CHOJOLÓ, Mexico — Tradition is a thing to be reckoned in this Tzotzil-speaking community, which stretches along a trail in the remote mountains of Chiapas.
Tzotzil is the language of the indigenous residents who live as their forebears had for many generations. They farm a small plot of ground, and plant and raise corn and beans in subsistence amounts.
Each day they wear their rainbow-colored outfits that include tasseled hats for the men and bright blouses for the women. The outfit often does not include shoes. As the men labor in the field, tradition dictates that the women bring water. The nearest water is downhill from the village, nearly two miles to a river, where the women fill large plastic tubs and carry them back up the mountain.
In the mid-1980's, a resident's simple trip down from the mountains to the nearest city of San Cristobal de Las Casas brought lasting changes to Chojoló. The resident, Pablo Gutierrez Ruiz, visited his brother, a member of the Church, and was converted.
Upon his return to Chojoló he was ostracized, even jailed for a time. Ardent in his new-found beliefs, Brother Ruiz preached to whomever would listen and gradually others joined the Church. When the Chojoló Branch was created in 1988, he was called as the first president, and has served in the capacity ever since.
In 1999, when Elder Carl B. Pratt of the Seventy and then-president of the Mexico South Area visited, the Chojoló Branch had more than 100 members. They had erected their own small meetinghouse and upwards of 75 percent attended sacrament meeting.
After the visit, Elder Pratt saw a need for outside assistance and set three goals: to help bring water to the village, to erect a Church-built meetinghouse, and to provide medical assistance to the branch president's daughter, who had a cleft palate.
Funds were approved through LDS Humanitarian Services for the water project, and a contract for the meetinghouse was let to a local contractor. Medical assistance was obtained from a local doctor and an operation on the branch president's daughter was successful.
"When I went back up the second time, it was to meet with community leaders," said Elder Pratt. "We needed their commitment to donate labor for the water project. The men donated all the labor to haul the pipe, and also sand and gravel to build the pylons."
The project was completed at the end of June 2001, and Elder Pratt and his first counselor, Elder Richard H. Winkel of the Seventy, who has since become president of the Mexico South Area, and their wives returned for opening ceremonies.
The group was warmly received. Village leaders immediately provided clothing items so Elder and Sister Pratt could dress in the traditional ways.
"They took us to the plaza at the school," he said. "They had a big reception for us. We congratulated them on their new water system, and thanked them for their cooperation in preparing it."
A young woman joined Elder Pratt in cutting the ceremonial ribbon for the water project. "I explained that she symbolized that the women of Chojoló would never again have to haul water those long distances," said Elder Pratt. "We cut the ribbon and the water came rushing out. It was a very appropriate moment."
He said the guests were invited to a banquet, a traditional one consisting of three foods — stewed chicken, tortillas and chilies.
The new meetinghouse with its six classrooms was then dedicated.
Elder Winkel said that the meetinghouse is one of the most remote in the world. Membership in the branch now stands at about 180, and attendance continues at 75 percent. Many in the branch traveled to the March 2000 dedication of the Tuxtla Gutierrez Mexico Temple, where they were personally greeted by President James E. Faust of the First Presidency.
Much Church publications material is being translated into Tzotzil. Branch leaders also expect more leadership soon when two of the branch's full-time missionaries return home.
They will come back to a changed community, one where water flows all year round.
"It is fresh, cold spring water that comes right down into their community at the school; that is where the fountainhead is," Elder Winkel said. "It is a nice effort of the saints, and a great blessing for the people.