San Juan Chamula


Sabbatical 2010





On a cool Saturday moring we joined a guide to visit San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, two neighboring towns a few kilometers from San Cristobal.

San Juan Chamula is a city of about 50 000 fiercely independent people, forming an autonomous city-state within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in Chamula. Mostly Tzotzil Maya people, they practice a sincretistic faith in an old Catholic church, identifying with John the Baptist. Honoring their beliefs, we could not take any pictures of the Chamulans or their religious ritual practices. (Violators are thrown out of town). Whenever the guide said it was "OK" to take a picture, I did. We saw a religious parade--all men--who honored three Mayan crosses--a regular cross but with a round, ball-like-end. The three "balls" symbolize the past, present and future in Mayan spirituality. We also saw a community gathering of women, probably 150, being addressed by another woman.

Entering the church, however, we encountered a world that reminded me of African Independent Religions. With hundreds of candles burning, some pencil thin and others quite large, as well as copal resin insence burning, numerous familes were bringing offerings and sacrifices to their God. The offerings included various sodas (I saw mostly Fanta and Coca Cola), posh, a sugar-care based liquer, but also chickens, who experienced an unlikely end to their lives. Jami and Michaela were warned about the sacrifices, but opted to look as mostly women, some who would be curanderas (medicine women), stretched the necks of the chickens over their upper legs to kill them. There were no pews, but many tables on along the sides, all filled with candles. The church was filled with smoke as there were no open windows. The chants and prayers offered reminded me of some Christian churches I've visited in Europe where candles lit the cathedral and insence filled the place with smoke. Primarily a private religion where leaders are also community elders, no priests were found. With a blood-less sacrifice, the only clean-up we saw of the floor covered with pine needles were men with flat knives removing candle wax.

After San Juan Chamula, we visited Zinacantán, a town renowned for growing flowers and weaving beautiful clothing. Numerous green houses dot the fertile valley. About 98% of the people of Zinacantán are Tzotzil, but of a different kind compared to Chamula. We visited with a local family, saw how they lived, and ate freshly made tortillas with avocado, cheese, and frijoles (fried beans). Like most homes, this one too had a private altar. The girls bought gifts for their friends from a few eager sellers and Michelle bought a table cloth. Noticably absent were the men...

It was another good day in Mexico, leaving us with many memories and interesting conversations with the girls.

Images from San Juan Chamula

Images from Zinacantán