SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Recalling the day she was forced off her land in southern Mexico by men shooting guns in the air and setting fire to her fields, Luz Magdalena de la Torre Vazquez is filled with despair.
The 45-year-old indigenous Tzotzil woman has since found refuge with family in the town of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas state, but the experience nearly two years ago has taken a heavy emotional toll.
“You can’t even find the words to say what you’re feeling,” Vazquez said, wiping away tears. “There are times when it feels like there’s no way out.”
Indigenous victims of forced displacement like Vazquez face a range of challenges, from homelessness to disease and poverty, but researchers and activists say one of the most poorly understood issues is the psychological impact of their experience.
“They don’t just lose their jobs: they lose their homes, they lose part of their family, and they also lose a whole series of cultural references,” said Guillermo Castillo Ramirez, an anthropologist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
“This can create a process of post-traumatic stress … both because of the imminent violence and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Mexico, a country wracked by violence – with a record 34,582 people killed last year alone – forced displacement has become increasingly commonplace.
The country’s indigenous residents, who make up nearly one-quarter of the population of 120 million, are among the most vulnerable.
According to the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, out of the nearly 11,500 people forced off their land due to conflict across Mexico in 2018, almost half were indigenous.
Rural Chiapas is one of the country’s worst affected: nearly all of the indigenous people displaced in 2018 in Mexico were Tzotzil residents of the southern state.
“In the history of Chiapas, there’s been displacement for as long as I can remember,” said Diego Cardenas Gordillo, a local indigenous rights activist.
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