The International Writers
few places in Latin America is the collision of imperialist Catholic
Spaniards with indigenous Maya cultures more visible than in the
small village of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico.
I approach San Juan
Chamula walking down towards the main square and past the old, burned-out
church that was abandoned after it was gutted by fire in the 19th century.
The roofless building is adjacent to the municipal burial ground where
residents of San Juan are still buried today up to seven people deep
under austere mounds of earth. The graves have little more than a rough
wooden cross, or even a simple rock, as a headstone, and in summer the
cemetery is overgrown with knee-high grass. In the distance, down into
the valley, I can see San Juan. The village houses are a low-rise collection
of white and grey dwellings with corrugated iron roofs and peeling paint.
Many have chickens or sheep in their dusty yards.
Juan lies about ten kilometres from the city of San Cristóbal
de las Casas, famous as the diocese of Bartolomé de las Casas,
the Spanish bishop who defended indigenous peoples rights
against the metropoles imperialist excesses in the 16th century.
More recently, San Cristóbal has gained notoriety as the
focal point of the Zapatista insurgency and was even briefly occupied
by the Zapatista Liberation Army in 1994. Chiapas itself is the
poorest Mexican state with the highest indigenous population in
The new church,
right in the centre of the village, is a large and imposing whitewashed
building decorated vividly with blue and green paint. Colourful reliefs
of flowers and geometric shapes surround its large wooden doors, and
a cross, on which the words "Saint John the Baptist" can just
be made out, sits atop the structure and gives away the importance of
the saint to the worshippers inside. The square outside holds a large
market where residents sell fruit and vegetables, tamales
savoury corn flour cakes with different fillings and steamed, wrapped
inside maize or banana leaves and tourist trinkets. Many children
dressed in colourful traditional clothes ask for money in exchange for
being photographed. They chatter among themselves in high-pitched Tzotzil,
the local language and Mayan dialect.
I step through the heavy church doors and enter a world where Catholicism
and pre-Hispanic rites sit comfortably side by side in a syncretism
now almost half a millennia old. The air is thick with incense, the
smoke of hundreds of candles and the distinctive sweet smell of pine
needles that cover the tiled floor and make it treacherously slippery
David, my Tzotzil-speaking guide from San Cristóbal, explains
that there is no priest, no mass, and no marriage ceremonies. There
are no pews and prayer is a private rite, in which each individual appeals
directly to a specific saint. David adds that the saints are considered
deities in their own right. The most revered of these is Saint John
the Baptist, who occupies a more important position inside the church
than the effigy of Jesus Christ himself. The faithful clear a layer
of pine needles from a small area and light candles, sticking them on
to the tiled floor with their own dripping wax. The more candles the
better, as the light is considered pleasing to the saints. The only
conventional Catholic rite rigorously adhered to is baptism, which is
carried out periodically by a visiting priest. The baptismal font is
at the very entrance to the church and the minister does not venture
further into the building than necessary to conduct the ceremony.
Chamulans sit on their haunches and fill the church with the constant
murmur of their quiet prayers. The building is almost full and is
unpleasantly warm inside. Many of the faithful have gold-encrusted
teeth and the women dress in elaborately-embroidered, handmade woollen
garments. The men dress in woollen tunics. All of them drink a clear
liquid from glasses and have a can or bottle of soft drink to hand.
Some also have a live chicken rustling in a bag next to them
The clear drink
is an alcohol known as pox. Pronounced as the English word
posh, it is a strong sugar cane and maize spirit. David
explains that the alcohol loosens the tongue and enables faster and
more lucid prayer. The soft-drink it has to be fizzy helps
expel bad air by encouraging burping. Those with chickens are looking
to cure disease. They use a cock for a man and a hen for a woman. The
colour of the bird is also significant: white to cure a common affliction,
black to cure one supposedly caused by witchcraft or supernatural intervention.
The belief is that the disease will pass to the animal, whose neck is
then wrung inside the church to neutralise the ailment. The white birds
are readily eaten after the procedure, but the black ones are buried,
untouched. "This is intended as a cure, not a traditional Maya
blood offering", David says, aware of the well-known human sacrifices
carried out in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Medicine men, known as curanderos,
or curers, also offer treatment. They pass an egg over the surface of
their patients body, before breaking it into a cup to analyse
the nature of the illness.
The church is administered by a group of mayordomos, or members
of the governing council. Men represent the male saints, while women
the female ones. These hold office for a year and pass on the charge
by direct nomination of their successor. If their nominee refuses the
post, they do not get a second option and must remain for another year.
The mayordomos wear black costumes, topped with white scarves,
and are accompanied by church officials who guard them against being
photographed. They also have special power over the churchs saints.
If the mayordomos consider them to be out of favour, their effigies
can be relegated in disgrace to the entrance of the church.
Non-believers are welcome inside the church, but David warns us to keep
any cameras well out of sight. Shooting the saints diminishes their
power and greatly angers the faithful. Breaking this rule is provocative
and would result in at least a broken camera. The most important saints
have a mirror tied round their neck with coloured ribbon, the reflective
surface intended to protect the effigies should they be surreptitiously
photographed. Saint John the Baptist has no less than three mirrors
in his defence. He is also surrounded by dozens of strings of Christmas
lights that each plays a tinny seasonal ditty. Their combined effect
is off-key and somewhat disconcerting.
David tells the story of the last priest to attempt to give mass in
San Juan Chamula. He went as far as the altar and predicated against
drinking and killing chickens in church. "He was beaten out of
the church never to return", David says with a half-smile on his
lips, amused at the clerics audacity.
Religion in San Juan has tangentially brought some prosperity to the
village. Its unique character draws a considerable and increasing number
of tourists to the village. These not only pay to enter the unusual
church, but also spend money on food, drink and local handicrafts. Indeed,
David points out that the local children asking for money are relatively
clean and well-dressed, and their parents often now drive into San Cristóbal,
rather than walk or cycle as they would have done a generation ago.
However, the social cost is also high. Residents of San Juan consume
alcoholic pox in large quantities and this intake has serious
repercussions on their livers. Life expectancy here is still very low
compared to the Mexican average. The litres of soft drink cause another
problem. While the bubbles induce supposedly healthy burping, their
high sugar content also quickly rots the teeth. Many of the gold teeth
implants sported by the residents are not only decorative in the Mayan
tradition, but also necessary replacements for worn enamel. In addition,
the advance of evangelical Christianity, closely associated with the
Zapatista movement, has caused deep rifts within the Chamulan community
and even led to the expulsion of many adherents from their village homes.
After half an hour inside the church I begin to feel faint. The heat,
smoke and strong smell of pine sap are a heady mixture. As I step outside,
gulping down the fresh air and leaning against the cool white paint,
I realise the mutual self-interest in the religious set-up. Overbearing
imperial Spanish missionaries could claim success in mass conversions
to a nominal Catholicism of sorts, while the indigenous peoples remained
sufficiently close to their traditional rites to quickly associate with
the church and call it their own.
In the neighbouring village of San Lorenzo Zinacantán, the indigenous
population, also Tzotzil-speaking, has adopted a more conventional form
of Catholicism, revealed by the sign at the church entrance: "Killing
chickens during prayer is forbidden". Here the Catholic-indigenous
balance has clearly arrived at a different fulcrum.
© James Matthews March 2007
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