One of the amazing things about Chiapas, that is, besides the mist-wrapped mountains and Caribbean-clear rivers, is its rich and vibrant indigenous culture. Of the 4.2 million people of Chiapas, more than 25% are indigenous groups, mostly Mayan. There are at least nine languages spoken and each ethnic group has its own beliefs, traditions and dress customs. Tzotzil and Tzetzil clothing, specifically, is the most varied and colorful in Mexico and often identifies the wearers’ village. One of the things we were most looking forward to during our stay in the state was visiting some of the smaller Mayan villages that surround San Cristóbal.
The most significant for us was a small village of 3,000 inhabitants by the name of San Juan Chamula. Chamulans are described in our guide book as fiercely independent, with a history of strong resistance to Spanish colonial rule. In addition to their independent nature, the village is also known for its religious ferocity. Divergence from the traditional Chamulan Catholicism, for example convergence to evangelical, Pentecostal or other branches of Christianity, results in expulsion from the community. Over the past couple decades, thousands of villagers have been expelled and now occupy the shantytowns around San Cristóbal. This fact, as well as the unique religious practices that occur at the Templo de San Juan, Chamula’s main church, have made the village somewhat famous in traveling circuits.
We decided to visit Chamula on a Sunday, as it is the day of their large weekly market, when villagers come from all over the hills to participate in the market and worship in the church. A late start got us to Chamula around noon, just in time to watch all the vendors packing up their crafts. Damn. Turns out the market here is not for the tourists: it begins at dawn and wraps up when things are sold, usually by mid-morning as we found out. In addition, unbeknownst to us at the time, the Sunday market in Chamula is no secret and we shared the small village with busloads of tourists, who arrived in intervals.
Disappointed to have missed the market, we strolled around the abandoned stalls for a bit before moving on to the church. The church itself is unlike any of the thousands we’ve seen in Mexico. The first thing you notice upon entering is that there are no pews or seats of any kind. Rather, the ground is covered in a carpet of pine needles. Hundreds of flickering candles line the perimeter, each balanced carefully on the ground and burning with a very specific prayer in mind. While the undertone is undeniably catholic, Christian customs are interwoven with ancient ones, resulting in some interesting practices. The most important position in the church is occupied by Saint John the Baptist, who Chamulans revere above Christ. Additional saints line the walls on all sides. Depending on that which is prayed for, worshippers kneel before their chosen saint and carefully arrange an array of candles on the ground. The candles are allowed to burn completely, believed to serve as food for the saints. The color of the candle holds significance as well, depending on the prayer. Many worshippers chant quietly or pray with their faces bent down to the floor. Curanderos, or healers, are a common sight, rubbing patients’ bodies with eggs or bones in hopes of curing the ailment. Carbonated beverages or liquors are often sprayed onto the burning candles as an offering. We even saw a number of chicken sacrifices; nothing gruesome, just a subtle and quiet snapping of the neck for God. To be honest, we wouldn’t have even known it was happening if we hadn’t been warned in advance by another traveler.
As you can imagine, this was an absolutely fascinating cultural experience for Zach and I. We sat on the pine covered floor for nearly an hour, quietly observing the worshippers around us. While I enjoyed the experience immensely, I couldn’t help but feel a little ridiculous for so blatantly observing people – strangers – during such an intimate moment in their lives. It felt a lot like gawking at animals in a zoo, except we were watching human beings and we were not in a public space but in a church, of all places. And the busloads of tourists I mentioned? They were there, too. Because the church has become such an attraction for travelers, there is now a small fee to enter, leaving space for one to argue that the community not only accepts but also invites the attention. At particularly busy times, say, after a tour bus had just arrived, there were more gringos in the church than worshippers, which certainly didn’t help with the strangeness of the experience as a whole. Though there was the occasional obnoxious tourist that embarrassed us all, it was obvious the majority of people were trying to be as respectful as possible. Most people were just as fascinated, yet uncomfortable, as we were.
Unfortunately, this post will be a little light on pictures. Pictures inside the church are absolutely forbidden, as the community believes that photographs steal the soul of the saints.