Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chiapas Part 5: A stroll along Andador 20 de Noviembre to Templo de la Caridad

A friendly jaguar greets passersby along Andador 20 de Noviembre. The doorway is part of a converted colonial mansion now serves as an artisan's shop. Andador 20 de Noviembre heads north from the northwest corner of the Zócalo. The walking part of it stretches for 3 long blocks. Andador refers to the pedestrian-only aspect of the street. The 20th of November is Dia de la Revolution, the day Francisco Madero launched the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Carole and I loved the walking streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They extend out from the Zócalo to the north, south, and east. The absence of motor vehicles means less noise and exhaust fumes and an overall slower pace. As to jaguars, they are the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world, after African lions and Asian tigers. The ancient people revered the jaguar, not only because of its size and hunting abilities but because it is a creature of the night. The pre-hispanic people believed that jaguar spirits connected the world of ordinary reality with that of the underworld of darkness and death.

You run into all types of people along Andador 20 de Noviembre. They range from tall Europeans toting backpacks, to tiny Maya dressed in traditional clothing, to Ladinos (non-Maya Mexicans) wearing ordinary street clothes. The shops, cafés, and restaurants lining either side of the street are colonial-era structures that rarely exceed two stories.

Burger King stands on one of the corners of the Andador. My guess is that you have never seen one that looked quite like this. We really appreciate how Mexican cities like San Cristóbal have required businesses to closely follow the original appearance of the structure. Inside, of course, it looks like any other Burger King.

The Magic Oven French Bakery announced its presence with this small sign. A Maya dressed in pre-hispanic garb prepares to thrust a croissant into a traditional beehive-shaped oven. The shape of the wood-fired oven provides an even heat. Although current bakers don't dress this way (at least none I have met), bread products have been baked using this ancient style of oven ever since the Spanish brought wheat over from Europe. I occasionally buy bread in from a neighborhood baker in my pueblo of Ajijic. He uses just such an oven. Previous to the introduction of the bee-hive oven, the indigenous people used a circular, flat griddle called a comal. On the comal they cooked the thin flat cakes called tortillas. Like the beehive oven, the ancient comal is still widely used in Mexico.

A fierce Maya warrior stands at the entrance of a theatre along the Andador. This guy was one of the actors in a spectacular performance we attended a few days later. When we encountered him here, he was functioning as kind of a human billboard for the event. The play, called Palenque Rojo was about the ancient conflict between two Maya kingdoms named Toniná and Palenque which--according to legend--resulted in the conquest of Palenque and the death and rebirth of its king. The costumes, as you can see, were extraordinary. Although all the dialogue was in Maya, it was easy to follow the action because the theatre provided a brochure in English. During the performance, some of the actors were costumed as monkeys, large birds, crocodiles, and horrific insects. They had the animals' body movements down perfectly. Palenque Rojo was gripping and enchanting, a must-see if you visit San Cristóbal.

View along the Andador, looking back toward the Zócalo. As the day wore on, the streets filled with people. When we visited San Cristóbal in August, the weather was nice, but very changeable. One moment it might be bright and sunny, like the scene above and, in the next, dark clouds might sweep in to produce a short downpour. Accordingly, we had to prepare for all eventualities. I wore the kind of hiking trousers with zippers at knee level enabling their conversion into shorts if the weather warmed up. In my daypack, I carried rain gear in case of a sudden storm, but also sunblock if the sun came out.

A group a Maya men, some wearing elements of traditional clothing, waits at a health center. Many Maya, men and women, carry the traditional embroidered shoulder bag. Two of the men above also wear the traditional white tunic, extending to knee length, with bare legs. The chest areas of the tunics are also decorated with embroidery. Interestingly, the two in tunics wore t-shirts under them, and also imported running shoes. That's progress, I guess.

Day or night, there is a lot of activity on the various andadores. Here you are looking north along Andador 20 de Noviembre at its intersection with Calle 5 de Febrero. There is a vibrant night scene in San Cristóbal, and the cafés, restaurants, and bars fill up with a mix of Mexicans and European tourists.

