Maya Villages

We started our day with an enjoyable breakfast at an off-the-beaten-path place where we were the only customers. Big breakfast, delicious coffee.  We then headed to the Zocalo where we were supposed to look for a woman with a colorful umbrella who would arrange our trip to nearby Maya villages. Of course nobody was in the Zocalo at a quarter to 9 in the morning, only some workers who were cleaning the plaza with bunches of fresh palm leaves.

When we were about to lose hope finding the lady with colored umbrella, a man approached us and handed us a flyer with tours to the villages we intended to visit. Price was good ($17) for half a day. It seemed that the Zocalo was the place for getting tours, where the supply and demand met. Without asking further questions off we went with the guy. We liked the fact that we were the only ones in the tour. We clicked well with our guide, Cesar, who turned out to be a blessing: he was one of the most knowledgeable guides I met and gave us so much information that my head literally hurt when I came back.

San Juan de Chamula

Traditional Maya Tzotzil village known to be pretty closed to tourists and very conservative. Chamula means thick waters in the Tzotzil dialect. Cesar instructed us when we could take photos and of what and he indicated that under no circumstance we were to take pictures of religious or civic leaders (he showed us a picture of them in a small information booth of the village so that we can recognize them by their specific attire, especially the straw hats with colorful ribbons). Also absolutely no cameras were to be seen around the Chamula church, which was,of course, the main attraction in town, not so much for the building, but for what was going on inside: esoteric Maya rituals that threw the viewer into a completely different world.  Chamulans do not like cameras and detest intruders taking photos of them and their sacred rituals. There were instances, we were told, where tourists were beaten up by the locals. That’s what you get for breaking their rule.

Ruins of San Sebastian church

We started off our tour in the Chamula cemetery (good place to start and not to end up in). It was sunny and the place was quiet. Colored crosses marked each grave – black for elders, white for the young departed and blue for everybody inbetween. In their midst, the ruins of San Sebastian church still stand strong, overseeing the dead for 500 years. We strolled through the market place and we felt the rather unfriendly cold vibes of the locals. Not there to judge them, I would be annoyed if funny looking foreigners would come by daily in my village and snap photos of me as if I was some oddity. The truth was that the Mayas in Chamula were very different than anything I saw – their clothes, their village, their vibe, their faces – and this strangeness, this foreignness were for me fascinating. I liked the way the women dressed, especially their black ship-skin skirts tied with a wide belt much like the Japanese obis, making a big fold in the front bulging off the belly – a thing considered unaesthetic by our fashion sense, but which seemed to work fine in Chamula.

All over in the plazas, in the cemetery, close to churches there were beautiful green crosses. Christian cross? or Mayan symbol? It was a combination of the two. All crosses had a tree carved on them – the Mayan sacred tree of life. Some crosses had 4 points like any regular cross. But most crosses had 8 points, like 2 superimposed crosses. These are connected with the movements of stars and planets, symbolizing a great celestial conjunction or other cosmic events.

The Catholic church in Chamula

What fascinated me the most was the intertwining of Maya beliefs with the Catholicism brought 500 years ago by the conquistadores, and how smoothly they merged. The Spanish tried to convert the locals to Catholicism with almost no success. The locals, seeing that the newcomers were there to stay, decided to pretend they adopt the new religion – on the surface – while subtly sneaking in Maya religious elements in all aspects of spiritual life. The church in Chamula is one fine example of this religious syncretism. If it looked like your typical colonial quaint white church on the outside, on the inside it was completely something else. And we were about to find out. Cesar said it was ok to go inside, just hide our cameras and be as respectful as we can of the worshipers. The only access into the church was through a small door carved into the huge wooden portal adorned with concentric arches of 4 and 8 points crosses. I walked through the small door cringing and hoping that I would not make a wrong move that would prompt one of the fierce looking locals to beat me up. It was dark and chilly. A pungent smell of pine tree and incense filled the church. The floor was covered by a thick layer of pine-needless. Incense vases burning pine resin and copal incense were scattered around the floor, fuming white smoke in the air. There were no benches in the church.  At the center of the spacious room there were several groups congregated around richly decorated altars built directly on the floor: flowers, dozens of burning candles and occasionally… Coca-Cola bottles! Yes, Coke was incorporated by the Mayas in their religious rituals. Coke causes burping, and burping expels evil spirits. Standing or kneeling, men and women were praying and chanting. Each group, depending on size, had three or five musicians producing music that accompanied the worshipers’ chants. Religious leaders, which I identified by their ribbon rich straw hats, were lined up in each group praying along with a loud murmur. Some women were sitting on the floor, their black hair braided in two tails that almost touched the ground. Holding their babies, they were tending to the numerous color coded candles burning on the floor – red, white, black, yellow, each color standing for a particular request – love, relief of illness or economic hardship, protection, abundance. Along the walls, crammed one next to the other, glass cases contained the richly dressed statues of different (Catholic) saints. Some had small mirrors hanging on them – in local belief mirrors deflect evil spirits. It looked as if all saints were rounded up and locked along the walls, just like Catholic rituals were pushed aside by local Maya practices.The most important saint in Chamula is San Juan, he is the most venerated and thus he had the biggest and nicest statues.  I barely squeezed between two groups, carefully not to push any musicians, not to step on a candle or hit someone by mistake and bring the locals’ wrath upon me. I stood and observed in silence, wondering where is the line between Catholicism and Maya esoterism. Everybody in the church was praying or chanting and their voices mingled in an eerie soundtrack that filled the spacious room. Altars and worship groups were scattered in all directions, shamans and curanderos were bringing offerings to the saints, or performing cleansing ceremonies. We were all mixed in white smoke, prayers, spirit invocations and chants.

