Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chiapas Part 9: The pueblo of San Juan Chamula and its other-worldly Maya church

Green Maya crosses symbolize the ancient religion as well as Catholicism.The crosses above embody what Mexicans call sincretismo, which means the mixing of cultures. After our visit, Carole and I agreed we had never visited anyplace quite like San Juan Chamula. The town's Maya name, Chamula, means "Thick Water" in the Tzotzil language. At first glance, the green crosses appear simply as the familiar Christian emblem, but there is much more going on here. If you look closely at the crosses, you will see smaller crosses at the tips and along the cross pieces. Some of them are the simple 4-point cross, as found on either arm of the left-hand cross above, but others have 8 points. The symbolism of both the 4 and the 8-pointed crosses goes far back into pre-hispanic history. The 4-point crosses relate to the Ceiba tree, which the Maya call "Tree of Life." Its roots are in the underworld, its trunk forms everyday reality, and its leafy canopy--represented by the cross piece--forms the heavens. However, most of the crosses have 8-points made up of one 4-pointed cross superimposed on another. The Maya were the greatest astronomers of ancient Mesoamerica. The 8-pointed crosses relate to their observations about the layout and movements of the various celestial bodies. The Maya connected those movements to recurrent cycles of time and thus to their famous and extraordinarily accurate calendar. Now, hold on to your seats, you are about to enter another world.

The ruins of the Templo de San Sebastian brood over Chamula's cemetery. The church was originally constructed by the Dominicans. It appears to have been built in the baroque style of the 17th Century, but some elements of it may go back to as early as 1562. The Templo de San Sebastian was destroyed almost a century ago, by causes I have not yet ascertained. Given the timing, the destruction may have have been a deliberate act during the Revolution of 1910-21, or possibly during the Cristero War of 1926-29. It could also have been the result of a simple accidental fire. In any case, the parishioners were upset that the saints of the church did not prevent its destruction. They decided to punish those saints by leaving the old church in ruins and taking the statues of the saints, which had somehow survived the fire, to the main plaza's Iglesia de San Juan Chamula. There they joined the San Juan church's saints, but the San Sebastian saints were placed facing the wall, much as one might punish a child who has failed to do his chores. In addition the images' hands were chopped off and they were deprived of the rich robes saints' statues often wear. In recent years, they have been allowed to face forward again, but they are still not accorded the reverence normally given to other saints. The large town cemetery surrounds Templo San Sebastian and, as we approached, we realized that local leaders were conducting a funeral.

Attired in traditional dress, Chamula mourners gather around a gravesite. The men wear cowboy hats but also the traditional, thigh-length tunic made of furry black wool. The one officiating wears a similar tunic, but made of white wool. All the traditional clothes are handmade from materials locally gathered. The wool comes from sheep that are revered and protected as a part of the family. Upon its death, a sheep is mourned as if it had been a person. As the official in the white tunic bows forward with his arms outstretched, he appears to be conducting a funeral rite. So as not to intrude upon their gathering, I stood a considerable distance away and used my maximum telephoto setting for this shot.

The street leading from Templo San Sebastian to the main plaza is lined with crafts stalls. Most of the goods we saw were handwoven textiles and clothing, but many other items were for sale too. Tourists flock to the pueblo of San Juan Chamula and the locals have a decidedly ambivalent attitude toward them. On the one hand, a good deal of the community's income results from selling crafts to visitors. On the other, the Maya residents are very shy about being photographed themselves, and they are especially adamant against photographs of the inside of their famous church. As to the crafts, I have generally found that the closer to the source, the better the price. Many of the craftspeople who make the goods sold to tourists on the streets of nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas come from San Juan Chamula. For a Google map showing Chamula's location in relation to San Cristóbal de las Casasclick here.

An example of the exquisite embroidery created by local Maya. Other nearby towns have taken advantage of Chamula's popularity with tourists and sell their goods here too. The flowery style of this  shawl and skirt outfit indicates that it may have been made in Zinacantan, a few miles away. I will do a later posting on Zinacantan and its textiles.

