We slowly rolled through the cobblestoned streets of San Cristobal, congested with morning traffic, and headed to the outskirts of town, where we began climbing higher into the mountains. As the van chugged up steep, winding roads, I looked out across a verdant valley of patchwork farm plots speckled with clusters of white-washed buildings and encircled by high hills blanketed in pine forests.
Ten kilometers outside the city, we pulled off the main road unto a bumpy byway that led down into a valley. At its rim, we heaved to a halt at the cusp of the cemetery that sprawled out around the ruins of Iglesia de San Sebastian. Only the bare bones of the church remain, the mottled shell of its white stone façade set against the backdrop of green hills and a brilliant azure sky. At its feet, the bare red earth of the graveyard was dappled with white, teal, and black crosses, draped in faded pine boughs and garlands of brightly-colored faux flowers.
Our guide Caesar explained to me and my husband Tom that about 60,000 inhabitants of Mexico’s Chiapas Highlands consider themselves Chamulans, practicing a faith that mixes Mayan mythology with Catholic tradition. He said the colors of the crosses signify the age of the deceased—white stands for a child, the blue for an adult, and black for an elder. The shape of the cross had spiritual significance for the Maya long before Christianity arrived with the Spanish, but Caesar pointed out a difference—here, the arms of the cross end in a circular shape.
We made our way down into the dell where the town of San Juan Chamula is nestled, the commercial and spiritual center of the Chamula. We walked along a rutted road past cement block houses, some white-washed, others painted in vibrant shades of lemon, tangerine and lime, turning unto a street lined with stalls selling colorful handicrafts. Caesar explained that the many of the Mayan groups native to Chiapas are known for the quality of their textiles, with each groups having a particular specialty. Here in Chamula, the artisans work primarily with lamb’s wool, whereas in neighboring Zinacantan, cotton is the main medium. For the Chamula, the lamb is a scared animal, never to be eaten.
Caesar led us to an old woman who sat kneeling alongside the market square, her thick black woolen skirt forming a heavy blanket under her. Her brown face was lined with deep wrinkles and her black hair hung in braids to her waist, with only wisps of gray despite her age. In front of her was a modest display of her wares, a dozen intricately braided belts and several big square felt bags with rich decoration in whimsical patterns.
At Caesar’s approach she leapt to her feet, beaming while giving him an enthusiastic hug, her wide smile displaying missing teeth. Sitting back down, she began to give a demonstration of her craft, stretching a strand of wool from her spindle, the gnarled appearance of her hands belying their strength.
Caesar told us our “poco Espanol” was meaningless here—the villagers speak the ancient language of their Tzotzil ancestors, one of 31 Mayan languages. And he explained no words were necessary in negotiating with the old woman to buy her handicrafts, as she is deaf.
I selected a belt and a black bag adorned with deep pink flowers and gave the woman 100 pesos for the 90 pesos purchase. She excitedly gestured that she would get change and dashed off, sprightly for her age.
When she returned, she handed me my change, opened the black bag and put the belt inside. Removing a long shoulder strap from within the bag, she opened it in a wide loop and held it out in front of me, with a huge grin. I stooped down and the tiny woman reached up and put the strap over my head. Then, to my surprise, she wrapped her arms around my waist, embracing me a in a warm hug. Tears sprang to my eyes and my heart swelled. While a commercial transaction between a tourist and a vendor, I felt a swirl of sensations beyond the realm of a business exchange—among them, humility, gratitude, respect and connection.
We crossed the plaza, where a bustling market of entrepreneurs carried out the business of everyday life in Chamula. The square pulsated with energy, as individuals and families bought and sold the goods they desired for the next 24 hours. While the local traditional dress is black, the area was bursting with color. The vendors, mostly women with their children, displayed their items on crates or low plank tables covered in tarps of emerald green and sky blue. One woman knitted surrounded by spools of brightly-colored wool, others sat amidst home-grown produce of grapefruits, bananas, oranges, tomatoes and corn. A young girl carried a thick sheath of long-stemmed lilies on her shoulder, another counted pesos before stashing them in her wallet. Groups of men congregated, engaged in lively conversation, all in long black tunics made of the same coarse wool as the women’s skirts, and most wearing white cowboy hats.
Caesar led us away from the square, taking us along a dusty side street and to a building in front of which stood an arch strung with dried yellow flowers—signifying the structure was the home of one of the town’s spiritual leaders. San Juan Chamula has 122 of these community servants, men drawn annually from the outlying villages to administer to the needs of the Chamulas with round-the-clock prayer. The men with their wives team up to assume responsibility for maintaining a house dedicated to keeping the gods happy; dozens of such havens function around Chamula.
Caesar told us that taking pictures inside was strictly forbidden; while the photographer in me reacted with dismay, my “higher self” reluctantly understood the importance of respecting the sanctity of other’s wishes and beliefs.
Entering the dark room from the bright sunshine, I was momentarily blinded, a sensation exacerbated by sudden reverberating streaks of light. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I realized a strobe light emanated from a star-shaped decoration hanging in an adjoining room, partially hidden behind a curtain of dried leaves that hung from the rafters. Visible in the shaft of light were tendrils of smoke, its acrid smell filling the room. A tinny, carousel-like medley of Christmas music filled the air, with the refrains of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
In the center of the room was a wooden table, on which sat clay figures in the shape of a bull, each holding a thin white taper. Strewn around the table were jugs made of gourds in different sizes and big wicker baskets and pine needles were scattered on the cement floor. Caesar told us that pine has a sacred meaning for the Chamulas, with its scent an offering to the gods. By sprinkling pine around ones’ self, an atmosphere of holiness is created and an edifice is unnecessary.
