Our travels had brought us to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, and while we were deeply entrenched on the Gringo Trail, we wanted more. We wanted to see what Mexico was really like. What old Mexico was really like. Throughout our travels in Mexico we’d experienced the warmth and friendliness of the Mexican people, but there’s a lot more behind the smiles and the friendliness. Mexicans have a deep patriotism and pride for everything that is Mexico and are fiercely protective of their native cultures. While in San Cristobal de las Casas we heard about a small tour company called Alex y Raul who run small, culturally responsible tours out to two nearby Mayan villages called San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. All we had to do to go out to these villages with them was to meet either Alex or Raul at the wooden cross in front of the cathedral near the central square, called the Zocalo. The tours run from 9.30am until around 2.30pm and cost 175 pesos (around $14, excluding tip). We met Raul at the wooden cross at the specified time and left right on 9.30am. Our first stop was San Juan Chamula, which is about 10kms out of San Cristobal.
As soon as we were dropped off just outside of San Juan Chamula we knew we had left the gringo trail. To our right was a cemetery complete with an abandoned church and a memorial service going on. Our guide, Raul explained that memorial services are usually quite small, but funerals are when the entire village shows up. San Juan Chamula, as with most native villages, is completely self-governed and self-regulated. They also observe traditional customs, but are not averse to modern technology. In San Juan Chamula there are two forms of leadership. There is the civic leadership, or the council to us, and the spiritual leadership. Disputes are solved and crimes punished through the civic leadership. Civic leaders are elected by the men of the village every three years, and the election takes place at the offices of the civic leadership, not by ballot, but by raising your hand and cheering if you like a certain candidate, and by booing and literally throwing rocks at the balcony of the civic office if you don’t!
The crime rate in San Juan Chamula is very low. If a crime is committed in this village, it is dealt with by the villagers. The Mexican government has no say in the justice system here. The jail in San Juan Chamula is right in the centre of town, and is actually just two rooms, one for women upstairs, and one for men downstairs. The men’s prison is open to the public and it’s major purpose is to shame offenders. The average sentence in San Juan Chamula is only one day, but this has been known to go up to three days depending on the crime. Re-offenders have to perform community service for a certain period of time, and if they re-offend again, it results in expulsion from the village. These may seem like light sentences compared to what we’re used to in the western world, but the fact is that crime is almost non-existent in this part of Mexico, and if a serious crime has been committed, offenders have been known to receive the death penalty. Often this sentence is carried out by the neighbours and involves drenching the offender in gasoline and then setting them alight. As I’ve said, the Mexican government has no say in judicial matters. A few weeks ago a rapist received the death sentence from the civic leaders. He was swiftly captured by his neighbours, covered in gasoline and set alight. Needless to say, these measures are very effective in preventing crime. The police force in San Juan Chamula are all locals. There is no outside police officers, and local policemen carry large sticks, and no guns as they’re simply unnecessary.
From the prison and civic offices we made our way to the church. We’ve seen our fair share of churches on our travels but we have never seen anything like the church of San Juan Chamula. The official religion here is Catholicism, but in reality it is a blend of pre-hispanic Mayan customs, Spanish Catholic traditions and their own innovations. The Vatican has no input here. We couldn’t take pictures inside the church but I’ll try to explain the best I can.
There are no pews in this church. The floor is lined with pine needles and gives off a wonderful aroma, giving you the sensation of walking in a forest. The walls to the left of the church are lined with statues of various saints, most of which have mirrors hanging around their necks to ward off evil on the one hand, and to reflect sunlight, and thus wisdom to the people when they are taken on parade at certain times during the year. The main altar is situated at the far end of the church and is heaving with candles that have been left by the villagers as a form of prayer and offering. There are crosses and a couple more saints lining the right hand side wall as well. In front of the saints and in various other space in the church there are rows upon rows of candles that have been placed at the behest of the Shamans when an individual needs to restore his or her soul for whatever reason. The open space in the middle of the church is where the magic is said to happen. Shamanic ceremonies take place in this church three times a week, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We were lucky enough to be here on a Saturday so we were able to observe a number of ceremonies, some of which involving the killing of a chicken in sacrifice. To the outsider, all this can be viewed as black magic or voodoo, but, as with most other things in San Juan Chamula, it’s simply the way the people have adapted to Catholicism by mixing it in with their own ancient beliefs.
