It takes only an instant to recognize in Rosalina Tuyuc Velasquez a force to be reckoned with. Small in stature, she stands tall. There's a warm twinkle in her eye when she feels the energy of a fellow soul but there's also a determined glint that speaks to steely purpose. Rosalina was taking on Japan last week, as winner of the prestigious Niwano Peace Prize, sometimes called the "spiritual Nobel." (I chair the selection committee.) She was making history, as the first indigenous religious leader to receive this award.
Rosalina is a fighter for human rights, for women, and for her Mayan spiritual traditions. She emerged from the devastating civil war of her native Guatemala, herself deeply wounded as her father and husband were kidnapped by military forces, "disappeared" and (it must be assumed) died. Centuries of oppression of the Mayan population - she uses the term genocide repeatedly - have left deep wounds on her society. Herself deeply scarred by tragedy and conflict, she nonetheless put despair aside and formed CONAVIGUA, a powerful coalition of widows. The women demanded truth and justice. They located the cemeteries where kidnapped relatives were dumped, calling on the government and its allies to recognize what they had done and to change. They demanded (and often achieved) a place at the tables of power.
In her fight for truth and justice, Rosalina speaks proudly of the Mayan spiritual traditions that guide and inspire her. She demands, first and foremost, respect and acceptance, something long denied to the Mayan people. Mayan spirituality, she says, is not just a religion, but a way of life, passed on through an understanding of life's purpose, relationships, and rhythms of daily life. Raised a Catholic, Rosalina sees no contradiction in her Mayan and Christian beliefs. But she points to important distinctions. Other religions, she says, look up and down (to Heaven and to Hell), while the Mayan tradition looks to what is here and now, seeing one's self as unique but essentially part of mother nature.
Looking as a pile of stones in a Japanese garden, she observes that each one was here long before us, and will be there long after we are gone. Westerners, she says, might see them as just stones, disposable, but she sees herself as tied to them in a cosmic relationship.
In the Mayan vision, harmony is the essence. Harmony is about reciprocity and that means gratitude. We need to be grateful to Creation for what we receive, the food we eat, the water we drink, the oxygen we breathe. Mayan spiritual practice centers on the common good, on respecting and strengthening relationships human beings have with Mother Earth, water, air and fire. Mayans draw energy from the mountains, the forests, the moon, the earth, as well as from each other.
In the Kaqchikel language "peace" is Utz' Kaslemal, which means, "living well, in harmony and balance with everything that surrounds us" and "conflict," Oyowal, means "having no respect and attacking." Peace is achieved through work and is nourished with our heart and with sacrifice for the common good of both people and nature.
In Guatemala's long (and continuing) struggle for peace and equity, women are playing special roles. Women bore the harsh brunt of conflict, losing family, displaced, subject to rape and humiliation. They were shoved aside by a macho culture, a culture that, says Rosalina, contaminated Mayan culture where balance was the traditional norm. So it is inspiring and illuminating to see women like Rosalina at the forefront of movements for peace. Five Guatemalan women have received international honors for their work, each coming from a different place, yet complementary in their work and vision, and friends. Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and Helen Mack-Chang the "alternative Nobel" or Right Livelihood award, also in 1992. Norma Cruz was honored by the US State Department in 2009 as a Woman of Courage, and Otilla Luz, the Bartolome de las Casas (Spain) award.
Guatemala's struggles are far from over, and the tightly linked battles to end violence, for equal rights for women and men, and an end to harsh discrimination against the Mayan people demand courage, vision, persistence, and support. Celebrating someone like Rosalina offers a path to hope because it reaffirms what a person can achieve and a special capacity for leadership. Celebrating women has special significance and points to the diversity and creativity of their visions and their sheer courage and gumption.
Rosalina sees the year 2012 as a crucial year, for her people but far more broadly, for the earth and for humanity's relationships to nature. But, she says, those who speak of an end, of death, are mistaken. What is taking place (as one Mayan calendar comes to an end) is a fundamental realignment, a transition from one era to the next. It is, she says, like a woman giving birth. There is great pain, and intense labor is involved. But what is at stake is a new life, a new era. But, she warns, there is pain to come and we must be prepared to work hard and to listen to and respect Mother Earth.