Thursday, October 19, 2017

Where Indigenous Rites Prevail

Where Indigenous Rites Prevail

Daniel Cano                                                              



    The van moves north, along the highway R. Larrainzar. It rises gently up a green mountain, just outside San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. Below, I see ranches and settlements in the valleys, a peaceful sight, but my mind is a torrent of questions.

    Silvia, a woman I met on a tour to Palenque told me, “I didn’t feel safe there at all. And I’m from Mexico” Her traveling companion, Esteban, a college student from Valencia, Spain said, “It is a strange town, really strange.” Their friend, Paco, a hotel manager from Granada, Spain, said, “I felt the people didn’t like us. But it is enchanting. You must go.”

    The driver pulls into a dirt parking space at the edge of town. I am the last one out. I’ve heard about children selling bracelets and trinkets harassing visitors upon entering town. The children don’t bother with this van. I chose to take a local from the mercado. I am the only mestizo on board. The rest are Mayans.

    San Juan Chamula isn’t much at first sight, mostly air, space, and a view of the mountains, dotted with homes and the blue sky beyond. I see few people on the streets. Municipal buildings surround the large, square concrete plaza. There are few trees. At the far end, vendors set up booths. At the other end, where I stand, three large crosses rise on a raised stage. Chamula is the only town in Mexico governed by indigenous Maya, mostly Tzotzil.
    I see a young woman holding a child, standing before a souvenir stand. I buy Zapatista dolls from her. I ask if I can take a picture of her. She is nervous, but she agrees. She wears a skirt made of sheep's wool.


    I hear drums and trumpets. It isn’t a song but a repetition of five or six dissonant notes, and the same drumbeat. A procession of men, more than fifty, all wearing white and black sheep’s wool tunics and cowboy hats, comes toward three crosses, the musicians among them. One man carries a cross.

    A handful of tourists stands to watch. A blonde woman takes out her camera. As she raises it, a voice from the middle of procession hollers, angrily, “No fotos!” The woman nearly drops her camera as she shoves it into her bag. Without anyone noticing, I snap a picture from my camera hanging at my side. I can’t see what I’m photographing, maybe just the ground or sky. Another tourist, a young man, slowly raises his camera. Voices from the procession threaten him if he doesn’t lower the camera. He does, quickly. A voice calls, “Touristas, cabrones.” Another voice hollers, “Matenlos todos.” Laughter erupts from the middle of the procession as the men pass.

    I read that Chamulans expelled all evangelical Christians from the city for criticizing the way Chamulans practiced Christianity.  For years, traditionalist Catholics in San Cristobal have abhorred the Chamulan rites and have tried to excommunicate them from the Church. But progressive priests, going back to Bartolome de las Casas and more recently Bishop Samuel Ruiz, saw Chamulan rites as a beautiful thing, the blend of religious and social cultures.

    Chamulans believe their religious practice is a life and death struggle, something they’ve lived with since the Spanish invasion of 1519. To escape enemy eyes and ears, the Chamulan churches serve as religious, businesses, and social centers.

    Today, politicians in Mexico City know that Chamulans influence elections throughout Chiapas. During election time, politicians utter, “So goes San Juan Chamula, so goes Chiapas.” Chamulans control much of the trucking, including exporting and importing goods, especially soft drinks, which is like gold to the Maya. Sadly, Mexico's political parties are dividing Chamulans and causing violence not seen in years.

    When the procession reaches the temple of San Juan, sacred throughout Mexico, the marchers have doubled in size, including tourist at the rear. I join them and pay twenty pesos to enter the ancient temple, a small but charming structure, white with a blue trim.


    As I walk through the doors, the thick, pungent smoke blinds me. It’s difficult breathing. The ominous melody from the trumpets, drums, and now an accordion, echo, as if we’re in a cave. As my eyes clear, I see thousands of candles lighting the interior walls. Life-size statues lean against the walls, Catholic saints, I assume, mirrors on their chests. Some say Chamulans believe the reflection wards off evil spirits.

