You are invited to a marvelous and festive convergence in Cuernavaca on
Saturday, April 20! Two Tarahumara ‘sacerdotes’ (priests) will descend from the north accompanying Estela Angeles Mondragón. From the southeast will come the heroic and much admired Las Patronas, women whose town, La Patrona, straddles the railroad tracks in coastal and tropical Veracruz. The event is the 21st annual Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize awards ceremony.
Sergio Mendez Arceo was the seventh bishop of Cuernavaca. During a thirty-year tenure (1952 to 1982), Don Sergio was an outspoken advocate for the respect of human rights. He put the Diocese of Cuernavaca on the map in church circles around the world. His Sunday sermons – often bordering on current events talks --covered topics as diverse as the dirty wars of the southern cone of South America, the Central American civil wars, affronts to human rights in the Diocese of Cuernavaca and in Mexico in general. He even talked about the atrocities carried out in the Viet-Nam war and racial discrimination and Indian reservations in the United States.
Beloved by his people, Bishop Mendez Arceo retired at age 75 in 1982 and lived another ten years as bishop emeritus. The Sergio Mendez Arceo prizes have been given out yearly since his death in 1992. Currently it is an award given in two categories -- individual and group.
Estela Angeles Mondragón is to receive the individual award for her work defending the rights of Tarahumara to their land. Neighboring cattle ranchers have invaded land ceded to the Tarahumara as ejido land by presidential decree in 1928. Estela's legal expertise, perseverance, and commitment to the cause of the Raramuri (the name that the Tarahumara prefer to be called) has led to winning 17 of 32 lawsuits filed. Over 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) have been recovered. Fifteen lawsuits are still pending and may result in the return of 12,000 additional hectares.
The Sergio Mendez Arceo group award is going to Las Patronas. This group of women prepares meals for 200 people, day in and day out. Mealtime is not announced with a dinner bell, but rather by the loud train horn blown by the engineer at the controls of La Bestia (The Beast). Las Patronas feed the people riding on top of the northbound freight train as it lumbers through La Patrona, Veracruz. Their guests are unknown to them. The travelers grab from the women's hands plastic bags filled with rice and beans each tied to a bottle of water. The clickety-clack sound of the train wheels on the track is interspersed with shouts of thanks from the men, women, and children on the train.
For the most part the people riding La Bestia are Central Americans on their way north to the Unites States. They hope to slip across the U.S. border as undocumented migrants, in the same way as they entered Mexico from Guatemala or Belize. Not having a visa for travel in Mexico leaves La Bestia as one of the few means of transportation available to them. Their only food is what they carried with them when they jumped aboard or that given to them by Las Patronas or other similar groups along the way.
In thinking about the travelers atop La Bestia we must celebrate the Associated
Press' announcement this month that its Stylebook no longer sanctions the use of the word "illegal" to describe a person; it should "describe only an action."
Each year I look forward to the privilege of being a member of the jury that votes for the Sergio Mendez Arceo Prize winners. The protocol and rules to be followed -- never knowing how the vote will go, yet confident that the jury's choice will be a good one -- is all of an intensity difficult to describe. On the first two votes the winner must win by 50% plus 1. Yes, people talk about it as white smoke and black smoke. Indeed it is the closest I'll ever get to the feeling that must accompany a papal conclave.
Saturday's events will begin with a Human Rights Forum that starts at 10:00 a.m. followed by lunch on site and the awards ceremony at 4:00 p.m. It will all take place in the recently refurbished Centro Cultural Universitario, Avenida Morelos No. 180 in downtown Cuernavaca (the southwest corner of the city block on which the Cuernavaca Cathedral is located). There is no charge for any of the events. If you can't make it to the forum, you will still be welcome at the awards ceremony.
Last year's prize winner, Javier Sicilia, the leader of the Movement for Peace and
Justice with Dignity, will give this years prize to Estela Angeles Mondragón. In addition to that he will be one of several featured speakers in the morning forum titled "Human Rights: Challenges and Hope." The forum's closing talk will be by Daniel Zapico, Amnesty International's representative in Mexico.