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Ruiz, Champion of Mayan Rights, Dies at 86

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Well into the 20th century, the Maya of Mexico and Central America were forced to work as virtual slaves—deforesting their own lands, no less, as well as working in the mines and the fields.

Enter Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who came on the scene in 1959 to head the diocese in the Chiapas highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. As the Associated Press put it, the Maya were still living in as much poverty when he arrived as when they had been in thrall to the Spanish conquistadors.

From then until his 2000 retirement and beyond, “Tatik” (father in Tzotzil)—or the Bishop of the Poor, as the AP said he was called—saw the local Maya of rural Mexico through decades of turmoil that culminated with a brief armed uprising by the guerrilla Zapatistas in 1994. (During that time, the AP said, some dubbed him “the Red Bishop,” thinking that he was partly responsible.)

This “staunch defender of Indian rights” who mediated peace talks between the Mexican government and leftist Zapatisa rebels died Jan. 24 at age 86 of complications from diabetes and high blood pressure, the AP reported.

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“Samuel Ruiz struggled to build a more just, more equal, dignified Mexico without discrimination. He always acted with integrity and moral rectitude,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon said, according to the AP. “His death represents a great loss for Mexico.”

Mexican writer Homero Aridjis said Ruiz not only helped his constituent Mayans but also changed the way they and indigenous peoples in general were perceived outside the community.

“This marks the death of one of the great consciences in the defense of Indian rights, and human rights,” Aridjis told the AP. “After Samuel Ruiz, it was impossible to look at Chiapas Indians, Indians in the whole Mayan area, in the same way.”