    Behind a rope, a sign reads, in Spanish, German, and English, “No visitors beyond this point.” As I look for a place to sit, I am disoriented. Then I realize there are no benches or pews, only a thick coating of pine needles covering the church floor. I turn to a Mayan man standing behind me and ask him why? He doesn’t answer my question. Mayan women and children, talking quietly, sit on the pine needles. It’s said that women conduct much of the community's business.

    The procession and musicians move forward slowly along one wall until they have surrounded the altar. Leaders, wearing high peaked hats with flowing blue and red ribbons, stand on the altar and give directions. My eyes rise to see the crucified Christ above the altar. But there is no cross and no Christ. Instead, in a glass case, stands John the Baptist. Not sure of what I’ve seen, I close my eyes. My heart pounds. I open my eyes. Through the lingering incense, I see it is John the Baptist, no doubt. The people at his feel look like specters moving about in a trance.

    Tourists press against me, closing in. I search for a way forward, to get a better view, or, maybe, to purge the evil spirits that lurk inside me. I slide, as if floating, through a separation in the rope. I stand there, hoping nobody notices me. Near the altar, a “no trespassing” sign, larger than the first, is posted on a gate. I’m not sure how much time has passed, ten minutes, an hour? Time doesn’t matter here. It doesn't exist. I move towards the gate, careful not to raise unwanted attention.

    More women join those already sitting on the floor. At the altar, men carry trays full of glasses, each with a silvery liquid--posh, I’ve come to learn, a strong fermented drink, a root from a plant used in Mayan religious ceremonies. Drunkenness, they say, is a sign of spiritual connection with “other” world. The mirrors on the saints’ chests also help a released spirit find his way back.

    I am close to the altar. Something inside me stirs. It's hard to explain. The men pass the drinks among themselves until empty glasses fill the tray. I stoop low. The music is a meditation. A few minutes later, men appear carrying more trays with glasses, this time a dark liquid inside. A man carrying plastic bottles of Coca Cola follows him. The coca plant was once a main ingredient in Coca-Cola. The soda makes them burp, and the Chamulan Maya believe burping exhales evil spirits. I have no idea the connection between the drink and Christianity, except maybe John the Baptist lived on plant roots.

    At the foot of the altar, the musicians continue their haunting melody. No one notices me, or if they do, they say nothing. More tourists have moved forward. I keep my eyes lowered. I find a place on the pine needles and sit, the smells rising to my head. I am in a state of contemplation. Nothing appears real. A sense of freedom fills me. Later, in my journal, I will write, ""It's difficult to explain what I experienced in the church of San Juan this afternoon."

    Time passes. Even without the drink, the ritual is intoxicating. The air is thick. Reverentially, the men continue passing the drinks. Some stand with arms crossed. Some teeter. Eventually, I am overwhelmed, my senses inundated. The service continues as I exit through a side entrance.

    Outside, I breathe in the clear mountain air. I’m in a large courtyard surrounded by white walls. A Mayan, drunk, hardly able to walk, approaches me. He babbles something I can’t understand. He looks angry. His flails his arms. Another man comes, apologizes for his friend, and takes him away.

    When I return to the parking lot, the vans are gone. A man tells me the van service stops at 7:00 P.M. He points to the taxi stand where two taxis wait. It’s dusk; the sun barely lights the mountaintops.

     One of the drivers, an older man, raises his hand. Next to him is a old model Toyota. It has seen, as they say, its better days. I ask him about the vans, as if I need a second opinion. He confirms the only way back to San Cristobal is by taxi or walking. He gives me a price. I accept.

     The driver, Geronimo, is Tzotsil Maya, and as he drives, he explains everything I’m seeing, who owns the ranches and who lives in the lone settlements, the process to cure sheep’s wool and turn it into clothing, and the different languages and beliefs of the various Maya clan throughout Chiapas.

    I ask Geronimo if Chamulans believe St. John the Baptist is mightier than Jesus. He hesitates, as if I’ve asked him to divulge a secret. “Some say so,” is all he answers.

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