San Juan Chamula y Zinacantan

We continue our adventure in Chiapas with a day trip to the indigenous communities of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan.

Our driver Abel picked us up from the hotel and we drove for about an hour to the town of Zinacantan. The town was once full of these mud houses, but slowly they have been replacing them with brick houses.

99.1% of its population is Tzotzil Maya, an indigenous people with linguistic and cultural ties to other highland Maya peoples, but they also happen to be Catholic.  The altars at their houses and churches are a mix of these 2 cultures. In this offering,

You can see the virgin and Jesus dressed in traditional indigenous clothes.

We got a tourist trap style show of how they make their textiles, which is what they sell around town as the traditional handcraft.

Sarah, of course, bought a trendy cape.

We went to the back of the store for some handmade quesadillas with the delicious Queso Chiapaneco (Chiapas cheese).

To die for quesadilla…

We were dressed with traditional clothes for the touristy photo.

Sarah looked beautiful as a Chiapas indigenous woman.

In the Chiapas, parallel universe,  Sarah is the tall woman.

The town is small but very colorful, they warned us that photos are not allowed, at least not pointing at people. They believe part of their soul is taken with a photograph.

Not being able to take closer photos of people was killing me, as they are beautifully and uniquely dressed in traditional clothes. But we needed to respect their wishes.

Sarita buying another cape.

Sarah wearing her fancy cape.

We then drove to the second town of the day,  San Juan Chamula. Tucked into the Chiapan highlands, Chamula is one of Mexico’s few autonomous townships, with a startlingly high indigenous population – some 99.5% of the residents speak an indigenous language. However, despite the insular nature of the native community and the fact it still serves as one of the few post-1994 Zapatista uprising EZLN strongholds, it is one of the most visited Tzotzil towns in Mexico.

This town’s main industry is flowers. We drove past all the greenhouses where they grow all these flowers.

We briefly stopped at a Mayan cemetery.

The color of the crosses represents the age range of the dead person. Many of the graves had multiple crosses, signifying that there were several family members buried in this one spot.

Chamula is home to a church unlike any other, though you wouldn’t know it from the outside. The picturesque, centuries-old Iglesia San Juan has whitewashed walls and a brightly painted entrance that looks out upon the town square. Inside, however, worshipers engage in unique rituals that involve Catholic saints, moonshine, outpourings of emotion, and animal sacrifice.

The local Tzotzil people do not allow pictures to be taken inside the church. Those caught taking photos have had their cameras smashed in the past.  We did see a chicken being decapitated, but I rather l leave you with an amazing description of what it is inside (taken from Atlas Obscura).

Upon entering visitors are overwhelmed by the aroma of copal resin incense and smoke from thousands of candles. The walls are lined with statues of saints adorned with mirrors to ward off evil. There are no pews; fresh pine needles carpet the otherwise empty floor from front to back.

Worshipers spread themselves out in small groups. Each family sweeps a space clear for themselves and adheres an assortment of candles directly to the tiles. They allow the candles to burn completely during and after their personal ceremonies, leaving behind puddles of multicolored wax. Worshipers pray aloud in Tzotzil, sometimes weeping and repeatedly making the sign of the cross. They drink Coca-Cola and “pox”—the regional distillate—and burp with the intention of evacuating malicious spirits. Sometimes the family is joined by a curandero who may lay their hands upon the afflicted, absorb their maladies into a chicken egg or cure them by waving a live hen overhead. In extreme cases they then kill the chicken right there.

This unique blend of Catholic and indigenous beliefs is the result of 500 years of cultural competition. Soon after their arrival in the 1520s, the Spanish began to co-opt aspects of indigenous spirituality to placate the local Maya. Later, the native people began to blend their traditional rituals with the Catholic ones introduced by missionaries.

Internal tensions between Catholic Chamulans and a growing number of Protestant converts grew steadily throughout the 20th century, with the converts being forcibly exiled from the community. In the 1970s the Catholic diocese attempted to quell the conflict in Chamula, as well as stop some of the indigenous rituals, by withholding mass. But this area of Chiapas, home to the leftist Zapatista rebels, has a reputation of fierce independence. Rather than comply, the Chamulans installed their own religious leaders and dropped any pretense of standard Catholic ritual. Today, the community’s contact with a traditional priest is restricted to a monthly visit for baptisms. Outside visitors won’t recognize the daily rites they witness as Catholic.

Bonus pic of the day: Some of the walls of these towns have paintings of health-related stuff. They don’t have tv’s or internet and they live a very simple life, so this is some of the unique ways the government has found to be able to communicate this information. In this mural, they show the signs of pregnancy.

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