Southeast Mexico: Bishop Samuel Ruíz Garcia passed away:

Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, an impassioned defender of the Mayans in southern Mexico and a mediator in peace talks between Indian rebels and the government, died on Monday in Mexico City. He was 86.

The cause was respiratory failure and complications of high blood pressure and diabetes, said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Ruiz’s successor.

During his 40 years of presiding over a Roman Catholic diocese in Chiapas State, Bishop Ruiz cast light on abuses suffered by the Indians and sought to bring them into the church as equals with other Mexicans, challenging the rigidly stratified social order.

Back when I was in college, all of us were caught unguarded with the event of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Just when our government was promising us that the goal to prosperity was just around the corner (after all, NAFTA has just been signed) the whole country was forced to look to the south, and realize that there are people who have been waiting five centuries for their chance to be included in the nation’s brilliant future. They have been left in the past, and we all thought they wouldn’t mind.

Turns out they did.

Samuel Ruíz was the bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, probably one of the poorest regions in all of the continent —if not the world. From the beginning he tried to raise his voice against the inhumane injustices suffered by the indigenous inhabitants of his diocese:

In the 1960s, Bishop Ruiz began speaking out against Chiapas’ unwritten laws — such as those prohibiting Indians from walking the streets after dark and — even into the early 1970s — forcing them to step off city sidewalks into the gutter whenever non-Indians approached. [Source]

When the Zapatistas appeared in the political scene, he played an instrumental role in the peace negotiations between the government and the rebel group. This did not sit well with the high echelons of power, and I’m not only referring to the Mexican government; Ruiz suffered sever reprimands from the Vatican, whose biggest worry at that time —instead of child abuse scandals— was the spreading of the Liberation Theology among the Catholic priests stationed in Latin America. I kind of miss those good ole days, don’t you?

The Liberation Theology is basically the interpretation of the New Testament as the Christian duty to fight for social justice here on Earth. It is the most radical reversal from the ancient tradition of consoling the poor with the promise of redemption in the next life, and instead pursuing a better world in THIS one. But is this the role of a spiritual leader? or should one “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”?

One good example of this moral debate is masterfully portrayed in the movie The Mission.

As for Ruiz, when he turned 75 he acquiesced to the tradition and retired from his charge as bishop of San Cristobal —to the great joy of all the rich landowners of the region, I’m sure.

After he died, according to his last wishes the wake was held at his beloved church, where he received the final goodbye of thousands of men and women of many different native groups: tzotziles, tzeltales, zoques, mames, tojolabales, chamulas and choles; the last remnants of the proud empire which once erected the buildings that case the admiration of countless foreign visitors every year.

They came to pay their respects to Tatic, the father who spoke for them when they could not raise their own voice; the man who accused the rich landowners and the corrupt government, and was accused in return. The priest who took to heart the lessons of Jesus, and tried to follow in his footsteps.

Farewell, Samuel Ruiz. Yours is the example of what is still honorable in the Catholic church.