Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Villages of Chamula and Zinacantan, Chiapas - Day 5

You're going to have to trust me on this!  Today I'm going to have to describe to you in words what was seen
in these two villages.  The village elders have strict rules that no photographs can be taken in either village under penalty of either jail and/or having your camera taken from you.  Neither idea appealed to me.  Some attempted to take photos of the surroundings outside the churches and were quickly and loudly admonished by the village elders.  My camera never left my pocket.

IF you want to see the few photos from eight years ago, you can go to the search feature on the blog and put in Chiapas.  There will be a few photos to see but most were lost when my old computer crashed in 2008.
On that trip you could photograph outside of the churches, but no more.

Below is a postcard that I bought in 2008 of the church in Chamula.

The church from outside looks like any other small village church.  Ahh, but once you step through those doors, I can assure you that you are in a world like no other.  That is what I experienced eight years ago, but on this day recently, it was even more pronounced.  The church is no longer a Catholic church but rather is used by the people for their Tzotzil ceremonies.  As we entered, one's senses were assaulted by incense, thousands of candles on tables, on the floor, in candelabras and being held by the people in the church.
Then the sound of a small band of music to the right along with people standing and sitting on the floor.  It caused one to move forward slowly and carefully so as not to step on a person or a candle.

On both sides of the building were wooden glass enclosed cases with various statues.  They were saints that people were praying to and making the sign of the cross in front of or lighting a candle.  As we approached the altar, the fragrance of the flowers both there and scattered around the room again assailed one's senses.  On the ceiling above the altar was a painted scene of the sky with the constellations.

As one turned around to return to the back of the church, it was almost impossible to move because in this area, the people were kneeling with raw eggs, chickens and Coca Cola for Shaman ceremonies.  One could tell who the shamans were by the white clothing and head dress that they wore as they intoned words to the gods.  To say it was extraordinary, would be a major understatement.

At this point, I stopped and just looked around.  People passed me by, but I'm so glad I did stop as I saw a very, very old woman with a censor and incense blessing the statues and flowers along one side of the building.  It was all I could do to keep my hands from reaching in my pocket to get my camera.  The sight of this woman was one of absolute beauty, spirituality and sensuality all in one gesture.  She will always be in my mind's eye.

Once I reached the back of the church and many people were leaving, I just sat down.  Overwhelmed by emotion, I saw people from our group with tears streaming down their faces.  This experience truly touched many peoples' souls.

Once out in daylight, no one was chattering or anything but standing slightly dazed from the transformation that had taken place in the past thirty minutes or so.  We had visited another world - one from many centuries ago.

We were brought back to reality by people selling things.  A man put a turquoise bracelet on my arm and I did not even protest.  A little boy of about four years old named Victor, who I had met before going into the church, brought his sister to us.  She had all kinds of things to sell. Purses, pom poms - nothing that we needed but the beauty made us want.  She was business savvy too.

My friend Nora asked if she could take her photo for fifty pesos and she agreed.  Isn't she beautiful?  I bought one of the wool bags such as she is holding.  Beautifully made - price 250 pesos.  I tried to bargain but this young lady would not bargain.  In US prices that is about $12.50.  We praised her and I loved on Victor with a big hug as we headed out of that plaza and headed for another.

There was a big ceremony going on which we could not figure out with a big statue and all the elders surrounding it in their white pants and black wooly huipiles.  As they started to walk away, Nora attempted to take a photograph but at least three men fussed at her and displayed their displeasure.  That was the end of that.

We headed for a tuk tuk to get us back up the hill and to our bus.  Heck, I was afraid to even take a photo of the two of us in the tuk tuk but it was a rollicking time heading up the hill through the people and the traffic. We were patting ourselves on the back for having the sense to not attempt to get through all the people and stuff in time to make it to the bus.  We were also giggling at the experience which is just fun.  I loved them in Guatemala too.  San Miguel needs those as a means of transportation.  They are like mini golf carts.

We made it to the bus in the nick of time.  Whew!  Then promptly headed for Zinacantan approximately twenty minutes away.  This village grows lots and lots of flowers that they export all over Mexico and to Guatemala as well.  So beautiful.

