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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

Fear & Loathing In San Juan Chamula

Updated: Dec 7, 2020


One of the places I'd wanted to visit on my last trip was the indigenous town of San Juan Chamula just outside San Cristóbal. It is a bit notorious for its people and self rule. Many stories abound about the serious nature of the Tzotzil people and their reputation for ferocity. When I'd stayed in San Cristobal a few months previous, I had been told by a local that the visit to the iglesia in San Juan Chamula would be interesting, however to be careful, as they were known to have their own ideas of law and order. The town and peoples have a long standing history of violence and rebellion against the Mexican government, who now leave them to themselves to a large degree to avoid problems.

The main draw of Chamula is the old Catholic church that the locals took over in the past, rebelling against the church and substituting their ancient religion instead. Now they follow a mixture of Catholicism and shamanistic rituals from their heritage. Animal sacrifice is a part of it, in which chickens are used amidst candles and prayers to capture the evil spirits that plague, their blood spilt in the process on the floor of the church.

Originally I had wanted to ride the motorcycle to the village to explore, but the local who'd earlier suggested the visit had warned me not to take the bike, strongly suggesting I go with a group tour instead.

With that in mind Charlie and I walked to the square to find a tour early in the morning, finally connecting with a driver. As we picked up others in the Toyota van, of course the two Israeli girls we'd seen the previous day boarded the bus with us. We laughed about the three encounters but it is a small world in San Cristobal.

The driver spoke enough English to share with us as we drove the few miles out of town to the village of Zinacantan. We were told that the meaning of the place dealt with bats, an animal that was revered as protecting the sky gods, since they were common there. The women of the town wear purple shawls, somewhat shaped like and representing the wings of a bat from their ancestry.

First stop was the Esglesia de Sant Sebastia, a small church that was damaged in the recent quake, a portion of the roof collapsing. We were warned not to take pictures inside the church. It was a shame, as the place was beautiful in its simplicity, laden with the flowers that the area is famous for, with large colored banners and many burning candles. Our guide said the native people accepted Catholicism under threat of death, however incorporated their secret symbolism and worship into both the design and decor, the banners hung in a way that shadowed the shape of pyramids with animals painted above the saints on the walls.

I dropped a few coins in the pan held by one of the Indian women who was collecting for earthquake repairs and wandered out to photograph the front, between tenacious amber vendors. A group of local men sat drinking under a canopy and one came over speaking in what was likely the native tongue. I felt he was mocking me since I didn't understand, but I played along...

The next stop was the main church in the town, closed due to damage, and a walkthrough of the small chapel to the side, now filled almost completely with statues of saints that had been carried there from other churches after the quake. We'd been warned not to photograph in the chapel or take photos of the people since it was considered "stealing their soul". Apparently one of the men in the church had made a deal with the devil, since he sat happily for pictures as long as the cash flowed his way. Money before God. Same in almost every religion methinks.

At yet another tourist stop we got the textile tour, replete with costumes for a mock wedding, followed by samples of "pox" (posh), a whiskey made from sugar cane and a home fire-cooked meal. It was interesting and enjoyable until the wood smoke drove us all outside.

The purple color of the village and the shawl symbolic of bat wings

It's definitely "me", but needs a sash belt and leather machete scabbard. And maybe a different hat for evening wear?

As we drove the remaining few miles to San Juan Chamula, we passed traditional old huts made of mud bricks and tree limbs alongside brand new modern homes. The guide said that Chamula was the home of counterfeit CD's, DVD's and much more, sold all over Mexico and there were many wealthy people here from that business. I'm guessing the lack of government presence is an incentive.

Nearing the center of the town, our guide warned us that the people of Chamula were "wild people" and trying to photograph them and most importantly, the interior of the church, was a distinct no-no. If so, you could be attacked and if a gringo, forced to pay at least $1500 USD on the spot. If you were a Mexican it would be worse, as recently a man was stripped naked, beaten and tied up in a tree as punishment. He said they were deadly serious about honoring their religion and had no issues dealing with people whom they felt had dishonored it, in whatever way they felt to punish.

Our tour van passed an old shell of a stone church surrounded by a graveyard, beautifully filled with what appeared to be marigolds in bloom. Many people were at fresh graves which were covered with pine needles and flowers. It would have been an amazing photo opportunity in different circumstances. Our van parked on the street on the edge of town and we were warned again about taking pictures of individual people or the interior of the church. As we sat listening to our guide, a drunken man leaning heavily on and half carried by his natively garbed wife and children stumbled past. Our guide watched him and then studied back down the street from whence he'd come. Ahead there was a large group of men, dressed in black goatskin ponchos, some wearing white skins and cowboy hats. Amidst them were men festooned in colorful native outfits, dancing around a pole surrounded with smoke and burning piles of incense.