This church had no priest, the Chamulans had long expelled the Catholic padre and it was not difficult to understand why. Good old faithful priests tried to abolish Mayan rituals and transform the Chamulans in good tame Catholics. It’s Chiapas afterall and one must understand that here people cling to their ancestral traditions. Maya religious leaders play a very important role in their community, a very unified and small one where the community welfare stands more important than the individual one. Failing to recognize this, the priests failed to gain the sympathy of the locals. Chamula is one of the few places  where the indigenous people succeeded to resist (religious) colonization all the way. So the Chamulans continue to use the church for their religious ceremonies which included prayers to various saints (with Catholic face but in reality each one was mapped to Maya god), cleansing and healing people by means of plants, eggs and chicken sacrifice (no blood, just gentle throat snapping). Interestingly enough, the only sacrament recognized and taken by the Chamulans is the baptism. For this they invite a priest to come every now and them and baptize the newborn babies. After the Catholic priest was expelled, an Eastern Orthodox priest was invited to perform the baptisms. Chamula was the last place on earth where I expected my Eastern Orthodox religion to be present.

After we re-emerged from this otherwordly place, Cesar took us to the house of a spiritual leader or mayordomo. Mayordomos were selected for 3 years, they had to leave their homes, move to Chamula, rent a house for their whole family, and dedicate a big separate room to the altar of the saint to which they would tend 3-4 times a day … for 3 years. The mayordomos could not work for the 3 years of religious service (that is, they could not held any regular income-generating job) and they had to save previously to be able to survive. They had a lot of expenses: candles, incense (which needed to be offered to gods 4 times a day), decorations (ribbons, flowers), fireworks for the special occasions… it is expensive and difficult to be a spiritual leader, but once the service completed one gets a special status in the society and is being highly respected. No material benefits though.


First thing I noticed is that people were dressed completely different, even though the village was only a few kilometers away from Chamula. And the people of Zinacantan had a slightly more relaxed attitude towards us than Chamulans. Blue and purple are main colors in the Zinacantan dress. The church here was empty, no rituals taking place. The priest did not allow chicken sacrifice and the locals did not fight that decision. We visited the house of a textile weaver, spent 40 minutes deciding on what piece of cloth to buy (they were all so colorful and pretty it was really hard to decide). Even after we made the purchase we all felt we could have done better and picked something else. The textile weaver was so hospitable that she decided to make some tortillas for us, to Ana’s content, as she has been eating all the tortillas that came her way in Mexico. The lady served us an aromatic powder made from squash seeds to put on the tortilla, like a filling. The combo tasted good! As we left the house we ran into a procession of men (preceded, of course, by a group of musicians, the oddest of all playing a small harp). They were carrying a saint from the house of one mayordomo whose one year of service just ended to the house of the new mayordomo (in Zinacantan the religious service is one year only).

In the evening we had cultural plans, we were going to Kinoki, a Tea Lounge/Independent Movie Theater to see a documentary on the Zapatistas. We were in Chiapas, Zapatista land, so we found it more than appropriate to learn as much as we can about them right there at the source. We slurped some delicious natural juices at the kiosk downstairs then headed for the movie theater. San Cristobal is cool like that: the movie theater was a tent on the roof of the 2 stories building, from where you could see the whole town and the beautiful mountains surrounding it. We missed most of the gorgeous pink and mauve sunset, because we had to take seat in the lawn chairs scattered inside the tent to get ready for the movie. Some of the attendants had ordered dinner which was brought to them quietly, now that’s what I call first class service! The documentary told the story of the Zapatista movement which started on January 1, 1994 once the NAFTA treaty was signed. January 1st, 1994 San Cristobal was taken over by EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) which moved further and took over to Rancho Nuevo and 13-14 different towns in Chiapas. The repression of this rebellion was severe, some images were tough to watch. Interesting to see in the documentary the rebellion unfolding in the places where we had just walked minutes ago.

Subcomandante Marcos at work

Who are the Zapatistas? They are the forgotten indigenous people of Chiapas whose voice was ignored for years and years. With the rebellion that started in 1994 they made their voice heard, under the leadership of mystery-veiled masked subcomandante Marcos. Their requests have not been met after till today, 16 years.

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