Fireworks, flowers and tortillas

The jail in San Juan Chamula is very small but then no one spends more than three days there. The crime rate in this indigenous Indian village in the Mexican highland state of Chiapas is very low and a brief spell in the jail is mostly to inflict public humiliation as the iron bars on the door make its occupants visible to passers-by.

Mayan crosses in Chamula
Mayan crosses in Chamula

Such is the way of life in Chamula which governs with its own rules rather than any set by the Mexican government. The village is about 10km outside San Cristóbal de las Casas and along with San Lorenzo Zinacantán is one of best places to get an insight into indigenous life and customs of the Tzotzil people that are direct descendants of the Mayas.

The system In Chamula works by appointing both civic and spiritual leaders. The latter are volunteer jobs which people wait many years to fulfil. During that waiting time they save because once in their year-long post they won’t be earning money and are likely to be spending quite a bit of it. Of the 122 spiritual leaders in the village a fair number are assigned to look after one of the many saint’s houses and that means buying offerings such as flowers, candles, incense and pine needles for the floor.

It’s best to visit the villages with a guide and ours was Cesár from Alex y Raul Tours who run small group trips. They have a simple booking system – you just wait outside the San Cristóbal cathedral at 9.30am and they’ll find you.

Being with Cesár meant we could go into one of the saint’s houses and watch quietly as the spiritual leader’s wife went about her daily duties, lighting candles and replenishing flowers and the pine needles that cover the floor. Incense also features heavily as do coca cola bottles though I never really got a convincing explanation about why! Coming out of the saint’s house we could hear fireworks exploding nearby. Cesár wasn’t sure why. Home made fireworks are evidently a regular occurrence in Chamula.

The church of San Juan Chamula
The church of San Juan Chamula

Next stop was the church and along the way we met one of the spiritual leaders who is distinctive because of his clothes. Most Chamulan men wear thick white or black wool tunics but the ‘cargo-holders’ who have religious duties wear a sleeveless black tunic and a white scarf on their head. The women of Chamula wear wide black wool skirts that are folded around them and secured with a belt. They look like they must be sweltering when temperatures rise.

The white façade of the church is similar to others I’ve seen though it has some striking blue and green paintwork around the edges and pretty flora and fauna painted over the entrance. When you walk inside though it’s clear that it’s very different to other Catholic places of worship. Here they have rejected Rome based Catholicism and there are no services held in the church or any pews. Like the saint’s house the floor is covered in pine needles and people sit around the floor with their offerings next to them; coke bottles and candles feature again, but also eggs and the occasional live chicken. Some families have a shaman in their midst aiming to heal a sick parent or child.

It’s certainly different but does that make it wrong? Cesar was very passionate in telling us about the evangelical people who come to the village from the US trying to convert its inhabitants. Some are successful but the result is that those converted are expelled from the village and forced to make a life elsewhere. I saw plenty of evidence of that in San Cristobál where many have migrated to.

An explosion of colour

She couldn't resist a peek at the tourists
She couldn’t resist a peek at the tourists

Although very close to Chamula and also inhabited by Tzotzil Maya people, San Lorenzo Zinacantán has a very different feel. The same clothes are worn by everyone in this village too, but here they are bright, beautifully embroidered outfits in shades of purple, pink, blue and gold.

Zinacantán’s huge church is also a major focus of the village and Cesár told us it was described as Catholic traditionalist. Inside it’s strewn with flowers and petals making it as colourful as the people. Candles again feature heavily as does incense.

Zinacantán's large and flower filled church
Zinacantán’s large and flower filled church

The many statues of saints were covered because it was Holy Week and there was a busy ritual in progress involving spiritual leaders who wore red or grey head coverings depending on their age. There are 12 older leaders in the village who wear red and 6 who wear grey and those present were slowly and carefully taking down colourful ribbons that had been put in place earlier in the day.

Elsewhere in the town crowds of people were gathering to watch a dance performance while we were taken to visit the home of an industrious family that produce and sell a gorgeous range of shawls, scarves and bed covers. They are woven in the yard using a simple back strap loom, which does look like it must be back breaking work.

A simple kitchen but great tortillas
A simple kitchen but great tortillas

Just off the yard we were invited to see the kitchen which was sparse to say the least, primarily consisting of an open fire to cook over, but the tortillas produced for us to sample were absolutely delicious and the entire family were friendly and welcoming.

Driving up the hill out of the village the most noticeable thing is the many greenhouses. The Zinacantán people do love their flowers! But really the drive back to San Cristóbal was a good time to reflect on getting a privileged glimpse into lives and cultures that are very different to my own and fiercely protected by their people.

If you’re interested to know more about San Cristóbal read my post on the town.

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