A Day in Another World

March 2, 2019

Really enjoy our “penthouse” hotel room here in San Cristóbal de las Casas. I am not normally a big fan of heavy Spanish furniture but it fits here wonderfully. At seven thousand feet, we didn’t need AC. There was none anyway. We donned coats for the first time this trip. Our goal was to visit two nearby villages of indigenous residents. It would be another worldly experience.

Ninety percent of Mexican people are of Mestizo heritage being in some degree a mix of European and Indian ancestry. There are still large numbers of Mayan descendants in the extreme south of Mexico where we are now visiting. The local dominant tribe is the Tzotzil who speak a Mayan dialect and take a great deal of pride in their own culture. They have fought in recent years to assert themselves against the dominant “Ladino” society. In the 1980’s they briefly rebelled against the Mexican state during the Zapatista movement. I’ll skip the history at present and move to today.

We ventured a few miles outside San Cristóbal in a crowded tourist van. Our guide who is Ladino has been working in the Tzotzil towns for years and is known and respected. He gave us both a basic ethnography of the Tzotzil which in Mayan translates to the “people of the Bat” as in Batman. He gave us the rules of photography and the basics in polite behavior. We were kind of ready.

Today was a day of Carnival so we were greeted with loud explosions of homemade fireworks. The town of Chamula has some 70,000 residents and is self-governing. The people run their own courts, have their own police and make their own rules. We spent several hours trying to stay out of trouble. The police carry long black bat like sticks and wear sheep wool coverings. They are easy to spot. The other high officials, religious-political-elders all have specific duties including weekly tribunals. The crime rate is low.

No close photographs without permission. No pictures of the colorful, numerous and loud celebrations and none inside their churches. We were good tourists and played by the rules. It was sure tempting with hundreds of brightly costumed “monkey men” hopping around a couple feet away. The women wear distinctive black sheep wool skirts and predominantly blue tops. The kids are universally cute.

The people of Chamula will occasionally invite a Catholic Priest to conduct a Mass but for the most part they do things their own way. The cemetery was full of both Christian crosses and Mayan trees of life. The Mayan tree of life was sculpted in the Palenque temples and is decorated by pine boughs today. Many graves had both. The church itself is unique with a layer of pine needles covering the floor and clothed statues of the entire team of Christian Saints. Candles were everywhere on the floor as groups of people prayed with their healer. The chickens were there to absorb evil spirits from the sick. The chickens met a bloodless demise when the healer determined that the chicken was full of enough bad vibes. The people made double sure of not absorbing bad spirits by using plenty of pine pitch incense and drinking CocaCola. The dark drink makes you belch and bad spirits are induced to depart. Dark Coke is substituted with Orange Fanta or green Sprite for lesser maladies.

We also visited the home of an elder who burned copious quantities of incense chasing Peggy out the door. I hung in long enough to partake in the local moonshine that is part of the religious service. I inhaled enough incense to be purified for at least a day or until I can get to a shower. My intention in making some degree of lightness about this affair is to assure my friends that I am an observer in these strange rites. But I must admit this large community seems to work.

We visited another Tzotzil community a few miles away where the religious practices are close enough to Roman Catholic beliefs for the church to perform regular Mass. but in both cases, these long persecuted indigenous people have a great deal of pride and seek to maintain their traditional society. Those who stray are booted out of the towns. We were visitors and just left on our own accord.

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