In the southern part of Mexico separated by miles of winding mountainous roads, you’ll enter a state that both feels like Mexico and also an entirely different place. That’s because Chiapas was actually its own country in the not too distant past, only acquired by Mexico in the early 1800’s. It’s a poor state, with large amounts of subsistence farming and an almost non-existent education system. However, it’s a wonderfully proud state as well, a place where the indigenous groups are strong, and they still regard their Chiapas as their own country.
In the remote and beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas, you’ll find a unique mixture of people: strong Indiginous groups with unique beliefs and rituals influenced by the Mayans and Aztecs, visible remnants of the Zapatista rebels that rose up against the government in the 90’s, and a substantial group of American and European hippies who have adopted the city as their own remote outpost in the mountains.
Josh and I had the pleasure of visiting San Cristobal de las Casas on El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin of Guadalupe Day) on December 12th, which happened to be one of the most interesting times to visit, given that it was a day full of ritualistic ceremonies. For those of you unfamiliar with the Virgin of Guadalupe, she’s one of the most important representations of the Virgin Mary celebrated by Catholics in Mexico. Some historians have also asserted that she an amalgamation of the Virgin Mary and the indigenous Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The story goes, the Virgin appeared to a man named Juan Diego on a hill north of Mexico. That location also just happened to be well known to the indigenous people as an important worship location for Tonantzin, possibly making it conveniently easier to convert Indigenous people to Catholicism. This assertion was rejected by the Catholic church during the canonization of Juan Diego, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide. All that to say, the Virgin of Guadalupe is important to many, many Mexicans, including the large Indigenous groups in the south.
In the tiny town of San Juan Chamula near San Cristobal lies the famously decorative and unique church of San Juan (John the Baptist). For many of the Indians who live in this town, John the Baptist is a blend of the saint and the Mayan god of rain, fertility and water, Chaac (or the Aztec god Tlaloc). The pews and items you would normally recognize in a church have been removed, and as you walk in you realize that this is not a church at all, but a modern day indigenous temple of worship. The floor is covered with pine needles, an ancient symbol believed to enhance fertility, and worshipers begin burning little candles everywhere on the floor. There is no organization to worship, and shamans move slowly throughout the church burning incense, shaking percussion instruments, banging drums and chanting, and the sounds of fireworks from outside the church break the low rumble of activity with a loud boom every few minutes. There are hundreds of representations of saints, moved in their coffin-like boxes all around the periphery of the room, giving the impression of a very odd museum where the only exhibits are colorfully adorned mannequins with staring eyes in glass cases.
Outside the church of San Juan Chamula on the day of the Virgin, men in traditional costumes set off very loud booming fireworks and line up in a long line facing the church to purify themselves. Back in the day, the indigenous custom was to drink a poison that would make you vomit the evil spirits. Nowadays, the requirement of vomiting has been replaced by belching, and the poisonous stimulant… well that’s been replaced by none other than Coca-Cola. I have to admit that it was an amazing sight, seeing these heavily costumed men lining up in a row, glasses held out to receive a small dose of Coca-Cola, given to them by a boy running by with a case of glass-bottled Mexican Coke.
Afterward, we went to another nearby village called Zinacantan where we saw some of the traditional weaving and sampled some traditional Indian food. Each town around San Cristobal has it’s own traditional dress, and the costumes are ornate, rich and beautiful. The village of Zinacantan uses a blue fabric with various blue flowers and designs embroidered by hand.
We sampled tortillas made from local corn, the masa ground and mixed by hand and cooked on a griddle over an open flame. They served these to us with fresh grown black beans, tomatos and ground pumpkin seeds. Honestly, it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. These contained virtually zero fat or oils, and the flavors were amazing. It’s easy to understand why the Indigenous people in this village live long lives, because they work hard and eat such healthy, delicious food. We also sampled the local homemade brew – a strong corn alcohol with hibiscus flavoring. It was VERY good.
All in all, our visit to Chiapas seems like a surreal memory. The festivities made it lively and colorful, and the fact we were able to visit those remote Indigenous towns and see those strange rituals take place is absolutely unbelievable. I’m so thankful for the blessing of travel, and its ability to stretch and expand the world and our understanding of it.