Throughout our time in the church we had seen a man walking around clearing burnt out candles. First impressions told us that this man worked in the church and his job was to ensure the church was in a tidy state, which is true to an extent. Yes, this man was there to clean up and keep the space tidy, as well as make sure that no photos were taken, but it goes way deeper than that. This man was actually one of the spiritual leaders in Chamula, and we had the privilege of visiting his temporary home and the shrine to his specific saint. There are a total of 122 spiritual leaders, 61 married couples, in San Juan Chamula, and they all “look after” specific saints. Being a spiritual leader is not a paid position, but it does result in the utmost prestige. Here’s how it works: Because of the prestige and respect gained in being a spiritual leader, the waiting list to be one is quite long, up to 20 years. Each couple has a term of one year to be a spiritual leader, during which they rent a house near the church, at the end of their one year term they move back to their own home and hand over the responsibilities to the next couple in line. Each saint has two couples looking after them, and each couple works on a 20 days on-20 days off rotation. The spiritual leader is expected to fund everything involved with looking after their specific saint, that is purchasing of candles, alcohol for ceremonies, hiring of assistants, replacement of plants and flowers at the respective shrines and everything else that goes along with it. The time spent waiting to become a spiritual leader is used to save up enough money to be able to fund their term. The spiritual leader is also allowed to open a shop near their accommodations to assist in finances, and they all share in the entrance fees paid to enter the church (20 pesos – $1.50 per person), which is charged to foreigners and Mexicans alike. After our visit with the spiritual leader we were given some free time to explore the market and the village in general before heading to the village of Zinacantan.
The first thing you notice when you enter Zinacantan is how quiet it is. Where San Juan Chamula is absolutely bustling with people and bristling with pride and aggression, Zinacantan is just laid back and self-assured. The language they speak in Zinacantan is called Tsotsil, which is also spoken in San Juan Chamula, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. In San Juan Chamula, polygamy is an accepted part of life, whereas in Zinacantan, monogamy is their way of doing things. The church in Zinacantan is also very similar to any other western church you’ll see, with pews, the obligatory crucifix at the altar etc., but if you look closely you’ll see evidence of their own customs and traditions. Their own worship of the saints takes place in a chapel to the side of the church but you won’t see any pine needles or shamanic rituals here. The Vatican does have its say in Zinacantan, but only to an extent. We also spent some time with a family from Zinacantan and they showed us how they hand weave their clothing, blankets, scarves etc, and we also found out more about the candles and the eggs that we had initially seen in the church in San Juan Chamula.
During Shamanic ceremonies and when the villagers want to pray for something they will leave candles in certain spots in the church. There are different kinds of candles representing different things. There is the animal fat candle which is naturally coloured, and used when someone needs to retrieve their spirit from the underworld. You then have your coloured candles that correspond to directions and specific prayers i.e. black for west and warding off evil spirits, white for north and also for tortillas, or food for the saints, yellow for south and red for east. These colours were chosen as they are representative of the different colours of corn that are available in this region and throughout Mexico, and corn is as important to Mexicans as rice is to many parts of Asia. There is also a multi-coloured candle which is used in ceremonies to ward off envy or jealousy. The eggs are used to clean and purify by passing them over the person and also to diagnose illness in babies. One example of this is that when a baby is born, it is kept out of the public for a particular period of time. The reason for this is that the parents do not want their baby to be exposed to what they call the “evil eye”, which usually results in sickness. Bear with me here. The reasoning behind this is that all babies are born with our pretence or prejudice. Babies are a clean slate and only learn negativity and other bad influences from those around them. Native Mexicans believe that a baby will fall ill if they are exposed to negative forces too early in their life. Raul also explained that Shamans can diagnose illness in babies by cracking the egg open in a bowl and interpreting the illness in the way the egg cracked open in the bowl, in much the same way people read tea leaves, tarot cards etc.
The people who live in San Juan and Chamula and in Zinacantan are some of the most content people I have ever seen. They know their place in the world and they are happy with it. They do not feel the need to grab a soapbox, take it to the Zocalo in San Cristobal and start preaching to the people about how their form of Christianity is wrong. They don’t see the need to come-a-knocking on your door on a Sunday afternoon asking if you’ve accepted Christ into your life, yet this is what is happening to them. Their culture and traditions are slowly being eroded by evangelicals and fundamentalists who see their way of life as wrong, as backward, as barbaric. The natives are being force fed traditional Catholicism, Mormonism, Seventh-Day-Adventism, as well as a whole host of other Christian religions, at the detriment of their own ancient beliefs and customs. These new missionaries use basic necessities like health-care to convert natives to what they want them to believe or what they think they should believe, with no regard for the centuries old traditions and culture that we should be doing our utmost to preserve. The new missionaries see the natives and their beliefs as backward and intolerant to change. But who is intolerant here? The native Mexicans are a bunch of people who have accepted Catholicism, but on their own terms, who embrace technology without allowing it to affect their culture and take pride in their way of life. Who are we to tell them this is wrong? So much for do unto others, eh. The other pressure the natives feel comes from large companies who, under the banner of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), come to Mexico and forcefully take native land to mine gold, amber etc. Once they’re done taking all they want they simply return this infertile, useless land to their rightful owners. Any wonder why these people are so fiercely proud and protective of their culture?
At the end of the day we were happy to have been given the opportunity to take a glimpse into real, ancient Mexico. We got a little taste of how life was before the Conquistadors arrived. Today only deepened our respect for Mexico and for its people. A people that have resisted so many attempts at occupation, only to face new attempts at occupation from a different part of the world, in a time when we should be cherishing their differences in beliefs and culture and making every attempt to protect them.
I’ll just grab my soapbox from the Zocalo and go home to my casita now.
More by this author on her very excellent blog at http://pintsizedwanderlust.com/