San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristóbal de las Casas during colonial times has been largely described as in Thomas Benjamins’ A Time of Reconquest: History, the Maya Revival, and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, a “small Spanish island” within a vast sea of indigenous culture (Benjamin, 423). The cobblestone paved streets and two-story buildings with iron balconies, adorned colorfully with flowers, creates a picturesque Euro-charmed atmosphere in addition to the opportunity presented in experiencing the culture of the surrounding villages outside the municipality. Nestled in the pine-forested Valley of Jovel, the city is a crown jewel in culture, of its people, and history.

Similar to the excitement of a hidden gem unearthed is the mural of Bartolomé de las Casas by artist, Carlos Jurado. Donated as a gift to the University of Chiapas, this mural is beautifully part of a collection displayed in the hallway of the law school building or Facultad de Derecho. Bartolomé de las Casas, portrayed in the mural as protecting Mayan natives from Spaniards and their rapacious dogs, is an important historic figure. His story is one the city San Cristóbal, 1848, deemed righteous having appropriated his name to as San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Bartolomé de las Casas, sixteenth century friar and bishop, became known as “Defender of the Indians.” In 1502, he arrived to the island of Española (or Hispaniola) where he joined the military campaigns against the Tainos. For his contribution of the island’s conquest he was rewarded with a substantial encomienda of tribute paying natives. Yet, to many a Spaniard’s dismay, while reading a passage in Ecclesiastes 34 preparatory for a sermon dated 1514, he experienced an epiphany. The passage pertaining to God’s refusal of offerings made by ill-gotten gains was as de las Casas wrote in retrospect, “removing the blinders from his eyes,” as quoted from Davd Carrascos’ The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Following conviction, he renounced his encomienda in devoting the rest of his years, until 1566, to protecting natives from the greed and abuse of the encomendero class.

Via writing, de las Casas asserted his position defending the humanity of native populations by works such as The Only Way advocating peaceful catechization and perhaps most famous writing, A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies. This work in particular, addressed to King Charles V and dedicated to Prince Philip of Spain, exposed the abuses directed by encomenderos. It was purposely provocative for reasons to intensify one’s reaction, wherein producing enough rage by accounts revealed, so enough sympathy be generated for the natives and ultimately, bringing justice. By relating the abuses, de las Casas provided a voice leading to reformation where the Crown passed the New Laws of 1542. Paper-wise, these laws required a gradual elimination of the encomendero's holdings.

De las Casas is by Carrasco’s description a “theologian-jurist-activist” and no place befits more for the mural than that of the law school. The city echoes his legacy with a statue of built and his legacy continues, more importantly, by the people who find inspiration. In 1974 at the town hall was the first Indigenous Congress event where 1,200 delegates representing 300 communities met marking first time a uniting of various linguistic populations. In this meeting plights over land, commerce, lack of education and health were expressed by groups inclusive of the Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, and Tojolabales. Each having identified a shared struggle, one delegate rose to state as in the recorded, Testimonios del Congreso Indigena quoted in Benjamins’ A Time of Reconquest: History, the Maya Revival, and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, “All of us together can be Bartolomé” (Benjamin, 427).