San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, Chiapas, México

From Rossco Backpacker Hostel in San Cristobal, I booked a half day trip to visit the villages of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Before we arrived at Zinacantán, our guide Alonso taught us how to say a traditional greeting in the local language. Phonetically I think it’s something like this: ‘koh see a lan – a – vonton’ which literally means ‘how is your heart’. Lovely!

San Lorenzo Zinacantán is a municipality in the southern part of the Central Chiapas highlands and about 98% of its population are Tzotzil Maya, an indigenous people with linguistic and cultural ties to other highland Maya peoples.

The first place we visited was St Lorenzo church, we had to be really careful with photography here as  the locals are very sensitive to this (rightly so), and there is absolutely no photography allowed inside the church. St Lorenzo is the patron saint of the town and was grilled alive for being a Christian. He’s also the patron saint of grills and cookers too (no joke..!). Zinacantán also means ‘land of the bats’ or ‘bat country’, and comes from the Nahuatl language. 

All of the local women wear purple traditional garments, which we were told is the fashionable colour of the moment. In a neighbouring village, many years ago a German couple moved there with a Singer sewing machine and taught the local women how to sew using the machine and make their own clothing. It’s now the fashion capital of the region and where all the trends start out!

Our guide told us a lot about the issues facing the local indigenous communities, just as the mining companies in the region using the government to pay paramilitaries to intimidate the people out of their community. He also spoke of the incredible discrimination facing the indigenous people, and he told us about Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize winner (1992).

Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. Although she had been living in exile, because of the threats on her life, the prize put a spotlight on human rights abuses directed at indigenous people in Guatemala and throughout  Central America. During the years of Guatemala’s thirty-six year long internal conflict in the 1970s and 80s, the longest in Latin America, the military turned on the indigenous people, accusing them of anti-government leftist leanings. A truth commission set up after the war ended said that more than 200,000 civilians were killed during the conflict and some 400 Mayan villages were razed. 38,000 people were taken by military death squads and never seen again. Thousands of children were orphaned, and one million people uprooted to become refugees. Rigoberta Menchú, a witness to these horrors including the torture and killing of her mother and father, became an active organiser who worked to help her people to defend themselves. Often she taught women how to defend themselves not only against government repression, but against traditional male injustice as well.

Because the military targeted political leaders, in 1981 Menchú had to flee the country. In exile, Rigoberta became internationally famous and, in accepting the Nobel Prize, said that the honour she received recognised the struggle of many who have dared to speak the truth. “We have broken the silence around Guatemala. Now I would like to see Guatemala at peace, with indigenous and nonindigenous people living side-by-side……We indigenous people, not just the Guatemalan people, deserve this prize. It is a gift of life, a gift for history and a gift of our time.” Her goal is permanent recognition and respect for the rights of indigenous communities, and for peace and justice.

Alonso told us that such is the discrimination against indigenous peoples, when Menchú was invited to be a guest speaker at a prestigious event in a hotel in Mexico City, the doorman would not allow her to enter as he assumed she was coming in to sell items like chewing gum or crafts. Unbelievable.

After we visited the church and the local market (which was open as it was Sunday), we took off to visit ‘Paula’s house’ where we were able to see traditional clothing (and try it on!), and eat freshly made corn tortillas with guacamole, beans, ground pumpkin seed and spicy salsa.

Our next stop on the trip was San Juan Chamula. Chamula means ‘dead mule’ and it was called this name following an epidemic years ago which killed all the mules in the village. The town is named San Juan as it is dedicated to St John the Baptist.

The main ‘attraction’ in San Juan Chamula is the church which lies in the centre of town. The church is basically used as a sort of hospital, as local people come hear to specifically pray to a saint (or saints) to help their ill loved ones to get better, or to ‘bring their souls back’ to them (as they believe when a person is sick their soul temporarily leaves them).  The church floor is covered in pine leaves regularly brought from the mountains and there are no seats, as everyone pushes aside the leaves and sits on the floor in different spots throughout the church. They lay out a number of thin different coloured candles (the more candles and colours the more serious the illness affecting their loved one), which are stuck to the tiled floor and they kneel and pray by the candles.

Some blow whistles to bring the soul of their loved ones back to them or sacrifice eggs or even live chickens inside the church by passing them over the body of the sick person (in order for them to take in the illness), and then killing the chicken or cracking the eggs in the church. In the past, the local people used a drink called ‘chicha’ which would make them burp and therefore expel the evil spirits of the soul of their loved one they have been praying for. The Coca Cola company cottoned on to this a few years ago and pretty much bulldozed in, offering to build football pitches and other facilities in exchange for the exclusivity of coke products to be sold to the community. Now everyone inside the church was drinking Coca Cola or Sprite and many are addicted to the stuff now. Reminds me of the conclusion of my university German Business Ethics project on the company, “Wir haben gefunden dass Coca Cola ueberhaupt UNETHISCH ist.”

Anyway…inside the church there are a number of banners above all along the ceiling in a triangular formation, which is to symbolise the mountains. These textile banners, along with the pine needles on the floor, are the representation of the outside, inside. The community originally used to worship and pray outdoors in the mountains, but the Spanish conquistadors and settlers pushed them into the church, which has now resulted in this mixture of Catholicism and Mayan religion or Animism which is characterised by the worship of nature gods and involves astrology, divination and sacrifice.

There are also many different types of traditional healers called ‘lols’ (sp?), who are however not shamans (they would be offended to be called shamans, apparently), which include plant doctors and pulse doctors who can tell what is wrong with you by feeling your pulse.

The original San Juan church burnt down a number of years ago and the wooden sculptures of saints who had been in the old church were placed upside down in the new church to ‘punish’ them for not protecting the other place! This is common practice, for example if a girl is looking for a boyfriend or husband and can’t find one, she might turn a small statue of St Anthony upside down to punish him for not helping her out…interesting! I have to say, it was a great experience to visit the indigenous communities and meet some of the wonderful people here, however it did feel slightly awkward that we were a tour group going into the church where people were currently praying for their loved ones. I’m not sure if it exists, but perhaps there should be a limit to say, four or five tourists or those who are not coming to pray, at a time, in order to minimise disruption and not to disturb those who are praying. In saying that, a local family who were gathered around praying, invited us all to have a taste of ‘posh’ a sugar-based liquor ceremonial drink. I actually think they just wanted to see our faces contort in disgust, to be honest! But it wasn’t all that bad, it was definitely no poitín that’s for sure!

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3 thoughts on “San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, Chiapas, México

  1. I think we had this tour with Alonso as well. I would like to recommend everyone his tour to San Lorenzo Zinacantàn and San Juan Chamula because he makes you feel his love for these people and places. We really appreciated his competencies, his deep knowledge of Tzotzil culture and his company in general. Alonso is really a great person..

  2. 🙂 yes, I loved Mexico
    We landed in Mexico City and stayed at Mundo Joven (you were in the same hostel in Cancun, I have just read) but unfortunately I got sick. The third day we visited Teotihuacan. Then we went by bus to Oaxaca and visited Monte Alban and the Tule tree. Then with the nightly bus we arrived to San Cristobal, our favourite one. We had the tour with Alonso and the following day another one, touching Agua-azul Misol-Ha and Palenque. Then we moved toward Merida. Chichen Itza. And finally the beach, Tulum and Playa del Carmen. PDC wasn’t that bad. We enjoyed a little bit of rest and luxury after 2300 km 🙂 we got to Akumal bay with a colectivo. I won’t forget swimming with those wonderful turtles.

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