Templo de Caridad

The origins of Templo de la Caridad (the Temple of Charity) go back to the 16th Century. Notice the thick walls, wood ceiling, and great retablo behind the altar. The whole place exudes antiquity.The church sits on the east side of Andador 20 de Noviembre, near where the pedestrian-only part ends. Just north of the Templo is the much more famous Templo y Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo church which we will visit in a future posting. La Caridad was originally the chapel for a hospital run by the religious Order of San Juan de Dios, and is the only part of the original hospital and convent that still stands. The first hospital in San Cristóbal was established between 1577 and 1594 in the southern part of the city by two churches, Templos de San Diego y Santa Lucia. However, that hospital project did not prosper and, by the early 1600s, the facility in the south of the city was in ruins. In 1635, members of the Order of San Juan de Dios, led by Juan de San Martin, began planning for a new hospital. The chapel for their hospital complex would become Templo de La Caridad, In Mexico, however, few things happen quickly.

La Caridad is undergoing restoration work as you can see on this pillar. The bottom of the pillar has been restored, while the area above the capital (the top of the column) needs considerable work. Maintaining a centuries-old structure like this is a constant work-in-progress. The 17th Century planning and fundraising process appears to have been glacial, because it was not until 1653 that the Order of San Juan de Dios finally took possession of the land around the Templos San Domingo y Santa Lucia where the ruins of the unsuccessful hospital stood. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Order decided not to build there, and the project slumbered for a few more decades.

The graceful old dome shows the wear of the ages. The four round windows in the dome allow enough light to dispel what would otherwise be a gloomy atmosphere. With the turn of the 18th Century, the pace finally picked up. In 1710, Bishop Juan Bautista Álvarez de Toledo arrived from Spain. In order to obtain funds for construction of the hospital, the Bishop demanded  money and labor from the local Tzeltzal Maya. The Tzeltzal revolt that erupted in 1712 had been brewing for a while but the Bishop's demands helped trigger it. After the suppression of the revolt the Maya were forced to provide the funds used to procure the land where La Caridad now stands. It was purchased from Sergeant Major D. Pedro De Zaveleta and his wife. The Sergeant Major may well have had a part in defeating the Maya and, if so, he profited nicely from his military exertions. His property included a hermitage, a sacristy and a cemetery.

A massive, three-tiered Baroque-style retablo stands behind the altar. The Retablo del Altar Mayor (Main Altar Retablo) contains four religious paintings, and three niches--one on each level--for statues of the Virgin and two saints. The incredibly ornate decoration of the retablo is an expression of the Baroque sensibilities of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. After the suppression of the Tzeltzal uprising in 1712, Bishop Álvarez de Toledo put the Order of San Juan de Dios in charge of the development the new hospital complex. It would be the first hospital in San Cristóbal dedicated to treating the indigenous population. I suspect that this was at least in part a response to the revolt. At the urging of the bishop, some additional land, construction materials, and 1800 pesos were donated by the Dominicans whose Santo Domingo church and convent stood next door. La Caridad was built on the site of the old hermitage. The style of the church was influenced by the styles prevalent in 18th Century Peru and Guatemala. The Order of San Juan de Dios continued to operate the hospital complex until the War of Independence (1810-1821) when a group of San Cristóbal's prominent civilians took it over. Following the Independence War, the complex passed into the hands of the federal government.

Nuestra Señora de la Caridad is the main focus of the rebablo. It seems appropriate that Our Lady of Charity (also known as the Virgin of Charity) was the patroness of a charity hospital operated for Maya, the poorest members of the community. However, she was believed to have helped in the defeat of the 1712 Maya revolt, so she was given the title Patroness of the Army and of the Province of Chiapas and Special Protector of the City and the Diocese. I found this a bit ironic. The first sighting of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad was in Cuba in 1604 by three fishermen.  They were threatened by high waves during a storm at sea and prayed to the Virgin for their salvation. After the storm cleared, they found a statue of the Virgin floating on the water with a board attached saying "I am the Virgin of Charity." The clothing of the statue was miraculously dry. Adoration of the statue spread in Cuba, and from there to the mainland and finally to Chiapas. I find it interesting how the widely separated Spanish New World colonial possessions interacted with one another and influenced each other's cultural development.