Outside City Hall, a statue of a Chamula leader stands in full regalia with his staff of office. The plaque entitles it "Monumento A Mi Raza" (Monument To My Race). The figure wears a broad-brimmed, be-ribboned hat similar to those seen in Part 8 of this series. He is attired in the same furry tunic as the men at the funeral. The statue's pedestal mimics the hat brim draped with ceremonial ribbons. Despite the modern appearance of the buildings that surround the plaza, the people here are very traditional, and also very independent. In 1994, the Zapatista Movement rose up and seized San Cristóbal to protest the implementation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). San Juan Chamula and the surrounding towns are still a major center of Zapatista support in Chiapas. The people of Chamula have been resistant to outsiders since the earliest days of the Conquest. In 1524, after the Spanish defeated an indigenous army, Bernal Diaz del Castillo was granted an encomiendo for Chamula. This gave him the right to demand free labor in return for the dubious benefits of Christian instruction. Diaz del Castillo was the young officer serving under Hernán Cortéz who wrote the famous first-person history called "The Discovery and Conquest of New Spain." Outsiders have been trying to oppress Chamula's Maya ever since, but they have resisted, most recently through support of the Zapatistas.

The PRI is a big political player in Chamula. At the time we visited, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had just won the governorship of Chiapas and a number of other state and local posts, as well as the national presidency. The PRI maintains a large office right on the Chamula plaza. The party held national power in Mexico for 70 years between 1930 and 2000 and in the process gained a reputation for blatant electoral manipulation and corruption that finally resulted in their ouster by the PAN (National Action Party), a conservative, business-oriented group. The PAN lasted for two 6-year presidential terms before being defeated in 2012 by a rejuvenated PRI. Between 2006-2012, PAN discredited itself with its feckless, US-sponsored, War on Drugs which has left 60,000, and possibly as many as 100,000 Mexicans dead. Many Mexicans feel that PAN has been too compliant with US infringements on its sovereignty and that the real problem originates north of the border. That's the huge market to which the drugs flow and therefore is the source of the money that funds the drug cartels. It is also where the majority of  the guns originate that have been used to kill thousands of Mexicans. However, many in Mexico also feel that the "new" PRI is simply old wine in a new bottle. Only time will tell whether the PRI will be successful in bringing the drug war to a close and a better life to Mexicans.

Carole (left) and our tour group listen to the instructions of our guide (center in green blouse). There were several Italians as well as Mexicans in the group. We were the only English-speakers and the guide asked us if we could understand Spanish, because presenting the information twice would slow things down considerably. We agreed to try, if she would agree to speak slowly and distinctly. It actually worked pretty well and we were pleased at how much our Spanish comprehension has improved. The guide's instructions were very important at this stage because we were about to enter Iglesia San Juan Chamula where photography is absolutely forbidden and it is perilous to disrespect local customs. Taking unauthorized photos can, at a minimum, get you ejected from the town with the probable confiscation of your film or even your camera, and possibly even a trip to the local jail. Some time ago, when feelings were running particularly high against foreigners, a European tourist was reported to have been beaten to death for refusing to abide by the no-photos rule. Consequently, the most mind-blowing part of our tour had to go unrecorded by my camera and my written description will have to suffice.

The church occupies one side of a broad, cobblestone plaza. On the right side of the photo, a kiosco (bandstand) occupies the center of the plaza. As you can see by referring back to the photo of the San Sebastian church in the cemetery, the design of that facade is very similar to this one. The San Juan church is named after St. John the Baptist and was founded, as San Sebastian was, by the Dominicans. They took over responsibility for the area's religious affairs in 1549, but had little initial success in converting the Maya. After much preaching, only a single old man came forward to be baptized. At this point the Dominicans adopted the practice of many evangelical orders of those days. They tried to coopt local customs, practices and beliefs to serve the interests of Catholicism. The Maya, in turn, recognized that the oppressor was not going away and that the Dominicans were simply the ideological arm of the Conquistadors, or the velvet glove that covered the mailed fist. They decided to adapt themselves to the formalities of Christianity, but to build in--or sneak in--as much of the old religion as possible. Thus, sincretismo.

The old church steeple has three bells, rung by hand ropes. The dates just below the middle bell, 1522-1524, correspond to the period of the initial struggle to conquer Chiapas. It is unclear exactly when the San Juan church was built. However, it may have been around the same time as the San Sebastian church. Like Templo San Sebastian, the style is late 16th or early 17th Century Baroque. According to "Architecture and Urbanization in Colonial Chiapas Mexico" the San Juan Church is a somewhat larger replica of the Templo San Sebastian.  It has a single nave, with a peaked roof covered with barrel tile made of terra cotta. While the corners of the building are of cut blocks of stone, the walls are rough stone held together with lime mortar. On the facade above the main entry, and below the bell tower, is an unusual window (see previous photo). Apparently the window was used as an open-air pulpit from which crowds in the plaza could be addressed. This may have been because the church itself was much too small to contain the large number of reluctant Maya who would have been involuntarily assembled so that the Dominican priest could harangue them from the window. The object just behind the cross is duplicated by two more of the same on either side of the top of the bell tower and another two on the top of the two front corners of the church (see previous photo). These objects, called merlons, appear to have stoppers in their necks and strongly resemble the demi-john jugs in which aguardiente (brandy) was stored in colonial days.