Small chairs were placed around the room’s perimeter and Caesar invited us to sit down, explaining the design of child-size furniture was a tradition with practical roots, allowing people to be low to the ground and close to the fire.
Within just a few minutes inside the sacred space, the effects that had been so jarring initially became rather hypnotic.
Caesar explained that the caretakers are responsible for tributes to the gods three times a day, and that they too needed their senses assuaged. The pine needles on the floor were an offering of perfume, and smoke from resin kept evil spirits away. The white candles were “tortillas for the saints.” The frequent fireworks we heard throughout our visit were not intended as light displays, but as auditory accolades. The dried plants and strands of berries hanging from the rafters need to be replaced every twenty days. The leaders are unpaid for this year of service—Caesar said no price tag can be placed on the esteem of their fellow villagers when they return home from their year of devotion.
We headed back to the town center, and the imposing white church that overlooks its own plaza adjacent to the market square. There, scores of Chamula men were in action--a duo refreshed the white wash on the arch that separates the market square from the church plaza and a squadron cleaned the grouting between the plaza's flagstones with the sharp tip of machetes, while others swept. At noon, bells rang out; looking up at the belfry, we could see the silhouette of a man tethered to each of the three bells, rising and falling with the peals.
Reaching Saint John the Baptist, we entered the church through a massive oak door, crossing the threshold to one of the most mystical sanctuaries I have experienced.
I found myself in a cavernous, twilight world. Yet again my senses lagged behind my physical transition from the outer, everyday reality of bright sunlight to a mysterious, haze-filled sphere of the spirits. As my eyes adapted to the subdued light, I only had the vague impression of an undulating, luminous glow in a vast open space. Then I realized the high-ceilinged church seemed especially immense as all the pews had been removed. Instead of the traditional rows of benches, smatterings of individuals and small knots of people sat on the pine-carpeted floor around flickering candles, some bowed deep in heart-felt prayer muttering incantations, others appeared as nonchalant as if at home in their living rooms, conversing in hushed tones together, with occasional soft laughter. From the entrance at the rear of the church, the effect of the thousands of individual flames was mesmerizing, reverential and peaceful; at the same time, the seemingly random way in which people were situated created an informal atmosphere that exuded an aura of comfort.
Caesar pointed out a young mother with a crying infant in her lap, kneeling with an older woman who had a chicken in her arms. He told us the matron was a curandero, a shaman who provided spiritual healing to those afflicted with suffering. He said the curanderos were not the same as the leaders whose home we had visited. The latter’s work was service for the community; the shaman treated individuals.
As we watched, the curandero waved an egg around the young woman’s body, which Caesar told us was a purification ritual, conducted after the shaman had diagnosed the specific ailment by taking the malade’s pulse. The shaman held up the chicken while speaking to her client; Tom asked how it could be so quiet and pliant and Caesar explained the curandero had given it alcohol, going on to say “Watch, now she will kill it as an offering.” We then saw the matron efficiently wring the bird's neck.
I wryly remarked that I knew of worse violence that had been effected in the name of religion. Caesar responded that the subjugation of the native population that began centuries ago with the Spanish conquest has continued unabated through today. He told us that recently a medical team came to San Juan Chamula, performing pro bono exams and handing out bibles in the process. Caesar said "All kinds of different missionaries are continually arriving in Chiapas, actively seeking to convert the people here to their brand of faith--there is a certain presumption and conceit inherent in this. When the Mayan people travel, they do not force their beliefs on others, but there is much that could be learned from their way of life."
I had heard earlier that in an effort to preserve their way of life, in the mid-1970s leaders of San Juan Chamula began an ongoing campaign to expel members of the community who converted to another faith. Most of these exiles find themselves in cinturon de miseria, or "belt of misery" around San Cristobal, roaming the streets selling handicrafts to tourists. I had also heard that the spread of Christian conversions were the result of widespread alcoholism in San Juan Chamula, arising from the heavy ceremonial and other use of home-made liquor known as pox, and the attendant domestic violence. And I was told that out of the despair of excommunication, women gained a measure of economic independence through their work as vendors.
I walked toward the altar, taking in the statues of saints lining the walls, each entombed in a glass case and honored with a well-tended shrine laden with flowers and candles. I carefully maneuvered around clusters of glowing candles that sat in puddles of hot wax, and side-stepped supplicants engaged in private remonstrations.
As I gently made my way, I noticed a young backpacker seated cross-legged in front of a trio of candles, her eyes closed. I was struck with the realization that the wanderer’s dreadlocks, tattoos and piercings identified her as part of another movement to which I have not been initiated. But like her, I am a seeker, drawn to the exotic setting of San Juan Chamula’s church to witness the ways in which others practice communing with their god. I am a mere visitor, unable to grasp the social and ethical complexities of a culture not my own. But by choosing to appreciate the diverse ways with which others access comfort, guidance and love, my own ever-evolving faith is nourished.