by Ana Luisa Anza
Samuel Ruiz was known as the Bishop of the Indians and became a symbol of struggle for oppressed people in Chiapas, Mexico. Ruiz, who died Jan. 24, came originally from the Catholic Church’s conservative diocese of León, Guanajuato, in the central part of México.
Everything indicated that he would follow the path of an extremely conservative Church. But the social upheavals of 1968, as well as new streams of thought that emerged within the Catholic Church, influenced him considerably and he opted to work — like Church bishops Hélder Cámara in Brazil and Óscar Romero in El Salvador — with the poor.
He reached a turning point in what would be a radical transformation as he faced poverty, racism in the Church that had colluded with power, and an oligarchy that had been oppressive in the Mayan towns of Chiapas. Ruiz was named bishop in 1959 in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, when he was only 35 years old.
He never faltered in his commitment: he learned two of the many Mayan languages spoken in the region and traveled his diocese by truck, light aircraft or horseback, giving comfort and supporting the rights of indigenous peoples. His work made him many enemies both within the regional power structure and within the Church itself.
To summarize his work in a few lines is impossible. He himself was changed by the indigenous groups that he worked with, and he encouraged them to demand their rights. He became “Jtatic Samuel” (Jtatic or Tatik means “father” in the Tzeltal language).
Bishop Ruiz was tireless in the fight for human rights. He founded Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, better known as “Frayba,” which he presided over until his death. He guided civil organizations, gave shelter to Central American refugees that were fleeing armed conflict, was a mediator in the Peace Dialogues between the federal government and the leaders of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in 1994, and was a driving force in Indian theology. He was once a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ruiz left the diocese in 2000 but continued to promote the struggle for indigenous rights. Thousands of inhabitants of the villages where he worked joined together at his funeral underneath a sign with the words: “Tatic: your life example will be with us forever.”