Arriving at this church, there was a Mass going on and we waited until it was over to enter.  This time the flowers assailed our senses as it was masses and masses of roses, gladiolas, and multiple other kinds of flowers everywhere.  Not just on altars.  Just about the time we arrived, Patricio said we were in for a treat.
One of the town elders told him we had to wait at the back of the church as they were having a special ceremony, but that we could watch, if we were very quiet.  We did not make a peep or even move.

First boys came with huge baskets that were so big and heavy they could hardly carry them into this part of the church.  They were FULL of rose petals.  Other boys began to spread them as a pathway for what was coming next.  The fragrance was exquisite.  Then little tinkly sounding bells began to sound as men dressed in white and carrying a statue came into view.  They were carrying this statue on their shoulders in a glass case and on a platform.  They followed the path of the rose petals which was in the shape of almost a giant circle.

Also in this procession were women carrying large armloads of flowers and some had candles.  They were barefoot. The men had on leather sandals that looked like the sandals that the Roman soldiers wore during the time of Christ.  There were so many things to see that honestly it was overwhelming.  At the very end of the procession,  a man in a long black shroud or huipile with a red cloth wrapped around his head walked very slowly.  I presume he was the Shaman, but that is only my judgement.

It was an experience, again, of a ceremony that must have been performed for centuries.  No one knew nor to this day, do we know what the purpose of it was or who it honored or what.  When I arrived back in San Miguel, I checked my two Mexican calendars.  One said it as the Feast of  St. Macario and the other calendar said it was the Feast of Santa Maria Eugenia de Jesus.  If any of you reading this do know, it would be much appreciated for you to share that information with all of us.

All we could do after leaving the church was to stand in stunned silence at what we had been privileged to witness.

Eventually we walked a few blocks to a woman's coop of weavers to see a demonstration of back strap loom weaving.  The woman who runs this used to work out in the open air under a very small covered space.  Now, eight years later, it is multiple buildings with a kitchen, an open area to see a collection of huipiles and rebozos and a demonstration. Then two rooms of items for sale.  It was very joyful to see how much this coop has expanded.

 A wedding ceremony in traditional dress was staged with tour participants to show how they dress for this auspicious occasion.  The Zinacantan women dressed them.
These are rebozos on statues posed in the buying area.  The colors have changed since 2008 when they were blue and purple.  Now it includes more flowers and the colors of red, yellow and green were added
to the weavings.  So beautiful.

After the buying frenzy of the tour group, we boarded the bus to return to San Cristobal exhausted from all that we had experienced that day.  The experience was the topic of discussion for many days thereafter.
It certainly was a highlight of the trip.........but still there was more to come!


Unknown said...

How I love to read your descriptions and to have witnessed some of these glorious events!

Clete said...

Babs, I find your statement that photography is prohibited both in Zinacatan and Chamula puzzling. While it was stressed that photography in the interiopr of the church in Chamula was strictly forbidden and enforced, photography in Chamula and Zinacatan was allowed. In fact, in Zinacatan, indigenous encourage taking photos while suggesting a small stipend.

I took many shots of both villages as did others that were there that day in 2016.

The interior of the church is surreal but I would like to point out that the term "shaman" is not a description the locals use.

If you would care to see some of my fotos of the area, send me your email address to cleteboyer3b(arroba)

Clete said...

I forgot to add, we took no fotos of persons in Chamula. That was considered rude and ill-advised.

Babs said...

Thanks Carole - I'm glad you have enjoyed the posts. I so enjoyed meeting you!

Clete, photos are not taken because the indigenous people think it is rude, they think either it steals their sole or as happened eight years ago, they were afraid for their children to be photographed because they were afraid their children would be kidnapped for their organs.

When I started coming to Mexico, forty plus years ago, one seldom could photograph an indigenous person's face. They would turn their heads slightly so their eyes were not seen.