Our guide hesitated, and then said a local celebration was going on and that we needed to stay close together and walk quickly to the church. Having heard him say not to photograph individuals, I had assumed it was okay to shoot overall scenes, but as I got out of the van I felt a serious darkness about the place and shoved the camera back into my pouch, swinging the bag behind me and putting my hands in my pockets. It just felt seriously heavy there and I followed that inner sense to forget about photography.

Our group walked towards the men who were drinking heavily and burning incense, dancing in costumes. Some were so drunk they could barely stand while others lay passed out on the ground. Our guide told us to wait while he walked ahead to speak to someone about whether we were allowed through. Charlie was beside me, camera in hand and lifted it to shoot a picture of the crowd of men ahead. I cringed and as he did so, I saw a very serious looking dude in a black goat skin begin to walk straight towards Charlie. Our guide was waiting in the crowd that the man had come out of. He turned to watch what was about to happen to us, staying put where he was and shaking his head. I knew he was making no claim of us.

Black Goat Man walked slowly and directly to Charlie, angry, intense and pointing to the camera. He locked his eyes to Charlie's face, stepping directly to him and demanding in his language what I assumed to be the camera. It was hard to tell if he was wanting the camera or Charlie. Luckily one of our group was a native of Mexico and began explaining that the picture would be deleted, as Charlie began fumbling and trying to delete the image.

I studied the man who stood two feet in front of me, his mouth and lips seriously scarred from what were probably innumerable fights, his teeth having cut through the skin under innumerable punches. The moment was very intense. A few feet ahead were about one hundred men amidst a native ritual, stoned and drunk and I was sorely afraid it was all about to go to hell. The words of our companion tourist and Charlie's apparent deletion of the photo seemed to appease his anger a little. Tensions were so thick you could cut it with a knife. Our Mexican companion continued to talk to the man as his anger slowly ebbed away. Ahead, our guide was angry and motioned us ahead through the crowd. We didn't waste time moving on. I just walked with my hands in my pockets, head down and made no eye contact with anyone since my height made me the most visible target.

The crowds increased as we got closer to the church, and I have to say that last few hundred yards to the main plaza and church was a very long walk indeed. There were men drunk and passed out all over the streets. I read later that most of the men in the town were commonly drunk before 11 am. In the main plaza we were told we could photograph the facade of the church only, from what appeared to be an "official" point. Around us stood some of the angriest and inebriated men I've seen, and I have no doubt they were looking for an excuse to get ugly. There was no way I was pulling out a serious camera in that atmosphere, so I shot one photo with my cell phone to appear like a tourist and not a photographer.

Buying a ticket and entering the church was a surreal moment. It was thick with incense and candle smoke, the floor covered with pine needles and people calling to their gods and saints. White candles on the floor were for minor needs and progressively darker colored ones were for increasingly serious problems. Our guide pulled us aside and said in no way should we get near any of the rituals on the floor as they were very serious and things might go badly if people felt disrespected. I stared at the floor, covered everywhere with burning candles and people in prayer, thinking how easy that was to say and how impossible it would be to do. The damn pine needles on top of the tile floor added to the fear of slipping and falling onto a ceremony, then becoming the world's largest featherless, chicken sacrifice.

Without going too deeply, the feel of the place was heavy and dark. The floor was covered with people praying and candles burning. From the ceiling hung bundles of flowers and herbs. Heavy smoke and incense filled the air and it was a sight to see, though feeling dangerous and uncomfortable, especially after the tension of our earlier experience. After tiptoeing through without incident, it felt good to get back outside, but it was almost like going from the frying pan into the fire. Men wandered the plaza and it felt explosive and dangerous.

The two Israeli girls stepped outside behind me and were immediately approached by drunken men trying to kiss them. They screamed and jumped away, coming over to stand behind me for protection. The remnants of our group came out and assembled, to which the two girls said they were ready to get out of the place. We were all uncomfortable and ready to leave. The walk back to the van was again a long walk, a boy stopping the guide and demanding money for the parking of the van on the public street. Our guide immediately paid what was asked, and told me that when someone asks you for something in Chamula, it's not a question and you better do whatever they ask of you. I could tell that our guide was fearful and disturbed about our time there.

Finally back in the van, everyone was quiet. The two Israeli girls whispered that they were ready to get away from the place as fast as possible. Charlie and I both agreed. There is a heavy, palpable, sense of darkness and anger there, and though I'm glad I saw the pagan temple it's not a place I wish to return.

The van ride back to San Cristobal was a quiet one, a palpable sense of relief when we cleared the town of San Juan Chamula. It may be that our group happened to catch the place on a bad day, but the experience had left a pall over the group and our jovial ride in was a far cry from the silent ride back.

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