San Juan Chamula, just 30 minutes outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas is a very famous Tzotzil indigenous village, where visitors flock to witness the religious traditions that are unique to this community.
We met an Irish couple who recommended visiting. They said to go on a Sunday when the village people congregated in the square. They told us about the strange rituals and chicken sacrifices in the Catholic church. This I had to see!
We went as part of a guided tour from San Cristobal, which by the way, is very well connected for tours outside of the city. The tours are pretty cheap too! You can visit San Juan independently but having a guide is important so you can get an understanding of exactly what is happening.
The Tour Begins
“If you kill a man, don’t expect to live long…”
We sat at the back of the minibus and listened as the guide prepared us for the visit. He explained the history of the town, touching on the customs and religious beliefs of its inhabitants. Nothing too out of the ordinary. He made no mention of strange rituals or chicken sacrifices so I was beginning to wonder whether the Irish folk we had met had exaggerated somewhat. However, he warned us about the rule of not taking any photographs – only it was more than a warning – his facial expression changed completely – he was deadly serious.
“The town people live almost to their own law, their own rules…” he began to explain. “If you kill a man, don’t expect to live long. You will be tied to a pole and burned alive.”
Oh shit, I thought. How does this link in with photography – is he basically telling us if you break the rules you’re screwed? “Photography is not permitted inside any of the religious buildings. Please do not ignore this rule. If you break this rule it does not matter where you are from, it is the village’s decision what to do. You may go to the prison.” I slipped my camera into my bag.
Zinacantan – Who’s Your Saint?
Our first stop was to a village just before San Juan, called Zinacantan. Here the same rules for photography applied but we were allowed to take pictures outside, albeit discreetly. We walked inside the church and it was more like a hall. There were no pews but there was seating around the perimeter of the building and statues of saints in large cases with wild flowers and candles all around them. There was a harp in the corner, and in the middle of the room was a large table with a dozen men stood around wearing huge black robes made of wool, and sandals with 3 inch thick wooden wedges.
Our guide told us that these men were known as martomoetiks, alperesetiks and moletiks. Chosen by the inhabitants of Zinacantan they were each assigned a saint and with that, the responsibility of hosting the feast and celebration of that saint. Each saint had a statue dedicated to him/her in the church, and sat in a glass case, adorned with hundreds of flowers and candles. These men had to make sure the flowers by their saint were fresh and changed regularly as well. They were responsible for subsiding all of this but it is considered a high honour to look after the needs of the saints, so expense is not an issue. In some villages there is a waiting list for these positions. Our guide told us that to look after John the Baptist for a year, the waiting list was 90 years long. “Grandparents will buy a place on the list as a gift for their grandchildren.”
Dancing and Drinking in Church
One of the martomoetiks approached us with a cup that was filled with an alcoholic drink known as Pox (pronounced Posh). Our guide explained that the word Pox literally translates as medicine, and that the drink is commonly used for ceremonial purposes among the Mayans of Mexico and Central America. We each took a sip and the friendly martomoetik walked over to the harp at which another man sat playing. More martomoetiks joined and circled the harpist, and started stamping their thick wooden clogs on the ground, swaying from side to side.
“A common dance,” explained our guide “…the stamping of the feet is significant and is their way of waking up the earth beneath them, uniting them with mother nature.” They danced this lovely dance and passed around the Pox. Really? Coming to church on Sunday is just having a dance and getting drunk? I liked it!
We left the church and were taken to a textile house where we watched the local women weave the clothes – women are best for this job, said the guide, as they have good hands – they are more dexterous. A little like the women who worked in the cigar factories in Cuba, I thought, hand rolling every single Monte Carlo.
We had a traditional lunch prepared for us as well. The tortillas were pressed and made fresh. In some ways it was sad to see this method of cooking, as we learnt from the Irish couple that the most common injury in Mexico was that of severe burns – I could see why.
San Juan Chamula – Life and Death
When we arrived at the village of San Juan Chamula I was slightly nervous about my camera. I took a few outside shots but something about this place made me not want to draw attention to myself – maybe the prospect of spending a night in prison.
Stepping into the church, my senses were literally filled in an instant. Thousands of candles, most of which were melted onto the floor, lit up the inside and smoke from burning copal resin incense lingered thick and heavy, like fog, in the air. There was nothing ‘traditionally’ Catholic about this church. The floor was covered in pine needles gathered from the surrounding mountains, and dozens of people, families mainly – sat on the floor praying out loud, crying, pleading with the saints who were, as in Zinacantan, displayed in large cases along the 2 long walls of the church. Our guide explained that the local form of Catholicism is a blend of pre-conquest Mayan customs, Spanish Catholic traditions mixed with other religious rituals. I noticed empty bottles of Coca Cola on the floor.
“It is believed that the act of burping rids you of evil spirits,” explained the guide. “The most popular drink in Mexico is Coca Cola. Many people will choose this drink for the purpose of getting rid of the evil within them. You will also notice that each saint has on his clothes a mirror. This is to deflect the evil spirits that bring disease to the people.”
A Chicken Sacrifice
My attention suddenly turned to a live chicken flapping it wings.
A mother was cradling her little boy on the floor. A teenage girl sat beside her. A Curandero (shaman/medicine man/woman) held the chicken and moved it over the candles and the child, chanting ancient Tzotzil dialect. Curanderos diagnose medical, psychological or ‘evil-eye’ afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colours and sizes, and in some very serious cases – like this one – a live chicken for sacrifice.
All of a sudden she took the chicken and twisted its neck, swiftly breaking it and handing it to the teenage girl who was trying her best to steady its thrashing body. We were standing right next to them when it happened. I had to walk away as the chicken flapped uncontrollably for some time. It was not pleasant to witness. I later learned that the motion of moving the chicken over the sick person is significant for extracting the evil spirit that has caused the illness. The chicken is killed and burned or buried, never cooked and eaten, as it is thought to posses the evil spirit, which must be destroyed.
I left the church feeling a mix of emotions. There I was inside a candle lit smoke-filled hall, amongst desperate, grieving families, chanting shamen and dead chickens. I felt suddenly aware of the fragility of life. It was powerful, it was magnificent and devastating all at the same time.
I’ll never forget the colours, the smells, the sounds of that church, and I will never forget how the church and the people within it made me feel – so close to life and death.
Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.