The second level of the retablo is centered on an unidentified saint. He may be San Juan de Dios (Saint John of God) or perhaps San Jose, father of Jesus. Either way, he carries the Baby Jesus with his left arm. He is bracketed by the richly decorated Solomonic columns typical of Baroque retablos. San Juan de Dios was born João Duarte Cidade in 1495. He was either kidnapped or ran away from his home in Portugal at an early age, ending up in Spain. After living a hand-to-mouth existence as a street child, Cidade took a job as a shepherd for a number of years. His farmer-boss tried to persuade him to marry his daughter, but instead he ran away again at age 22 to become a soldier. He managed to survive in that profession for about 20 years, fighting all over Europe, including in Hungary against the Turks. After the Turkish campaign, he left the military behind and again wandered, ending up in Africa. There, he befriended an impoverished knight and his family and nursed them through an extended illness. This apparently was his introduction to a lifelong mission of tending to the ill. Returning to Spain, he worked for a while disseminating books printed by the newly invented Gutenberg printing press.

The third, or top, level of the retablo brings the Baroque decorations to a climax. The figure of a saint holding the infant Jesus to his chest is again bracketed by Solomonic columns. Above and below the statue are the the heads of other figures with symbolic meanings that I could not decipher. It is easy to get sucked into the complexities of Baroque architecture. The fascinating little details are almost endless. In 1537, Cidade experienced a religious awakening in which he behaved so oddly that he was locked up as a lunatic. His spiritual advisor John of Avila got him released and Cidade began to devote himself to helping the poor and the sick. His obvious piety and dedication to the poor attracted a group of followers whom he organized into the Order of Hospitaliers. Cidade died in 1550, but his group continued and became the Brothers Hospitaliers, a religous order that was approved by the Pope in 1572 with a mission to care for the sick in countries around the world. Cidade was canonized as San Juan de Dios by Pope Alexander VIII in 1590.  This was the origin of the group that organized and ran the hospital that included Templo de la Caridad. Although no longer connected to the Templo, the Brothers Hospitaliers of St. John of God currently run 300 hospitals in 53 countries around the globe.

A curandero and his client perform a healing ritual in front of another large retablo. The curandero is the man with the white shirt. His client is the woman standing behind him wearing the dark rebozo (shawl) and pink skirt. I had to take the photo with my zoom lens from some distance away because I didn't want to disturb their concentration. They stand in a large side-chapel off the left side of the main nave. Curanderos (healers or medicine men) are found throughout Mexico, but are especially active in those areas with large indigenous populations, like Chiapas with its Maya. They work with their patients to diagnose medical, psychological, and spiritual afflictions. Their remedies include burning of candles of various colors and sizes, depending on the affliction. They also use feathers, flower petals, and copal incense. In difficult cases, they may sacrifice a live chicken. Such ceremonies are sometimes performed in Catholic churches like La Caridad, or the famous church in the nearby village of Chamula. Mexican Catholicism rests upon a deep foundation of traditional indigenous beliefs stretching back to pre-hipanic times.

The side-chapel retablo is in the Churrigueresque style. This is the same style as the main retablo of the San Cristóbal Cathedral. I believe they were probably created at about the same time, in the middle of the 18th Century, and possibly by the same artists. The figure in the glass case is the crucified Jesus, while the three paintings on either side and above the case show other religious figures or scenes. The retablo is at least 5 m (15 ft) tall, judging by the height of the curandero in the previous photo.

The altar at the far end of the side chapel is quite simple, compared to the main altar. This may be a newer addition, because it seems to be more in the Neo-classical style, popular in the late 18th and the 19th Centuries. 

Several stone burial plaques are set into the side wall of the main nave. For centuries, prominent people were buried in the walls of churches like this one. According to the marker, "The day 30 of September of 1889 died Doña (undecipherable) Eritasia Utrilla. Her spouse with profound pain dedicated this stone as a sign of eternal memory." A touching sentiment from a brutal man. Avenida General Utrilla is the street that runs beside La Caridad. Miguel Utrilla Trujillo was the Governor of Chiapas from 1888-1891. This was at the height of the Porfiriato, the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz that finally ended with the 1910 Revolution. It was a period when abuse of the Maya was rife. According to one study "highland elites, led by Miguel Utrilla, fabricated the threat of an Indian insurgency in order to establish a para-military presence and undermine the efforts of the state government to take administrative control of the region." The elites wanted to ensure their continued ability to enslave the Maya and force them to work on their coffee fincas. I'll have more on those coffee fincas in a future post.

This completes Part 5 of my series on Chiapas and San Cristóbal de las Casas. I hope you have enjoyed it so far. I encourage feedback, questions, and corrections. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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