Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #25: Chiapas & Oaxaca, Mexico: Mayan Gods, Fried Grasshoppers & Beheaded Saints

#24: Chiapas & Oaxaca, Mexico: Mayan Gods, Fried Grasshoppers & Beheaded Saints

8 May 2002
The incense has blackened the ceiling of the cathedral. The worshippers chanted loudly in their native Tzotzil Mayan tongue. Despite the numerous statues of saints and the obvious gothic architecture, this doesn’t look like a typical scene in any Catholic church anywhere. The floor was full of pine needles on which local Mayan Indians knelt down, praying to the thousands of large and small candles laid out in rows. The chief object of worship is neither Jesus, Mary or the Holy Trinity, but a huge statue of St John, or San Juan in Spanish, in reality the manifestation of the Mayan God of Harvest. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, San Lorenzo, Santa Rosa, Santo Domingo and countless saints were also present, or rather the Mayan gods they actually represent in the minds of these worshippers.

Huge green Mayan crosses adorned with maize leaves stood in various parts of the church, complete with their curvy edges and carvings of the maize, the life-giver of all. The Mayans believe that the first humans were created from maize. These Mayan crosses have existed long before Christ, and the first Europeans who arrived here were surprised to see them. Coca-Cola features as a part of the ceremony. The worshippers drink bottles of the beverage in between prayers. Coke helps them to burp, and in doing so, expel the evil spirits that hide within their bodies. A little girl held on tight to a mountain fowl, lest it escaped and left San Juan one sacrifice less. Some dried blood could be seen on the floor, where a sacrifice of a fowl had probably taken place earlier in the day.

At one dark corner of the church, however, are what the locals call the symbols of the area of evil – a white Christian cross, a black painting with representation of Christ at the bottom, and a baptism fountain. When the Spanish conquered the region in the 16th century, they forced the local Mayans to convert to Christianity on pain of death. The Christian cross therefore symbolizes conquest and humiliation to the Mayan people. They also believe that painting of people captures their souls and they reject the European form of religious iconology. The fountain reminds them of the attempts of Spanish priests to convert the people and impose Spanish names on them. It was said that the early converts often forget the forcibly imposed Christian names and the priests would force them to be rebaptised again and again.

In response to the oppression, the inhabitants of this town, San Juan Chamula in Chiapas State, Mexico, pretended to worship the Christian god in this cathedral while in reality treated the Christian saints as manifestation of their true Mayan gods, and performed ancient ceremonies in secret. In 1868, all pretense was put aside for good, when the locals rose up in rebellion against the Mexican state and threw out the Catholic priests forever. Since then, the town has been running its church its own way and guarded its culture with great pride. Visitors are welcomed but no photos are allowed in their church. Fierce looking local officials patrolled around with huge sticks ensuring that tourists don’t resort to guerilla snapping tactics. Believe me � you wouldn’t want to do anything funny when you see how large the sticks are.

I arrived in Palenque, Chiapas State after a long overnight journey from Merida in Yucatan, and I visited one of the greatest classical Mayan cities ever built here. Palenque, unlike those in the Yucatan Peninsula, was built in the middle of the hot tropical rain forest. Sixty meter tall pyramids rose out of the jungle canopy and iguanas bask in the sun on top of ancient Mayan carvings. I dropped by the region’s two beautiful waterfalls, Misol Ha and Aqua Azul, enjoying the cool waters and cooling off from the oppressive temperature of the high 30’s.

A torturous six hour bus journey through winding mountain roads during which at least two fellow passengers vomited, and I reached San Cristibal de las Casas, perhaps the most famous city in Chiapas (and also its former capital). San Cristobal is not only a gem of colonial architecture but the heart of a state well known for its ethnic diversity and color. Here tribal women in amazing traditional costume walk into town peddling their rainbow-coloured rugs, hammocks, textiles and handicrafts. At over 2100m above sea level, San Cristobal has a nice cool climate (the Mexicans tend to say “cold” but that’s nothing for one who had been in Quito and Cusco in recent months) and a certain mystical charm, call it the X factor, that attracts tourists there. Ironically, one of the contributory factors to this X factor is the recent turbulent history of Chiapas.

On 1 January 1994, the day of formation of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) pact between USA, Canada and Mexico, rebels belonging to the EZLN, Zapatista National Liberation Front seized control of San Cristobal and some towns in Chiapas. Led by a charismatic leader, known by his nom de guerre Sub-Commandante Marcos, the EZLN demanded land reforms and proper address of human rights and economic issues affecting the indigenous people of Chiapas. Marcos, with his masked hood and sharp piercing eyes, has bizarrely become an icon of the times. It is true that Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico and that there are real land issues that affect the indigenous people of Chipas, but it is probably the romantic image of Marcos and the rebels with masked heads and traditional Indian costumes that have drawn so much worldwide attention on the rebellion in this remote corner of Mexico. Many foreigners including NGO’s and backpackers come here hoping to get involved somehow in this insurgency. Marcos, in a strange way, is becoming a modern version of Che Guevara.

Like most conflicts elsewhere in the world, the Chiapas affair is also complicated, with real humanitarian issues intertwined with local economic interests and age-old political conflicts. I do not know the issues well enough to comment on it, but I remember a Mexican friend complaining about foreign interference in a complex local issue. Too many foreigners, he said, preferred to see poor Indians living a ‘romantic’ lifestyle free of modern technology and industrial development, rather than allowing development to reach them. Poverty is colorful to the tourist but certainly isn’t a virtue.

