San Juan Chamula

February 24 2014

In Mexico […] the Indians, though they had been converted to Christianity by force and had never been given freedom to reject it, displayed their voluntary attachment to it, 300 years later, in their resistance to the militant anti-clericalism which was in the ascendant during one stage of the long revolution that started in Mexico in A.D. 1910. In A.D. 1953 the Indian peasants were once more free to show their pride in their village churches and their zest for the Roman Catholic Christian liturgy. In the same year, however, the writer found a different spirit prevailing among the Chamulas – a highland people on the remote Las Casas plateau, in the south-western corner of the Mexican Republic [in the state of Chiapas], where Spanish military and political power had been so near to the end of their tether that the local tribesmen had been able to hold their own.

Even in 1953 the city of Las Casas, inhabited by Ladino descendants of sixteenth-century Spanish and Tlascalec colonists, felt like an island of Western Civilization set in an alien sea; and the short drive from this insulated Western city to the village capital of the unassimilated Chamula tribe carried the visitor into another world.

The Tlaxcaltec were indigenous allies of the Spanish against the Aztecs. Their home was in the area of the present state of Tlaxcala.

Among the buildings round the village green, the most prominent was a fine Baroque church; but there was no tabernacle on the altar; the priest from Las Casas ventured to come to officiate there on sufferance not more than once or twice a year, so it was said; and the church was in the hands of shamans who, for decency’s sake, were called “sacristans”. The effigies of the Christian saints on their litters had been transfigured into representations of pre-Christian gods in the eyes of their Chamula worshippers, who, squatting on the rush-covered floor, were making weird music on outlandish-looking instruments. The crosses planted in the open had turned into living presences that were aniconic embodiments of the rain-god. In short, in Chamula the West’s sixteenth-century assault in the form of a Roman Catholic Christian mission had been successfully repelled, and it remained to be seen what would be the outcome of the West’s twentieth-century return to the charge. This post-Christian Western assault upon the Chamula had been mounted in the brand-new co-operative store and brand-new clinic by which the de-Christianized church was now flanked. Would Western medicine and Western business organization prove more effective than Western religion as engines for capturing this obstinately pagan fastness?

The answer to that question seems to be “not much”. Wikipedia (edited):

“San Juan Chamula is a municipio (municipality) and township in the Mexican state of Chiapas, with over 50,000 inhabitants. It is situated some 10 km (6.2 mi) from San Cristóbal de las Casas.

“Chamula is located in the Chiapas highlands, at an altitude of 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), inhabited by the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people, whose Tzotzil language is one of the Mayan languages.

“The town enjoys a unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village. Chamulas have their own police force.

“The church of San Juan, in the municipal cabecera (headtown), is filled with colourful candles and smoke from burning copal resin incense, commonly used throughout southern Mexico. Along the walls of the church, as in many Catholic churches, are dressed-up wooden statues of saints in large wooden cases, many wearing mirrors to deflect evil. The local form of Catholicism is a blend of pre-conquest Maya customs, Spanish Catholic traditions, and subsequent innovations.

“There are no pews in the church, and the floor area is completely covered in a carpet of green pine boughs dotted with soda bottles (mostly Coca-Cola). Curanderos (medicine men) diagnose medical, psychological or ‘evil-eye’ afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colours and sizes, specific flower petals or feathers, or – in a dire situation – a live chicken. The specified remedies are brought to a healing ceremony. 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, Coca-Cola or Pepsi, and chant prayers in an archaic dialect of Tzotzil.

“Photography in the town is very difficult as parents will hide their children or they themselves will turn away as soon as they spot a camera. Photography within the church is strictly prohibited, as is photographing the Christmas procession to the church. They can throw you out of town if you attempt to violate this rule.

“The main agricultural products are corn, beans, potatoes, and cabbage.

“Women often make traditional clothing, blankets, and souvenirs that include Zapatista-related items, such as pens with a clay figure on top in the figure of Subcomandante Marcos or Comandante Tacho.”

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

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