On both the trip in 2008 and last week, our guide, and our tour director, very strongly told us no photographs in either village. Our guide is a former Zapatista, so I figure he knew what he was talking about. Indeed, when my friend attempted to take one photograph in the market, three different men heartily admonished her BUT did not confiscate her camera as I saw happen in 2008! You were lucky.

The published book that I have on Chamula put out by the tribal elders refers to the men in their village as shamans. It is not a term I've ever used before, but since that is what they called them, I followed suit. Thanks so much for your comments. In Zincantan, once we were inside the coop we were told we could take photos since we were on private property but no where else. Again, I'm glad you got photos.

Babs said...

My first sentence in the last paragraph about shamans may be confusing. In the book, they are referring to the use of the eggs and chickens and coca cola by "shamans".

Then later when I was leaving the church, at some point, someone told me the men dressed in the black with the red cloth around their heads are shamans.

alcuban said...

The church at Chamula was amazing, otherworldly. The mixture of indigenous rituals and a Roman Catholic facility was intriguing. I left wondering why the RC church essentially surrendered the church or whether the rituals there are considered "Catholic." Never figured it out. I think it's called syncretism.


Clete said...

Babs, in 1973 and 1974, I was a timber cruiser for a lumber company out of Guadalajara. This company, through political concessions, was given the right to harvest valuable trees that were to be otherwise destroyed (burned) that stood in the paths of roadways being cut to new Pemex oil fields. We felled mostly large caoba and cedros as we went in behind the surveying teams and a few kilometers ahead of the road building machinery. We dealt with indigenous on a daily basis, most times they were not amicable encounters and we always had an armed escort. There was a lot of posturing and threats but fortunately no violence. On occasion they were placated with a few hand tools, machetes especially but shovels and hand axes were also donated.

Skip ahead many decades I made it back to Chiapas with my wife who had never been. We took guided tours much as you did, to many of the same places you visited. One difference was we had Spanish language guides. In the church, our guide explained that the use of the words "chaman" and "curandero" were not offensive necessarily but they preferred the title used in their own language. So there may have been a matter of translation when explained in English.

As far as photography, our guide stressed the danger, but even more so, respecting the custom of using not using cameras inside the church. Just about everyone on our minibus and others I saw on the plazas in both towns were snapping away outside. No one drew the ire of any of the locals in either location.

Babs said...

Al, as I understand it according to the little book that I have, the church was desanctified and is no longer a Roman Catholic church but the cultural center for the village. Therefore I was so surprised to see people making the sign of the cross and lighting candles in front of the saints as I did as a child when I was a Catholic.
The rituals are Mayan and Tzotzil. I saw ceremonies in Guatemala that were almost identical in Chichicastenango that amazed me. Same chickens, eggs and burping.....walking on pine needles and around candles.
I do remember someone telling me how long it had been since a Catholic priest had been in Chamula and it had been a long time.

Retired Teacher said...

Excellent post, Barbara. It took me back to my visit to Chiapas many years ago. You said that it was like another world, and that is exactly how I felt when I entered the church in Chamula. It was as if I had been transported out of Mexico into a very different time and place.

Jvineyard said...

Chichicastenago is what came to my mind when you described the rituals. I love that after 40 years you are still so moved by what you see. I hope I get to take you out for lunch one of these days. J

Babs said...

Bill, I'm glad to know that you were transported as well. It really was a step out of reality in a way.

Jvineyard. Call me, I would love to meet you. 152-8375 or
I look forward to getting together. Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Such incredible places - almost like separate postage-stamp-size countries with their own set of laws and justice systems in the midst of Mexico. We were permitted exterior building shots, but, out of respect reinforced by intimidation, we exercised caution in pushing the boundaries. Thanks for sharing your travels.

Babs said...

Hi Postcards! I'm glad you got more photos then I. Eight years ago I got some good photos and one great one in the market in Chamula. Then when we were told by Patricio who is a Chiapan what the consequences could be now, there was no need for me to push any boundaries - especially with the threat of jail. I used to buy prison art in Mexico about 20 years ago. I've been to too many prisons in Mexico - nope, not worth it to me. Thanks for commenting.

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