Che-style revolution is certainly an outmoded utopia that doesn’t work. In addition, evidence has revealed that many of the real backers of EZLN are leftist activists involved in 1968’s student uprising in Mexico City as well as attempts to start peasant uprisings elsewhere in Mexico in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These extreme leftists pursue goals through violence. They have failed elsewhere in Mexico where people are better educated and informed, and so moved on to Chiapas where there is greater poverty. Through sophisticated manipulating of the international media, they portray the rebels as persecuted Indians. According to some, in reality, they were just some professional troublemakers, highly educated in the cities but making use of the Indians to pursue their own aims.

I once saw a travelogue website that commented that the plaza in San Cristobal is full of Indians selling pro-EZLN and Marcos souvenirs (like Marcos dolls and dolls of masked rebels on horses or rifles) and T-shirts, and this must be proof that the rebels are truly popular. I laughed aloud when I saw those words. Surely he must know that only foreigners buy that stuff? I have not seen any locals wearing Marcos T-shirts. In fact, the existence of such souvenirs testify to the tolerance of Mexican democracy and state. Not many governments in the world, Western governments included, would allow such display of symbols of an armed rebel group. In any case, for anyone to spend US$8 buying a Che or Marcos T-shirt is definitely against the fundamental principles that both Che and Marcos are supposed to stand for. This is also one of the greatest ironies of it all.

Chiapas today is at peace. A ceasefire has been holding for a while. Both sides have been talking to resolve the issues. In some ways, the rebellion has not only drawn attention to the local issues but also attracted many tourists to San Cristobal, which is something that hasn’t really happened in other former conflict zones such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Lebanon.

I hung around San Cristobal for a few days, visiting the local Indian markets and nearby villages like San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, as well as the canyon of Sumidero. From San Cristobal, I took yet another torturous bus journey to the neighboring state of Oaxaca. Puerto Escondido, a sunny beach town on the coast of Oaxaca, is one of the most popular surfing spots on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Here I had good grilled fish while reading Latin American history in one of the many beachside palapas, or huts. I visited Puerto Angel, another coastal village 70km away to the east, and dropped by the infamous Zipolite Beach, “Beach of the Dead”. This is known for its carefree hippie atmosphere, and according to the guidebook, the only nude beach left in Mexico, and a place infested with drugs, violence and dangerous waves. Not many nudes around apart from those you’d rather not see, but I had a paella dish with wonderful shellfish and prawns in another sandy palapa.

Another painful bus journey inland across the 3000m high Sierra Madre to Oaxaca City, capital of Oaxaca State. Oaxaca, like Chiapas, is one of the most colorful parts of Mexico. Here, descendants of Zipotec and Mixtec tribes that built the magnificent ancient pre-Hispanic monuments of Monte Alban and Mitla survive today while keeping many of their customs and crafts alive. Cut off from the rest of Mexico by mountains and deep valleys, the Oaxacans have their own distinctive cuisine. I had chapulines and flor de calabaza. Chapulines are fried grasshoppers to be enjoyed with hot sauce and mole sauce in a wrapping of taco. I didn’t really taste it properly, as I had a quick bite and swallowed the whole thing. Well, it’s sort of crispy like all deep fried stuff is… Flor de calabaza are flowers, which can be cooked in soup, or eaten as fillings in tacos.

Oaxaca is also the birthplace of chocolate � the Mesoamerican tribes were the first who made chocolates, and the Spanish conquerors later brought this sinful delight to the rest of the world. Here you can find many chocolate shops. You can have a traditional, amazingly strong hot chocolate drink, or slabs of pure chocolate. Nothing beats the local dishes cooked with mole sauce, which has chocolate as its base, sometimes complete with more than 30 different types of spices.

Oaxaca State is also the birthplace of Mexico’s favorite son, Benito Juarez, born in a poor Indian family in the northern mountain range of the State. He spent his childhood looking after sheep and his intelligence was recognized by a printer with whom he worked for in Oaxaca City. The printer sent him to school, and he became a well known lawyer. He entered politics, drew up the famous Reform Laws which curbed the excessive powers of the Catholic Church and confiscated its enormous properties where peasants worked as virtual slaves. He upheld the rights of the Mexican State, and upset the great powers. Mexico was in turn invaded by the United States and later by France, Spain and Britain. He retreated to the countryside to fight for the country’s freedom and eventually expelled all the invaders. Now everywhere in Mexico, one sees streets named after this hero and the nation celebrates his birthday in March.

Oaxaca City is the base to visit various UNESCO World Heritage sites in this amazing state. The old colonial center of the capital itself is a delightful maze of cobbled streets and buildings with old steel windows. I also visited ancient Monte Alban, a huge city built more than 1000 years ago on the top of a mountain, with huge sculptures of naked and humiliated prisoners-of-war with their genitals mutilated. I jumped onto a string of bumpy chicken buses to explore Indian villages in the Central Valley of Oaxaca. Quaint Indian villages, roads with flattened rattlesnakes, and churches with macabre sculptures of beheaded saints.

After a few wonderful days with fried grasshoppers and beheaded saints, I spent a few days in the colonial towns of Puebla (another UNESCO Heritage City, also famous for the defeat of French invasion forces by Juarez’s army) and Cuernavaca (where Cortes the Spanish Conquistador built a palace for his second wife). From there I moved on to Mexico City, the largest city in the world with more than 20 million people. That is another story for the next travel report.