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Chickens in church


In 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.

San Juan lies about ten kilometres from the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, famous as the diocese of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish bishop who defended indigenous peoples’ rights against the metropole’s imperialist excesses in the 16th century. More recently, San Cristobal 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 country.

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 underfoot.

David, my Tzotzil-speaking guide from San Cristobal, 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 than necessary to conduct the ceremony.

The 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 patient’s 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 church’s 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 cleric’s 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 Cristobal, 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 Zinacantan, 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.

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