A Visit to Another World…The Church at Chamula

I think of this day often, even though it happened nearly a year ago. I haven’t written about it because I wasn’t sure of the words to describe it. I obviously didn’t take this picture. I had handed my camera to another American woman who was standing close by because I really wanted some momento of this amazing place. Otherwise, my camera had stayed in my shoulder bag during our visit to San Juan Chamula, a Mayan village on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas. I had been warned by everyone who had ever visited Chamula to be very careful about taking pictures there. The people of this village believe that if you take their picture you steal a part of their soul. They are especially serious about not taking pictures inside their church, which you see in the background of this picture. Of all the villages around San Cristobal, to me Chamula was the most intimidating. I definitely didn’t want to offend anyone. Chamula is said to be the Mayan community most resistant to change. The missionaries who came here to convert the Mayans finally found it was so hard to change these people that they abandoned the church and gave up on the project. There are some reports that this entire church has been excommunicated. And, it seems that to the Chamulans, that is a big “mission accomplished.” Chamula is a government unto itself, and functions outside of Mexican law. The town enjoys autonomous status and no outside police or military are allowed in the village. In Chamula, the rules for living are very strict and anyone who varies will be exiled.

Fred and I visited Chamula twice. This photo is from our second visit, when our friend Arnold Myint had come down for a visit. Me…”Arnold, you have got to see this church.” Arnold…”I’m not that interested in going into churches.” Me…”Just trust me on this one.” Arnold (after a visit to the inside of the church)…”That was amazing.”

The church in question from the outside looks like any other church in any Mexican village that you might see. But, that’s from the outside. What goes on in that church is something else entirely. As in most of Mexico, the Catholic religion has been somewhat blended with traditions from the indigenous past. In Chamula, the Mayans totally seem to dominate. The fact that tourists like us are allowed to visit the church while the rituals are going on is rather remarkable, and makes the whole scene even stranger. It costs 20 pesos to enter. That’s about $1.25 in US money. It seems that anyone who visits San Cristobal certainly wants to visit, and since anyone who goes to the southern state of Chiapas ends up in San Cristobal, that adds up to quite a few pesos. I think it is great that the people can earn money, as their area is one of the poorest regions in the country. It is also one of the most beautiful and abounds with craftsmanship.

When you enter the church it seems there are no windows. It is very dark, even on a sunny day, and the room is lit by hundreds of candles. Quite an atmosphere, and I’m sure everyone who enters would love to take photos—but, like me, they are afraid to do so. The people come in to the church on Sundays to conduct many different kinds of rituals. There are no pews, everyone sits on the floor, which is covered with pine needles. It seems like a very dangerous fire hazard to combine pine needles and open flames, but that’s how they do it. The people sit in small groups, independent of each other. On this particular day, there was some sort of festival going on and the church had two different brass bands, playing two different songs, blasting away. In one of the bands, two of the musicians were albino brothers, which added to the visual amazement. The whole setting was like that of an hallucination. A main part of what goes on has to do with removing evil spirits. Some of the villagers are curanderos–healers. They have the power of shamans. If a person is sick, or possessed of an evil spirit, the curandero (and some of the healers are women) passes a live chicken over the affected person. Then they kill the chicken (right there, with their bare hands). The chicken has absorbed whatever the problem was, and now the person is thought to be freed. There will be many dead and living chickens inside the church. There is a street market on the way into town where chickens are sold. They have their feet tied together. Another part of their ritual involves burping. They believe that they can burp up evil spirits. In order to provoke the burping, Coca-cola is consumed. Along one part of the wall there is a large stack of cases of Coke. Another beverage used during the rituals is pox, a local liquor made of corn, sugarcane, and wheat. So, the word is that by mid-afternoon many of the people in the town are pretty well on the way to being drunk. Walking around this church is an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I have never seen anything like it. It was fascinating and disturbing, especially when the chickens were killed.

Outside the church, in the big courtyard, there were food vendors, and families gathered to eat. They had perfected the art of totally ignoring the tourists, unless they had something to sell to them. The people all dress alike. The women wear very fuzzy black wool skirts that are tubes that they bunch around their waists and hold up with a sash. They wear satin embroidered blouses in bright colors. This is a look that were it to ever make it to fashionistias (which I doubt that it will) one would say that it would take a very tall and thin woman to pull it off. The Mayan women are quite short, yet some of them manage to look very elegant in these costumes. The men all wear western boots, cowboy hats, and tunics of the same fuzzy wool. Some of the tunics are black and some are white. I believe that the white ones are worn by the elders, the men who run the town.

Chiapas is a very faraway place, even to people who are in Mexico. I feel very fortunate to have  seen it and to have visited so high in the mountains (7,200 feet) that I was walking in the clouds. When Fred and I took this journey last year we didn’t know that at the end of it we would be sure we wanted to make Mexico our home. And now, here we are, settling in to San Miguel de Allende, a much more approachable city (in every way) than San Cristobal. But, this morning I am remembering Chamula, and loving the exotic and foreign side of this big and beautiful country.

6 thoughts on “A Visit to Another World…The Church at Chamula

  1. It is shocking the first time. I had that experience for the first time in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. I felt like I was 5000 years back in time. Chiapas is my all time favorite state in Mexico. Did you get to Zincantan as well? I have a beautiful shawl that was gifted to me there. Don’t you love the memories?

  2. when i was for the first time in mexico in1997, i also visited chamula and it was the same as you described it. however nothing changed there in nearly 20 years!! for me this is something like ” stopping the time” , but i will never forget this church where i saw a young couple with their baby that was very sick, and one of the healers tried to help them. it was shocking and impressive for the same time to me.

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