San Juan Chamula: where Mayan and Catholic cultures meet
From the outside, this place could be the spiritual centre of any Mexican town. A white church in the colonial style facing a large open plaza with a crucifix at its centre. The first clue to what lies within are the bright symbols painted around the arch of the door. But these can barely prepare us for what we’ll find inside.
In 1779, the people of Chamula published a book railing against the priest in their town. They called for their cultural practices and beliefs to be left in peace. Finally, in 1969, Cesar tells us, it’s said that the last Catholic priest to try and subdue this fierce community was finally expelled, perhaps killed. But what is fascinating about the religion of the Chamulans is just how much of Catholicism it has nevertheless absorbed.
This indigenous Mayan town is ten kilometres from the traveller hub of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas state. Chamula enjoys a unique autonomous status within Mexico with its own police force and penal system. But it’s the church of San Juan at the heart of the community that draws in visitors to marvel at its religious practices. Uniquely, here you can find a mix of traditional Mayan beliefs fused with elements of Catholicism imported by the Spanish conquistadores.
A church like no other
As we step into the church, where cameras are strictly forbidden, we enter a place that chimes with the German unheimlich. That sense of the uncanny, where something is at once familiar, but deeply strange.
Ostensibly, the building retains its shape: the high altar ahead, the apex in front. But where the pews should be there is an open space. The tiled floor is covered with pine needles that make a springy carpet underfoot and release their scent. The air is heavy with incense, dispensed by spiritual leaders who walk around swinging clouds of smoke from the catholic thurible, but containing a distinctive mix of local herbs.
Along both side walls of the church stand a pantheon of Catholic saints. Strange and pasty-faced, these ceramic puppets with shining European faces are faintly exotic. Richly attired in gowns and encased behind glass, these visitors from another world are revered here. In fact, each spiritual leader in the community (there are more than 100) cares for a particular saint. The more popular the saint, the more a leader will have to pay for their upkeep.
Ritual and religion
Near the altar, a band plays. A pleasantly atonal blend of accordion, drums and guitar keep up a drowsy waltz as an accompaniment to the spiritual leader’s rituals. Every few minutes, a chorus of higgledy-piggledy trumpet blasts out a high, atonal note. It hovers over our heads like a swarm of bees. As we watch, the leader gesticulates and intones a ritual in Tzotzil, the Mayan dialect spoken here.
Beyond, clustered around the nave of the church are many smaller groups. They gather around clearings in the pine carpet where candles of different colours are fixed directly to the floor. “Always in threes,” Cesar tells us, “and the colours have significance too.” Yellow for prosperity, red if someone has come to harm, black against witchcraft, green for a good harvest and animal fat for the lord of the underworld. Drinks are matched to the rituals by colour as well: coca cola, a white alcoholic drink similar to grappa, and a rainbow of fizzy pop. They light the candles, then drink, pray silently or make incantations.
A sacrifice for the spirits
On the floor next to one group, a bag on the floor begins to move. A chicken’s head peeks out. The group are gathered around a young girl of three or four. One is a shaman, who leads the ritual, first lighting candles then chanting. Cesar explains that they are most likely attempting to get back the girl’s spirit. It has been lost, through accident or witchcraft. “The very young and elderly are weaker, and so their spirits escape more easily. When a child falls, you will see the mother scoop them up and swing them like this-” He bends low and rocks an imaginary infant just above the floor, demonstrating how the spirit can be recaptured.
Respectfully, we watch the group from a distance while they pass the chicken over the body of the small girl. An elderly woman in the group then takes the bird and slowly stretches its neck until the life expires. This sacrifice is required before the gods will release the spirit from the underworld, and restore it to its rightful owner.
Understanding rituals in context
These rituals are not just for children. For example, Cesar tells us, they may take place when someone is behaving differently, or after a traumatic event in their lives. It strikes me that these rituals, as strange as they may seem, do hold some psychological value. What people here call a loss of spirit, we might label as depression. In that case, these inclusive, community-based rituals offer someone a chance to reflect on their own life and make a new start, surrounded by friends and family. On the other hand, I’m more sceptical of the chances of them working in the case of physical ailments or when children are involved. But like all ceremonial acts, they need to be understood fully in context. What might appear disturbing to us is a normal way of life that has prevailed for hundreds of years in this community.
The best tour in Mexico
We took a tour with Alex and Raul, an absolute necessity for this trip if you really want to learn about local history and traditions. Our guide, Cesar, was incredibly knowledgable. At the start of our tour, he told us that there are 62 distinct indigenous tribes living in Mexico. Impressively, he could name each and every one. But his understanding went beyond merely listing facts. He was of Mayan descent, and shared his first hand experiences of his mother’s herbal medicine. One example was using spiders’ web to bind a cut.
Once a sceptic, he now believes traditional Mayan healing is a store of valuable knowledge. And one that large pharmaceuticals are keen to tap into. Just a few days after our tour, I came across a news story about the search for new antibiotics in sloth fur. Perhaps he’s onto something.
Day of the Dead in Chamula
At the time of our visit, locals were preparing for Day of the Dead. Already, in preparation for el Dia de los Muertos, the graves at the main cemetery were being combed and dressed with yellow cempasuchil – the flower of the dead. Memorial crosses of different colours symbolise the age of the deceased at the time of death, and indicate whether they were widowed or unmarried.
Life in San Juan Chamula
In the town centre, we walked past stalls where women sell the traditional crafts of the region. They sold blankets and shawls, bags, bracelets, and the white blouses embroidered with flowers that can be seen all over Mexico. In Chamula, the traditional costume for women is a thick black skirt. Woven entirely by hand – without even the use of a needle – each takes as many as six months to make.
Crime and punishment, Chamulan style
Later, we also took a walk past the prison. Cesar pointed out some idling state police, eating tacos. “But they’re only here to step in, in case something really bad happens.” Just like they did in July 2016, when the mayor of Chamula was shot and killed. This occurred during a meeting to resolve a dispute over money supposedly paid to the citizens of the town by the government to secure their vote. (Unfortunately, this is a common practice here in Mexico.)
For the most part, the community regulate crime and mete out their own punishments. Fascinatingly, Cesar shows us how the doors of the prison are open. Visible within, a woman talked to a lone prisoner in his cell. Crime rates here are low, kept in check by the community’s strong sense of cohesion. “Westernized culture values the individual,” Cesar observed, gesturing towards us then sweeping a hand towards the locals, all in traditional dress. “Here the important thing is the community, the whole.”
Zinacantán – town of flowers
In the afternoon, we visit the neighbouring town of Zinacantán. The religious beliefs of the people are similar to those of Chamula, but more moderate. A priest remains in this town, gently dissuading the community from what are considered the least Catholic of practices. For example, chicken sacrifice no longer takes place in the church.
The traditional dress here is a gorgeous cape, worn draped over the shoulders for women, and as a poncho for men. These garments, in shades of purple from violet to to a deep, royal hue, are hand woven and embroidered with beautiful flowers. (These are the main produce of this region – most of the men work in hothouses in the green and fertile valley). For our last stop, we visited a home in the town where women of different generations lived. They were working their magic on the loom and cooking tortillas on a traditional petén stove.
Finally, full of the sights, smells and sounds of the day, we headed back to San Cristóbal. We felt privileged to have witnessed the local traditions and beliefs, not in a museum, but alive and vibrantly well.