In my trip to Mexico, I discovered two pueblos that really impressed me. San Lorenzo Zinacantán and San Juan Chamula. Both places are very close to San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial mountain town called the “cultural capital” of the state of Chiapas and bastion of the Zapatista Movement. which is the ideal base to go explore the region.
The inhabitants of these pueblos are direct descendants of the Mayan and a visit is like eavesdropping the past: they’ve retained much of the ancient way of life!
My interest for shamanism started with the books of Carlos Castaneda. The adventures of the young student and the teachings of Don Juan marked my teens and for a while I obsessed about peyote, ayahuasca, the studies of Timothy Leary and the book of Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, among others. I adored the idea that another reality would just unfold itself before our eyes if we learned to read the Book of Nature!
Maybe this is the reason why San Juan Chamula was the pueblo that interested me the most: I was attracted by that intense mysticism and their fierce defense of their ancient ways, especially their shamanic rituals.
Chamula, which means”muddy water” from the local language, is one of the largest Mayan villages in Chiapas and its inhabitants, the Tzotzil (one of the Mayan ethnic groups), are known to be among the most conservative in the region. They are, at best, indifferent to foreigners and, at worst, downright hostile.
The pueblo has its many rules that visitors are supposed to observe strictly, so hiring a guide is the way to go. It is absolutely forbidden to take any photo inside their church, the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista (which is understandable), and any attempt to break this rule will immediately expose the imprudent visitor to a violent reaction of the Indians and even arresting. It is also strictly forbidden to photograph the Indians (except with their permission).
Our guide Pepe pointed a group of men, dressed in a poncho, a big straw hat and carrying a big stick (firearms are prohibited) across the shoulder: they are the severe Chamula’s guards. The village has its own administration and police; the Mexican state has granted them some autonomy, and they do not hesitate to fully exert their rights.
This austerity also applies to the inhabitants themselves: those who don’t comply are expelled from the village and can never return. Lifetime exile.
A Stop By the Market
At the Chamula Market, the Indians sell the product of their land or their manufacture on improvised stands, and one buy only what it is necessary, not more. You will see vegetables, fruits, meat and dried fish, but also packages of raw sheep wool that women will turn into clothes. And everything is produced locally, from the raw wool to the final fabric, including the dyes used.
In addition, it should be known that here the sheep are sacred and therefore treated and protected as another member of the family. Only the necessary wool for the community is shaven from the animals, not an ounce more.
The Tzotzil don’t accumulate goods.
You just have to look around to see that most of the clothing is made of wool because, in this region at 2300m above sea level, a cold and humid climate prevails all year long.
The Iglesia de San Juan Bautista
On Easter Sunday, there was a large crowd hurrying to the front of Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. Pepe prepared the formalities. The foreigners must pay a “right of entry” of 15 pesos to access the sanctuary.
I saw a woman walking towards the church with a paper bag in her hand: Two small transparent bottlenecks and the head of an alive chicken were sticking out. Looking at the Tzotzil with insistence is forbidden, so I made sure to be as discreet as possible.
Finally comes the long-awaited moment: we enter the Church! The atmosphere is striking, the place operates its magic!
Even though the significant presence of Catholic imagery can reflect spiritual transformation from the invading Spaniards, the ceremonies stay, in essence, Mayan. Catholic priests have been expelled from Chamula decades years ago, and Catholicism is currently intertwined with ancient Mayan traditions: the peculiar Chamulan Catholicism.
The 16th-century church was completely emptied of its benches and chairs, there were enormous banners hanging in the very large ceiling, draping down into the walls on each side. The statues of Catholic saints are lined up along the wall, adorned with blossoms, pineapples, and little mirrors. The mirrors are supposed to reflect spirits back into people’s bodies if they eventually escape in a trance.
Scented pine needles litter the ground, the flames of thousands of small candles form islands of light in the darkness of the ambient; the smell of incense is pleasant. For the Indians, these scents are supposed to unite the souls of the deceased and the living in the same fragrant cloud, Pepe says.
This church never closes its doors. Families or groups come anytime if they will need to perform whatever rites they require at the moment.
I did these pictures, I couldn’t resist all that beauty…the quality is poor, I used a phone and the place is too dark)
Pepe shows us some Tzotzil who seem very angry. He explains that Indians fear their gods but they are not subject to them! I find this statement very curious. They do not murmur their prayers as it’s practiced in Catholic churches: they discuss with the saint (the representation of a Mayan god) of their choice, and if a prayer has not been answered, they reproach the entity concerned and threaten to go see another saint if their offerings aren’t followed by results! They would even punish a faulty saint by decapitating the statue!
Oh, the ferocious Tzotzil!
The ceremonies practiced are different from one group to the next but all have aligned bottles in front of them: some of pox, the local strong alcoholic spirit, and some of Coca-Cola. As we know, Coca-Cola causes well-sounding burps, intended to prove that the evil was eradicated from the suffering body.
Mental post-it: As explained in this previous post, Coca-Cola replaced the ritualistic drink made from fermented blue corn that the Indians used to drink. As Coca-Cola, this blue corn drink was also dark and caused burping. Maybe it was replaced because Coca-Cola is cheap and convenient. I didn’t quite understand. If the Indians defend their traditions so fiercely, why would they use Coca-Cola for their shamanic rituals? Then I understood why so many Coca-Cola and Pepsi billboards in the pueblo. The two companies are in a war for the souls of the Tzotzil!
I spotted the woman that I saw carrying the paper bag moments before. She was not alone, a shaman was with her, engaged in a strange ritual: he was holding the chicken she brought by the feet and walking around her, reciting incantations. From time to time he would verify the woman’s wrist and start the performance again.
Pepe followed my eyes and explained: the chicken was there to “absorb” the evil that was in the body of the woman. Her pulse would indicate the precise moment the “transference” operated. The time came and the chicken was sacrificed on the spot. I turned my head, I didn’t want to see, but moments later I saw the chicken dead, the throat sliced. Pepe said the shaman can sacrifice a chicken without droping blood on the church’s floor. I felt an urge to leave, but I didn’t feel judgemental (just for the Coca-Cola, I must say).
He then lectured us about all we had just seem. He told us that any illness is interpreted as the result of a disjunction of the “components” of the person. Healing consists simply of conducting the rituals necessary to reconstruct the fundamental unity between the individual and society, the body and the cosmos, time and space.
Thanks to the explanations of Pepe, this religious syncretism seemed logical to me. I will no longer speak of “beliefs from another time” but simply different practices!