Miles and Worlds Apart

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck
Pope Francis arrived to the Chiapas region with much fanfare in February of this year. His scheduled stop in San Cristobal de las Casas was at his own insistence and seen “in many ways a swipe at the Mexican church hierarchy”. Chiapas is the poorest state, but also the least Catholic. His masses also surprised by featuring readings in local languages and recognizing married church deacons. Yet it should not have been unexpected from Francis given his relentless support of indigenous people worldwide. Posters and statues remained after he left; we passed banners along the highway and other markers as we walked the streets.

This particular region is worlds apart from the Vatican, and the churches of the small towns surrounding are not even officially a part of it. The Spanish arrived in the early 16th century and brought Catholicism with them. Churches were built and the faith held strong for awhile, but then the local traditions based in Mayan culture seeped in, forming what is now called a “traditionalist” Catholic belief that is mixed with indigenous culture. Holding onto these beliefs has not always been without tumult, and the indigenous have not always been welcome in neighbouring towns.

Chiapas’ mountainous geography means that the many towns in the area, separated by twisty roads running through the rises and deep valleys, were historically difficult to traverse between. As their beliefs formed and changed, some became as different to each other as they are from the Vatican. Even though in reality, only a few miles separated them.

This particular region is worlds apart from the Vatican, and the churches of the small towns surrounding are not officially a part of it.

Zinacantan Church

We started our day under a blank sky in Zinacantán. As a part of a small tour group, César led us into a church in the midst of a service. There were no pews and everyone was standing. The women wore stunning fuchsia shawls, intricately woven with colourful patterns over bright tops and long dark skirts. Heads turned as we walked in, but then refocused forward. We couldn’t see what was happening at the front, but we were drawn in by the chanting that filled the small and crowded space.

César motioned us forward. Pete and I, along with another couple, kept our spot at the back, wary of being such a foreign disturbance in an intimate setting. He insisted, and as he came back to retrieve us, he shook hands and was welcomed by many of the locals. Hesitantly, we moved up, although for what, we were not sure. We really could see no better.

Before long, César shepherded us into a side room. Around us, hundreds of candles. Some were lit, others snuffed out, but all were encased by wax forming arbitrary patterns around them on the ceramic floor. Among them, carved animal figurines – companio, as they are referred to – animals are revered and respected because as César said, we are all connected. A spiritual leader would return later to clean the wax off of the floor, as a part of his duties.

It’s stricter here, César says, compared to nearby towns. As they are mostly based on joint Mayan background, some practices are similar, including that of the spiritual leaders who volunteer their time for one year. Their only requirement is to be married (although not restricted to one woman). The leader’s job is to protect the house of the saint for which they are entrusted. With no income, they have to save up for their year of service in order to pay for the flowers, candles, and alcohol required for ceremonies, for their assistants, for everything involved in paying proper homage. It is a position of prestige and there are wait lists to take on this task.

From the church we visited a nearby house wide open to our group who wandered through. Some of the leaders, who had been up since 2am for a ceremony, sat stretched out on chairs, their heads rested on the wall and their eyes closed. We were instructed there of how the color of candles represent the different colors of corn, an important symbol representative of survival here. Mirrors hung around the saint on display in order to reflect the sun.

On the way out of town we passed a large procession of locals and a familiar pointy hat among them. César later confirmed that it was a Catholic bishop. What the procession was for, he did not know.

Along the way we passed a large procession of locals and a familiar pointy hat among them. César later confirmed that it was a Catholic bishop. What the procession was for, he did not know.

Chamula Square

From Zinacantán, onto San Juan Chamula, the most popular town for tourists in the area as it is considered a centre for indigenous culture.

Like Zinacantán, the Tzotzil people live here in an entirely autonomous town, and in order to be a resident, religious rules must be followed. There are 120 spiritual leaders in the town for the almost 80,000 citizens.

In the the centre of town, the famed church. We were held up at the door and given instructions on what to do upon entering: walk through and do not disturb, do not stop and stare, and under no circumstances should photos be taken. Such action would be punishable by loss of camera and placement in the town jail, open for public viewing and ridicule, for one day.

The air inside the church was pungent with incense. The interior was dark and smoky, lit only by candles. Floral fabrics draped from the roof to the walls. Candles were everywhere and wax ran along the floor; homemade corn liquor called Posh sat in used soda bottles amongst them. Giant brass bells sat near the alter, which was dedicated to Saint Jean Paul. Jesus sat to his side.

We walked the room and returned to a corner near the door. Activity buzzed all around us as Cesar explained what we were seeing. He was forced to stop at one point as a spiritual leader walked through to the altar, led by a wave of incense, a trumpet, and a drum. Other leaders were scraping wax off the floor.

Little stations were set up on the floor around the room, attended by a shaman. Their patients are those who need treatment not for a physical ailment, but a loss of spirit, César explained. After the shaman takes a pulse reading, he or she decides on what candle to light in order to solve the problem. Also, what animal to kill as a sacrifice.

Different colored chickens are used for different ailments and also according to the gender and age of the patient. We watched as one shaman held a speckled chicken in her hands, one hand on it’s neck, the other on it’s body, slowly waving it over the many candles lit in front of her. Back and forth she went, talking casually to the person on her right, smiling gently. And then, without flinching, she brought the chicken back to her body, twisted it’s neck, and held the body while it twitched. When it stopped moving, the chicken was laid on the floor beside her.

Having heard of this ritual prior to our arrival, I expected it to be a wretched event. Instead, it was a captivating act done so simply and quietly that it could even be called peaceful. César explained that now the ill person would eat the chicken’s head and retreat to a private room for five days. The family would consume the rest of the body.

“How does one become a shaman?” I asked.

“Through their dreams,” César said, “in their dreams the shamans are called to this service.”

Without flinching, she brought the chicken back to her body, twisted it’s neck, and held the body while it twitched.

Chamula Texture

Chamula Church Door

A windy drive of six miles brought us back into the relatively bustling centre of San Cristobal de Las Casas, our home for just over a month. By then, we were familiar with the pace of the city, the navigation of its streets, and the faces that we’d see often as we walked them, in a variety of traditional and more modern attire.

Suddenly, it all looked a little different. We retreated immediately to our home then, trying to absorb all that we had seen.

how to do it

A visit to these towns is possible on your own, but we highly recommend a guide. We believe the experience to be infinitely richer because it was accompanied with a detailed explanation of what was going on. Also, although not commented on in the story above, it included a stop at the home of a local fabric weaver who demonstrated her skills as well as fed us blue corn tortillas.

We very much appreciated César’s knowledge and would highly recommend him as a guide. Email him at [email protected] to ask about tour times.

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