Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia
MEXICO CITY — Retired Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, known as the champion of the poor and indigenous in southern Mexico, died Jan. 24 of complications from long-standing illnesses. He was 86.
The bishop headed the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas from 1960 to 2000. From 1994 to 1998, he mediated a commission looking for an end to the conflict between the Mexican government and the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas state.
For his work with the state's indigenous population he received death threats but was also the recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize for "raising the social standing of the indigenous communities of Mexico" and for his work toward "the reclamation and preservation of their native cultures."
"Don Samuel was like the prophet Jeremiah, a man who lived and experienced contradiction," said Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, who served as Ruiz's coadjutor from 1995 to 1999.
Vera, celebrant at a Jan. 24 Mass for Bishop Ruiz in Mexico City, described Ruiz as "a person whose actions were discussed and condemned by a section of society."
But the poor and those who worked with him saw Ruiz as "a bright light, who fulfilled what God told the prophet: 'This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root up to destroy tear down . . . to build and to plant.'"
Ruiz made at least two trips to Edmonton during the 1980s to speak on the plight of the indigenous people in his diocese.
News of Ruiz's death made nationwide headlines because he was well-known for his human rights advocacy and mediation work in Chiapas.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Ruiz's death "constitutes a great loss for Mexico."
Tom Quigley, former policy adviser on Latin America to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Ruiz "was a bishop from a nowhere place, but it became known . . . and became the centre of an awful lot of what was happening in Latin America."
In the 1960s, 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.
"Don Samuel arrived in a Chiapas plagued by injustices and abuses against indigenous peoples and the poor," Vera said.
"He saw with his own eyes the backs of indigenous men marked by the whips of plantation owners," who paid "three cents a day" and forced workers to purchase from company stores with inflated prices, Vera continued.
"He also knew female indigenous subjected to 'law of the first night,'" in which the bosses take the virginity of young women in their employ, he said.
However, his remarks against the powerful landlord class were construed by some - including some at the Vatican - as originating in Marxist class theory, rather than the Gospel.
During Pope John Paul's 1990 visit to Mexico, landowners published an open letter, accusing Ruiz of being a communist.
Ruiz spoke four Mayan languages and often travelled by mule through his diocese, where he was affectionately called Don Samuel or "Tata," which means father in a Mayan language.