SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico — I’m just leaving Jesus Christ’s house — more about that in a moment — when my guide hears melancholy music wafting from a cinder-block bunker around back.
Silhouetted in a doorway are several seated men wearing white tunics of what looks like mountain-goat fur.
“Lio te,” we say — “hello” in Tsotsil
, the local Mayan language in this mountain town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
This is a religious ritual, something gringos like me don’t often take part in, but we’re invited inside, perhaps because they’ve already been downing shots of pax (say “posh”), the local ceremonial hooch made from sugar cane.
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Slightly tipsy bonhomie fills the unlit, windowless room as thickly as the wood smoke from a bonfire that smolders on the bare floor.
I crouch next to them, all of us on child-size wooden chairs, to help witness the making of ul (say “ool”), a corn liquor that’s to be consumed a few days later during a traditional Sept. 21 ceremony honoring Jesus Christ.
There’s a Christian holiday on Sept. 21?
My guide, César Trejo, whose grandparents came from another Mayan town, explains this is part of the local culture’s melding of Catholicism — brought by force to this part of the world by 16th-century Spaniards — and ancient Maya culture, which worships the sun.
So the autumnal equinox is (wink, wink) a Christian holiday. They worship the sun and the son.
That synthesis says a lot about the split personality of this town, which claims to be Catholic but rarely has a priest in its church.
Officially, its religion is not Mayan, though shamans crouch with troubled villagers on the church’s pine-needle-strewn floor and sacrifice chickens to the lord of the underworld.
That’s just the start of what makes San Juan Chamula, a small farming town in the center of a sprawling district of some 55,000 people, unique.
That locals think this place special is clear in the Tsotsil name for the town: Mishik Banamil, or “navel of the world.” The life connection.
Around town are houses such as the one I just left, where statuary images of Christian saints, or Jesus himself, are given shelter. They also get shade (curtains of bromeliad from a nearby cloud forest), food (white candles are burned, representing tortillas) and entertainment (visiting musicians).
“Indigenous people believe they have to feed the saints and play music to them, because if they are not content they will not send rain for crops, or they will send too much rain, or maybe an epidemic,” Trejo tells me.
All of this care and “feeding” is organized by a volunteer spiritual leader, or martomaetik, who takes the duty a year at a time, moves into the special house and foots the bill for everything the deity requires.
In this, Mexico’s poorest state, people often shoulder years of debt for the honor.
And sometimes these martomaetik will be on a waiting list for more than 20 years to get the deity of their choice.
“They don’t get a salary, only respect when they die,” Trejo says. “They wear the clothes of leaders.”
So this is the martomaetik from Jesus’ house, sitting near me in the bunker’s doorway. Two assistants flank him, because they always come in threes. (As in Catholicism, Mayans emphasize a trinity, though their version stands for heaven, the earthly world and the underworld, not the “father, son and holy ghost” I grew up around.)
Soft smiles crease walnut-colored faces above the tunics made of teased sheep wool, traditional garb that identifies them as Chamulans. In the shadows, dour-faced musicians coax lilting music from a 12-string guitar, a drum, an accordion and an obviously handmade wooden harp that resembles a cross between a hurdy-gurdy and, well, a wheelbarrow.
The three leaders keep time with rattles made from gourds.
Opposite them, a woman uses a large paddle to stir the sacred corn liquor in what might be described, in a less holy setting, as a plastic garbage can.
To perform this spiritual duty, these people cannot have had sex recently, Trejo tells me, with perhaps more candor than I require.
The ritual lasts hours. Corn is boiled with lime, which peels the kernels. It sits and ferments. Then it’s washed, ground and mixed with water and sugar.
To pass the time, someone decides it’s time for more pax, served from a label-less liquor bottle that looks like it’s been reused a few times. Shot glasses, with red crosses hand-painted on the bottom to make them holy, are handed out to all.
The clear liquid is a fiery wake-up call to my went-without-lunch stomach. Pax has been a part of rituals here for generations; some reports say alcoholism is high in these communities.
“It’s like an oil that makes relationships easier,” Trejo explains. Also, to the Maya, “alcohol is hot, like the sun.”
Ancient beliefs, foreign to a visitor, blend with the familiar like spirits in a cocktail.
The music plays on, the stirring continues, and smiles get wider as we finally take our leave with warm cries of “kolabal” — thank you — and shaking of hands all around.
I weave only slightly across the yard.
Pictures are taboo
I depart with no photographs of my new friends.
“The natives do not allow us to take pictures in church because they believe it takes souls away,” Trejo says. “And the leaders don’t want their pictures taken because they fear the photos will be sold, and they don’t want to be exploited.”
Not so unwise to ways of the world, then.
Outsiders can take photos of people around town, from a respectful distance, though many will turn away from a camera. Sneak a photo in the church, get caught and at best you’ll be instructed to delete the image. You could get heavily fined, too, and if you don’t pay up immediately — jailed.
I see the jail. It isn’t nice.
Many indigenous communities in southern Mexico are semiautonomous, and San Juan Chamula is more autonomous than others, with its own police and judges. Sentences for minor crimes are typically only a day or two, but justice can also be harsh. While capital punishment was officially abolished across Mexico in 2005, it still exists here, and was applied last summer against two men accused of raping and murdering a local woman.
The men were publicly beaten and set afire. A DVD is for sale in town.
Inside the church
For a gringo from Seattle, entering the town’s Church of San Juan Bautista is like stepping into a dimly lit world from a fantasy novel.
There are no pews. In clearings among the fragrant pine needles, small candles — stuck to the stone floor with wax — blaze by the thousands, along with natural copal-resin incense. Smoke billows to the ceiling.
When a supplicant asks for counsel, Trejo says, shamans prescribe the colors of candles to burn. Black is against witchcraft, red is for restoration of harmony, yellow for prosperity.
If I’m overwhelmed by the hushed spectacle inside, I’m bewildered by booms from above the church roof as shamans’ assistants outside light off rockets that zip and crackle with little pause.
Among other things, fireworks are thought to help summon thunderstorms to water crops. And the men just seem to enjoy them.
I walk quietly through the church, dodging the flaring candles.
At one side a shaman on the floor holds a woman’s wrist as if to take her pulse.
On another side, a crouching woman in a hooded shawl holds a black plastic bag from which protrudes the head of a worried-looking chicken.
I’ve learned that poultry are sacrificed to rescue a soul from the god of the underworld: roosters for men, hens for women; a black chicken when the soul is lost due to witchcraft.
Near the altar, men in white tunics drink from bottles of Coca-Cola. Belching, it is believed, rids the body of evil spirits. And while pax was once the ceremonial drink of choice, belchers have discovered that things go better with Coke.
Is it odd? I can hardly judge. In my mother’s Catholic church, people eat wafers and sip wine said to be their deity’s flesh and blood.
My guide, who grew up with this culture but also lived far outside it during five years in the Cancún tourist industry, voices strong views about the Chamulans.
“They try to protect their culture. They do not try to convert anybody. I have never had any native person knocking on my door trying to convert me,” Trejo says. “We are all mortal, we are only culturally different. … They should not be regarded as inferior, they should be regarded as equal, as they see others.”
Go visit San Juan Chamula, step respectfully into their world, and see.
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org