The main entry is colorfully decorated and closely guarded. The only entry was through the small opening in the main door you see above. The great door is opened each June 24, the feast  day of San Juan Bautista. Several men stood or sat in the immediate area, eyeing visitors closely. The door is recessed in three arched steps, each decorated by alternating 4 and 8-pointed crosses. Once we passed the portal, we entered a world where Catholicism largely disappeared and ancient Maya traditions took over. The interior was one long room with little furniture except for an altar at one end and tables along the walls. The tables were lined with San Juan's saints as well as the displaced and disgraced saints of Templo San Sebastian. Family groups sat cross-legged on the pine-needle covered floor, in no particular order. Each family had lined up several rows of lit candles on the floor in front of them. The various sizes, shapes, and colors of the candles relate to the sort of plea being made, or the thanks being given. The only light in the room came from many hundreds of these twinkling candles. In addition, cups of liquid sat among the candles, obviously part of an offering ritual. Copal incense swirled about and quiet Tzotzil chanting filled the air. As Dorothy of Wizard of Oz fame said to her dog at one point, "Toto, I've a feeling that we're not in Kansas anymore."

Detail of the entrance door and its 4 and 8-pointed crosses. Among the Maya, religious mysticism, mathematics, astronomy, and ancient traditions are woven seamlessly together. The atmosphere of the interior was magical and totally unlike anything in my background. Close beside me, Carole was murmuring similar thoughts. We moved among the family groups and saw that some were focused on curanderos (healers), and the rituals they were performing. The curanderos used feathers, copal smoke,  Tzotzil chants, and other devices to summon mystical forces to battle against the ailments of their clients. Some families had brought live chickens that they were preparing for sacrifice on the church floor. After the ceremony, the chicken would be taken away and cooked by the family for a sacred meal. Although it is considered sacrilege to wear a hat into the church, someone arriving with an open can of beer will be welcomed. Alcoholic beverages are part of the ceremonies. One of these is pox (pronounced "posh"). It is made from cane and is 38% alcohol. Senselessness through drink is considered a way to connect with the Otherworld. Another interesting tradition relates to the mirrors worn by the saints lining the church walls. The Maya believe that during the worship of a saint (who may in fact represent an ancient deity), the soul leaves the body. The mirror helps reflect it back to its owner. Mirrors have been used as a portal between worlds since ancient times. Some were found buried inside the Temple of Kulkulkan (also called El Castillo) at Chichen Itza, as well as in other ancient Maya locations.

As we walked back along the craft booth street, I noticed this line of snarling jaguars. The colorful little statues stand in front of a row of beautifully woven Maya belts. Jaguars appear in the Maya world again and again. They are one of the most powerful and important creatures in the natural world and in Maya mythology. Our visit to San Juan Chamula had been enlightening, not to say mind-blowing, and totally unique. The Catholicism of the town seems to be about an inch thick, overlaying 3000 years of Maya religion, culture, and practice.

This concludes Part 9 of my Chiapas series. I hope you have found it as interesting and eye-opening as we did. I always encourage feedback, questions, and corrections. If you would like to do so, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hello Jim - We are so glad to find your wonderful blog; it's rare to see such a blend of excellent photography, well-written copy, and a great layout. Much appreciated. The hiking there in Ajijic looks great, and is one of the reasons that my husband and I are considering the area for our retirement in mid-2014. We plan to visit the end of September and are hoping to meet some like-minded folks while there. If you would please contact me at, we’d appreciate it. Thanks so much - from Abigail in PA.

  2. Thank you for sharing your beautiful experience in Chiapas, Mexico. We live here and we would love to invite everyone to visit us, it is magical place surrounded by nature, culture and adventure.
    For those who can't visit us in person and interested in the authentic handcrafts and handmade textiles from Chiapas, please visit our project, a fairtrade online store with beautiful handmade Mexican blouses and authentic handcrafts from Chiapas,

    Warm regards from Mexico,


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim