There are two famous Tsotsil speaking Mayan towns near San Cristóbal, related to each other but very different in customs, religion, and dress. They are about four miles apart as the crow flies, but since there is a small mountain range between them, the road goes the long way round.
Chamula was first on the tour. We stopped at the cemetery to see an abandoned church and many old and newer graves. Cesar, the guide, explained that the color of the crosses is significant, white is for babies, and green for adults, blue for the oldest people. Some graves had four or five crosses stacked one in front of the other. These signified the number of years the person had been gone. I wondered when they quit putting up a new cross every year. Would five be sufficient?
I had been to Chamula before, with a friend Brigitte, who lives in San Cristóbal, about a year ago. She is not terribly fond of Chamulans, thinks they are dirty and rude. So my impression of the town and the people was not the best. Cesar was quite lively in his discussions about their religion which is an amalgam of Catholicism and their older Mayan beliefs. They had kicked out priests on a regular basis over the last 400 years, the last one left in the 60's. However, once a month, with an invitation, a priest from San Cristobal will come to baptize babies. The people worship the saints as each one holds the same position as a previous Mayan god. Jesus and Mary are the Sun and Moon, father and mother of the world. Other saints that protect travelers, babies, wood workers, homes, etc are worshipped with old ceremonies, rituals and sacrifices of chickens (these days) not people. Although apparently a 14 year old boy was sacrificed in a crucifiction some years ago (to the horror of the local priest) so the Chamulans could have their own Christ.
On Thursday before Easter, there was an effigy of a man hanging from the arch of the church's front door. He was dressed in western clothing, had a beard and very European face, with a large pink penis protruding from his zipper. Last year at a different indigenous village, I'd seen a similar effigy. I was told it was Judas, and that he would be burned in a bonfire before Easter. That man had a sign with a poem on it which probably indicated who he really was, more than likely a politician!
In side the church were at least a thousand people, slowly moving in long lines past the saints and reclining Jesus in a glass case. The air was blue with smoke from candles and incense. Young men with large white containers of water shoved through the crowd. Somewhere in the center, a holy communion of sorts was being served, water mixed with flowers and plant extracts. Off to one side, a line of flowers in vases with many candles sat in front of two rows of seated women who were dressed in white cloth that covered them from head to toe. These were the widows and women who had never married. Sitting and praying like this is a service they provide the community for four years, after which they are not allowed to marry again. Most of the women were pretty old. The guide said just get in line and follow the people into the bowels of the church, but after five minutes of being squeezed on all sides, and unable to breathe the gray air, I dropped out of the line and went outside.
Cesar called us back in when the group reassembled to tell us more about the rituals and people of Chamula. Here, men are allowed to have more than one wife, if they can afford to. Girls are given in arranged marriages, but the girl has the right to refuse if she's not happy with the proposed groom. She can't go pick one for herself though. People marry very young and have lots of children. I've seen young women nursing babies who look to be as young as 14. It's not uncommon to see little girls, 8 or 9 years old, carrying a baby in a sling just like their mothers, while the mother has another infant at her breast.
Since the Catholic church has nothing to do with Chamula and doesn't supply them with a priest, the spiritual leaders are volunteers, usually older men and their wives, who come to Chamula to oversee a year's worth of rituals. They rent a home, buy tons of fireworks, candles, sacred plants, and incense with their own money. Each day they must perform prayers, light candles and incense, and plan religious activities with the other leaders. They serve a population of about 80,000 people. Needless to say, they would have had to save up for a long time to perform this service. At the end, they return to their own homes where they are well respected by their neighbors.
Outside the church, which appeared to be on fire, there was so much smoke rising from every crack in the roof, Cesar pointed out the jail and the cops, men in black hairy tunics with a billy club of sorts strapped over their shoulders. The jail is open air and anyone can walk by and see the person incarcerated. This sort of humiliation tends to keep people in line. For serious crimes, capital punishment is in order, but since that is against Mexican law, the perpetrator must be turned over to the federal police. Other than those, all crime is handled internally in the village. They must be doing something right, because there is very little crime, and the jail was empty, except for a man sleeping in front of the bars on the women's side.
Alcohalism is a terrible problem in all the indiginous villages, and in San Cristobal too. The native people are missing an enzyme to process alcohol effectively, so many get completely plastered on one beer. To make matters worse, there is a sugar-alcohol made from locally grown cane called POX (posh) that is like white lightning. I took a sip once. My stomach burned and refused to forgive me until the next day. Pox is prominent in the rituals of the Chamulans (mixed with sacred CocaCola) and it's not uncommon to find men (mostly) lying around the plaza or slumped over walls, or on the sidewalks of San Cristóbal.
On the other side of the mountain is Zinacantan, a small city of lovely homes and clean streets. Hundreds of greenhouses spread over the hillsides like long white grubs nestled in a green lawn. The town provides flowers to most of southern Mexico. It is a prosperous town with a beautiful Catholic church filled with sweet smelling flowers and saints, covered this week because they are in mourning about losing Jesus. When Jesus rises on Easter morning, they will be uncovered.
The women wear the most beautiful embroidered black skirts, as opposed to the black hairy wool skirts of the Chamulans. The skirts (of all the indigenous women) are nothing more than a large rectangle of cloth that is wrapped with specific folds around the waist, and then belted with a wide belt that is tied in the front. On top they all wear colorful blouses, but of very different styles. In Zinacantan, they also often wear a cape that is heavily embroidered over their shoulders.
We visited the church first, and saw a procession of men bringing in a huge cross. A priest in white robes presided over the ceremony. Here people are traditionally Catholic with a few symbols and rituals left over from the old Mayan religion. Outside the three Mayan crosses (painted forest green) were decorated with fresh pine bows. (One can see the three Mayan crosses carved in some of the walls at Palenque.)The floor of the church is often littered with pine needles signifying a deep association with the natural world, and there are few pews in the church as many people prefer to sit on blankets and light candles on the floor. This church had gray walls too, from so much smoke over the years.
We visited the home of some weavers and were treated to a demonstration of back-strap weaving. The kitchen-house had a wooden roof with a large gap above the walls covering the open fire. A woman was making tortillas and served us some with a variety of interesting salsas.
Cesar told us about the Evangelicals (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Presbyterians) who come to Mexico and try to convert people from Chamula and Zinacantan. He claims that the Evangelicals only want converts and have no idea of the destruction of people's lives that it causes. If someone decides to reject their native religion they are not allowed to be part of the community. They no longer have support or access to community resources. They don't own the means to make a living (land, a house), and most converts are relegated to a life of poverty. Some might see rejecting people as intolerance, but Cesar says those people are welcome back anytime they want to rejoin as full members, and adhere to the ideas and rules of the village. He sees the Evangelicals as intolerant because they come to the villages with the message that "Your religion is wrong, ours is right, and the only path to God is our path." He pointed out that you'll never see an indigenous person trying to convert Christians to their native religion! People who have been asked to leave are welcomed back as visitors to see their families, although this was a different story than I've heard from others in San Cristóbal. The primary reason for kicking converts out is so the villages can preserve their old religion, lifestyle, and beliefs without constant interference and upheaval. Otherwise, it would disappear. It's not unlike fighting a big logging company to preserve an old forest.