Indigenous people groups of Mayan descent make up about 50% of San Cristóbal de las Casas’ population of 197,583. Many are identifiable by their unique dress and do not like to be photographed.
We signed up for a tour to learn about the culture and customs of some of the local indigenous groups living in two nearby villages: Zinacantán and San Juan de Chamula.
Zinacantán sits at 8392’ elevation. The town has nearly 4000 inhabitants but the entire municipality has about 36,000 people.
San Juan de Chamula
About 7 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas at 7,200 feet of elevation is San Juan Chamula. Its 77,000 inhabitants are 100% indigenous Tzotzil Maya whom still speak their own language.
Inside the Templo of St John the Baptist in the village of San Juan de Chamula what we witnessed was extremely foreign and strange to us.
We were forbidden to photograph or video inside the church! The fine for filming was over $140. I’ve read online that those tourists who disregard the rules have had their cameras ripped away and chased out of town.
When you enter you are hit in the face with a cloud of smoke and the smell of incense. Through the gloomy haze is a golden blur of flames from thousands of lit candles which line both sides of the church and across the front of the church. The candles are slim tapers of different colors and heights, There are no other lights. Next you notice the floor is strewn with what at first appeared to be dry grass but turned out to be gray pine needles. Fabric hangs from the beams making it feel like the inside of a large tent. There are no pews. Groups are sitting on the floor lighting multitudes of candles that have been stuck in wax on the floor of the church all around them. Alarm bells go off in my head, “Fire! Danger!” In fact, as we walked, the hem of my flowing skirt brushed over candles, freaking me out, but I grabbed it and held it close until exiting.
It is a sight so unbelievable that you want to pull out the camera.
There are glass cases of Catholic saints sitting on tables along both sides of the church, after which any similarity to Catholicism ends. There are no masses or services. Women, children, babies sit on the floor visiting and praying. Many are praying aloud. The men in charge of the church are scraping the wax from the floors where the candles have burned down. Musicians dressed in white fur tunics and straw hats are playing instruments and singing or chanting. Some in the group are looking at their cell phones. It looks like a cultural center. This activity continues 24 hours a day.
As my eyes adjust I notice live chickens in the mix and some women passing chicken eggs over their bodies. They are doing “cleansings.”
Wikipedia says “The local form of Catholicism is a blend of pre-conquest Maya customs, Spanish Catholic traditions, and subsequent innovations. Chamula families kneel on the floor of the church with sacrificial items, stick candles to the floor with melted wax, drink ceremonial cups of Posh, artisanal sugar-cane-based liquor, and chant prayers in an archaic dialect of Tzotzil.”
We were told the church does not belong to the Catholic diocese, but there was a plaque commemorating a visit by Pope Frances.
According to the Oxford American Dictionary “Syncretism” is the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.
In the 1970s, 25,000 villagers who didn’t participate or worshipped differently were expelled and their homes confiscated or burned.
Meanwhile, the exiled Protestants founded their own communities on the hills surrounding the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas — settlements with names like New Jerusalem and streets called Galilee.
YouTube has some secretly filmed videos if you want to see more, but they don’t do it justice!
My visit to San Juan Chamula was the most unusual thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Hasta Luego! Until next time!