San Juan Chamula: traditional Maya and a bit more


The traditional cross with pine boughs

The traditional cross with pine boughs

For sheer weirdness, it’s hard to beat San Juan Chamula. This little village, located about 30 miles from San Cristóbal de las Casas, has become a tourist attraction for weir…um…its unusual religious practices.

The jungle-y state of Chiapas, on Mexico’s southern border, is one of the most indigenous in a country of ancient nations. Here, stretching across southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize is the region where the Maya flourished. The Maya civilization was advanced, extensive, enduring, and never fully subdued by Spanish invaders. Hence, about 500,000 Maya descendents still live in Mexico today, speaking their own languages and maintaining their traditional way of life.

I’d heard about San Juan Chamula long before I arrived. Now, since I was in nearby San Cristóbal, I signed up for another day tour that promised to pull back the curtain shrouding the community. My understanding was that the group leaders were well-acquainted with the San Juan community and maybe even came from there.

However, I handicapped myself right from the beginning: 1) I didn’t really understand what I was going to see–I’d just heard that it was strange and interesting;  2) For the first part of the tour, I joined the Spanish-speaking group, so I caught a lot of words as they flew by, but couldn’t stitch them together into anything meaningful. I absorbed some fuzzy concepts and many uncertainties.

That was unfortunate.

Here’s the scoop, as I understand it.

As with the rest of the Mexican state of Chiapas, San Juan Chamula is an indigenous community, descended from the Maya. And as in other parts of Mexico, the people retained some of their traditional religion and mixed it with Catholicism introduced by the Spaniards. And with some other stuff.

When Pope (now Saint) John Paul II came to Mexico, (actually, Pope Francis recently visited San Cristóbal also), he decreed that the people should be allowed to retain their traditional religions, such as that practiced in San Juan Chamula.

I wonder if the pope actually witnessed traditional religion as it’s practiced there.

San Juan Chamula is a very tightly regulated community, more like a cult in the control its leaders exert. If someone leaves the village, they can’t easily return. Neither are outsiders allowed to become part of the community. I heard of a European who married a girl from San Juan Chamula, and eventually they left, having been virtually excluded from village life.

Catholic priests are sometimes asked to come for Baptisms or other ecclesiastical functions, but generally the local leaders—mayordomos and curanderos (like shamans)—handle most facets of community and religious life.

As with most Mexican villages, the church is the focal point of the village—located on the town square. St. John the Baptist church was just such a beautiful and well-kept structure. We were warned not to take photos inside the church at the risk of being thrown out and possibly jailed. I wasn’t willing to test this rule, and Mr. Google apparently wasn’t, either.

Very pretty church.

Very pretty church.

Notice the founding dates, although I suspect the church has been rebuilt a few times

Notice the founding dates, although I suspect the church has been rebuilt a few times

Men in traditional sheepskin vests

Men in traditional sheepskin vests. Women wear black sheepskins as skirts.

Inside, the church was dark and cavernous. There were no artificial lights and no pews. The floor was covered with pine needles, which is one of the sacred elements of worship, along with eggs, chickens, posh—an alcoholic drink made from sugarcane, candles, and Coca-Cola. (The belief is that the carbonated burps release the evil spirit.)The church smelled of pine and heat from hundreds of candles.

Circles of locals sat on the floor around lighted candles. Some held the holy items—I saw a chicken or two and bottles of Coca-cola and home-brewed posh. Curanderos/as (most were women) conducted the mini-sessions, which might address physical illnesses or other troubles. In tough cases, the chicken is killed. (I didn’t see that.)

There were as many tourists wandering around as there were locals. I found this annoying, even though I was one. Elaborately dressed statues lined the walls, as they do in many Hispanic churches. The only difference was that these had mirrors on their chests, either to reflect light and love or to deflect evil, take your pick.

Many visitors are entranced by the experience. I found it both incredibly interesting and also uncomfortable. I wondered if the pine needles ever caught fire. I was distracted and put off by all the tourists—hypocritical, I know. Locals mostly ignored us tourists but I caught a few glares of displeasure. Outside the church I wandered around the square. There was a small market to one side, but nothing like the extravaganza Karen and Eric from Trans-Americas Journey experienced.

Our next stop was another Maya village, San Lorenzo de Zinacantán, which is a flower-growing area. The church was filled with them. (To see the interior of this church, check out this blog.)

Exterior of the church

Exterior of the church

First, we stopped by the final dregs of a meeting of the mayordomos (elected elders). Each Sunday the group gathers in the church at 3a.m. to pray, dance, and drink posh. They talk about community issues and make decisions. The color of their headdress denotes rank, and they wear unusual sandals with a wooden back. By the time our group arrived, the guys were looking pretty haggard, and one elder was slumped in his chair asleep or passed out.

We toured the church, which had pews filled with people—women on the right, men on the left—although no service seemed imminent. I wandered around the church a bit and went outside to rejoin my group.

I must have lingered too long, because there was no group. No vans. No tourists.

I stood there for a while feeling increasingly bereft. Just wait, I thought, someone will realize you’re missing, and they’ll come back.

Except they didn’t. There had been two vans and a dozen tourists. I wasn’t assigned to anyone, so I wasn’t missed by anyone.

Now I was stuck in a sullen community on a Sunday afternoon. What to do? What to do? Fortunately, in places like Mexico where people routinely travel from one out-of-the-way place to another, getting around isn’t too hard.

I asked a guy on the street how to get back to San Cristóbal. He pointed up the street and asked where I was from. Turns out, he had lived for a time in my home state of Michigan. We chatted for a minute about Traverse City and Petoskey, towns I know well where he had driven truck. Then he seemed to remember that I was an unwelcome intruder, and he abruptly rejoined his friend.

I found the line of colectivos (shared taxis) and got back to my hotel without a hitch and with a lot of food for thought.

Traditionally dressed statue in the square at San Juan Chamula titled: a Monument to my Race

Traditionally dressed statue in the square at San Juan Chamula titled: a Monument to my Race



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4 Responses to San Juan Chamula: traditional Maya and a bit more

  1. hoz 16 April, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    All alone in a foreign city, Stranger in a Strange Land. When I saw the statue I thought of Nick Cage in The Wicker Man. Maybe you were to be the sacrifice for their failed crops…

    Glad you made it out of there without a scratch. But think what a night in the local hospedaje might bring.

    • Kate Convissor 16 April, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

      Hahaha. Been alone in far scarier places. The local hospedaje might have been interesting. Not friendly…but interesting.

  2. Joe todd 16 April, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Thanks for the post

    • Kate Convissor 16 April, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

      Any trips on your horizon, Joe?