San Juan Chamula: Saints, Spirits and Sacrifice in Chiapas, Mexico
I wasn’t expecting to find a dualist heresy in rural Mexico, much less one governed and guided by narcos, but there it was in Chamula, a small town outside San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas.
The town perches on the side of a mountain, roads plunging steeply to converge finally on the central square. At the heart of this shines a white building trimmed with green, surrounded by a low-walled plaza curiously empty of the street food vendors and craft sellers who lurk just beyond the gates.
Stepping through the front door of San Juan Bautista is a pretty overwhelming experience.
The bright, church-like exterior stands in almost absurd contrast to the dark interior, lit solely by thousands of flickering candles, stripped of almost all conventional Christian symbols. The air is thick with incense and candle smoke, the walls echoing, almost alive with the murmur of prayers, chants, and mantras disturbed only by the occasional sharp, raucous crow of a chicken.
Candles sit in saintly glasses on almost every available surface. The floor, cleared of pews or seats of any kind, is covered in pine needles, save for the areas swept clean where rows of pencil-thin candles stand. They are surrounded by cliques of Chamulan locals draped in black sheepskin skirts and ponchos.
Around the edges of the interior are statues of saints and virgins, some well known, others less so. The figures stand draped in ribbons and traditional indigenous clothes.
My own face stares dimly back at me from the mirrors clasped in every holy hand.
In what was once the nave, Jesus on the cross gives way, playing cup bearer at the right hand of San Juan Bautista, John the Baptist. These undeniably Catholic figures jar somewhat with the darker, pagan rites taking place in the center of the building, but it all seems to fit together somehow.
Every part of the experience inside and the beliefs of the people in Chamula is fascinating. At first, it seems like a classic repurposing of ancient beliefs by the Catholic Church – merging existing deities, spirits, and practices with Catholic ones to make the amalgamation and conquest more bearable. Syncretism like this exists throughout Latin America. However, look a little closer and it’s clear that Chamulan Catholicism is closer in form to heresy, or an even older dualism like Mandaeism, which accords a similar primacy to John the Baptist.
Going even further from traditional Catholic beliefs, two gods, one of heaven and one of the underworld, are prayed to equally and accorded equal potency here.
Speaking to our guide, I couldn’t work out the relationship between these pre-Hispanic deities and San Juan, who clearly holds a pre-eminent position in the whole system. Mayan polytheism sits alongside a fascinating heterodox take on Catholicism and merges into something new, different, and profound.
The rites are no less fascinating, weird, and even a little disturbing.
Color-coded candles open gateways to the gods and allow supplicants to speak to them. Similarly color-coded liquids, usually the fierce firewater pox or chiva cola, play a similar role. Curanderos (healers) spit pox over the candles, casting brief gouts of flame, and cola-inspired belches are designed to expel bad spirits. In something vaguely akin to ‘sin eating,’ live chickens are passed over sick bodies, drawing out the illness, before being swiftly sacrificed amongst the pine needles, and later buried out of town (never eaten, our guide explained).
The saints lining the edges of the space have personal significance to every member of the town. You are chosen by your own saint or virgin, who visits you in your dreams and then represents a conduit between you and whatever lies beyond the guttering black smoke and yellow flames of the candles.
Confession exists in Chamula. But with no priests, you are forced to confess your sins to the only person it is impossible to lie to – yourself, reflected in the mirrors held by every virgin and saint.
Chamula is a pretty remarkable place even without its fascinating religious heterodoxy.
It is one of the most concentrated indigenous settlements in Mexico, with 99.5% of its residents speaking the indigenous language Tzotzil. Fiercely independent, its history is littered with instances of forceful, even violent opposition to foreign rule, from Mayan resistance to the Spanish conquistadors to the Zapatista uprising in the 90s.
Indeed, Chamula is still an EPZN stronghold and an autonomous township, set apart from federal government or rule from Mexico City. Mexican police and other authorities are regularly refused access to the town, and visitors are often asked to leave before nightfall.
But religion imbues every part of this society, which is where this fascinating slice of Mexican religious weirdness gets a bit darker, a bit nastier.
Participation is mandatory, and evangelicals, Protestants, and even more orthodox Catholics have been expelled from the community. They now live in smaller settlements spread across Chiapas, leading to religious persecution and violence.
Position in the church governs position in society and vice versa. Unlike many unorthodox treatments of Christianity, where the breaking point is often the vice and luxury of the mainstream Church, for the Chamulans wealth is everything.
Status is evidenced by the length of the hair on the traditional sheepskin skirts and ponchos, with wealthy individuals justifying their preeminent positions in both church and state through their contributions to both. According to our guide, the town leaders and religious authorities are, therefore, the local narcos. Finally, the importance of the pox ceremonies (the local liquor) has led to widespread alcoholism within the community.
Taking photographs within the church is strictly forbidden on pain of a hefty fine, a broken camera, or even a day in prison. As such, despite the relative notoriety of Chamula and its remarkable church, it remains shrouded in mystique.
Even having visited only last week, I find my memories quite confusing, or confused, and reading the various, subtly different accounts of other visits only adds to this.
The only thing I can say is that a visit to Chamula’s church is an amazing, peculiar, and disconcerting experience – one that should be done by anyone even remotely interested in the strange and wonderful variety of ways that people can interpret and practice religion.