San Juan Chamula
We decided to visit a nearby Mayan village so we boarded a combi – a van that runs like a bus, but holds way less people and moves around much faster on the old cobblestone streets. It is cheaper than a taxi and generally more efficient than the buses. But it has its down side… After the driver jammed in 20 of us on 4 seats, we finally took off – only to stop 5 minutes later to fill up with gas. After that we went and filled up the tires with air. Good thing since we probably weighed 5 tons!
These collectivos are an interesting ride. You are transported into a different time and place. No one speaks Spanish. It is all Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect. And no one wears ‘regular’ clothes, they all wear sheep! All of the females, even the little girls, wear beautifully embroidered satin like blouses with wool skirts. But the wool skirts are WOOL skirts. Not felt, but black sheepskins draped around them, held up with a big woven sash. The men usually use regular jeans and shirts, sometimes with a black sheepskin vest. They always wear white sheepskins for special occasions.
Entering the Church – entering a different dimension
The church in San Juan Chamula is famous for being very different. And different it is. Although technically a Catholic church, there are no masses, no pews and no priest. In place of a priest, there are shamans who offer their services. The church is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and there are many figures of other saints lining the walls. Each saint has its own area full of candles that people have lit and placed before them. The floor is covered in pine needles. It is illegal to take pictures inside. If you do, you will go to jail.
We entered the church and immediately were overwhelmed by the energy there. It was full of candles, copal and small groups of people attending their offerings. As we were absorbed in the environment, we both burst into tears. We experienced a huge cleansing. Not of the mind but completely spiritual. We sat in the pine needles and just let the experience guide us.
The Chamulas set up personal offerings in this church – both to ask for help and to give thanks. The offerings consist of 42 candles set on the floor in rows. The colours seem to have an importance, all though most are white. A member of the family or one of the shamans lead the ritual. When all the candles are lit, everyone drink shots of coca cola and sugar cane alcohol. They also sprinkle these on the candles. If the offering is to give thanks for a specific thing, it culminates in the sacrifice of a chicken. They do a cleansing of their bodies holding the chicken as though it were sage. When all the family has had their turn, the chicken’s neck is broken. As a chicken has a lot of value to them, this is an important offering. They later take it home and cook it. Although this is very strange to us, it doesn’t feel strange there. Their faith is so genuine that we were profoundly moved to share this experience with them.
We visited the San Juan Chamula Church again a week later but the energy was completely different. There was a big altar set up honouring Guadalupe (the Mexican Mother Mary). Because it was the days of honouring her, the church had more of a ‘religious’ feel, rather than a connecting with spirit feel like before.
During the day there were processions arriving at the church. Most of the processions comprise of a decorated truck (or sometimes floats) full of people, followed by people walking and accompanied by someone running with a torch. Generally the runners are Mexican youth. But this day the runner was a Tzotil woman in her traditional wool clothing. When the procession arrived at the church, the participants entered on their knees, inching slowly forward on the pine covered floor until they reached the Virgen of Guadalupe altar. There they stayed for a long time.
There were a few families making their offerings and giving gratitude but most were sitting on the floor and talking or looking at the Guadalupe altar. In this church, they drink cane alcohol as a means of raising their vibration. But today it seemed some were drinking to drink. There was a group of men sitting on chairs talking about their sheep and drinking. This church is a community, it is not a church like those we have been exposed to.
Wandering down the streets of the town, we browsed and bought a few wool items, then ate a fresh chicken roasted on carbon. As we were relaxing, a large group of men dressed in white sheepskins and straw cowboy hats passed by. They all had clubs and cell phones. These were the police. They were followed by another large group dressed in sheepskin as well, but with bandanas on their heads and leather sandals. (the auxiliary?) In the midst of all of these, was one lone guy in black sheepskin. This has the same significance in Spanish, maybe also in Tzotzil?
San Juan Chamula is autonomous. They have their own laws and own police force. Mexican police have no authority there. They walked to the church as a procession and soon we heard more fireworks and the music got louder.
The kids in this town have been taught to beg for pesos. But some have been taught really well how to sell. One little girl came up to me and wanted to give me a bracelet. She went on and on that I was rejecting her, wasn’t the weaving good enough, etc. Look, that lady accepted the bracelet her friend made, wasn’t she good enough… but it is all memorized, some of them don’t speak more than the few necessary words in Spanish. But she was using pretty advanced psychology on me!
I now have a lot of bracelets….