There is a town, Chamula, about five miles from San Cristobal, which is known for mixing its Indio culture with a Catholic overlay. As in many of the nearby pueblos the Shamans practice healing. Also, on Sundays, elected leaders – identifiable by their unique hats – are available to people who come from their surrounding homes. The elders have been elected for three-year terms and when approached, offer necessary wisdom or help settle any differences and disputes.
When everyone in my travel group decided to go to Chamula today, felt a bit squeamish about disturbing the culture of the pueblo, but at the same time I wanted the experience. I elected to ride on horseback rather than joining the others in a van. Somehow, that seemed a compromise…
I went with a group of young people (3 Israelis, 2 Germans, 1 Mexicano) to the home of the guides. The ranchito reminded me of a place my mother used to live – fenced like a corral with several small crude buildings…toilet, kitchen, sala with table, etc. The horses were free to roam about the large lot.
As we sat waiting for the horses to be saddled, the woman of the house passed around a bottle of pox (say posh), which I first thought was water but is actually the fermented corn drink of the locals. It doesn’t taste like tequila or mescal…it tastes like alcohol! She told us stories of the healings in la iglesia in Chamula, saying that the hearings were generally accomplished by any combination of plants, eggs, chicken broth and the spirit and were used in most cases of sick children, the mentally ill, etc.
I was disappointed when we started our ride on a busy highway, It became interesting instead of just scary when a couple of floats approached slowly and passed us. There were costumed dancers in front of, on, and behind them. Everyone was dancing and singing. I think this was a part of the Dia de los Muertos, but I couldn’t get a clear answer in the hubbub.
Soon we veered off to a lane/trail through the mountains to Chamula. The countryside was breathtaking. It reminded me of Guatemala with maize fields twined with climbing beans. Little streams snaked through the valleys. Because it was cloudy and a bit drizzly the mountains rose into the fog. Mystical!
There were many Indios along the way. They were harvesting their crops – pulling and cleaning carrots, trimming cabbages, and gathering them into manageable burdens to take to the market in Chamula. Near one garden, two little girls – maybe 6 – 9 years old – stood knee-deep in the stream washing clothes. It was a step back in time.
The men here wear short (below the knee) pants and wool ponchos – either black or white. (I think the young men wear white and the elders wear black.) Women wear black wool skirts which are really a rectangle of wool wrapped around and held by a colorful belt. They add a colorful rebozo over intricately embroidered white blouses.
When we arrived in Chamula I slipped behind a tree to change into a skirt and lost my group. I wandered into the square alone, and when I ran into my friends the were just leaving the church. That was serendipitous because I was happy to be alone for this experience
The church was unbelievable and difficult to describe.*
Instead of the usual overflow of flowers it was smoke-filled. Lining the sides of the huge sanctuary were statues of saints and virgins in glass-fronted cabinets. On the floor in front of each of were literally hundreds of candles lit. People were standing and kneeling among the candles. Some were praying and waving torch-like objects filled with what smelled like incense.
It was quite dark inside except for the candles, but I could see small services going on in different ares, i e. healings (I think), weddings, and christenings. The diversity in age and dress added to the almost overwhelming sensory experience.
I had expected the leaders in their ribboned hats to be lined up together but they were in various places. Some sat around the church. In retrospect, I think the ones seated along the altar were in a protective position since there was a man propped in a sitting position against one corner of the archway, He was facing the altar but his head drooped. He was either soundly asleep, unconscious, or dead. Men were carrying black crosses with marigolds around the area. I’m not sure if these had to do with the man or the mass.
When I returned to the owner of the horses, I asked him it would be customary to have the body of a man in the church. He said that the man would be there for the mass and then carried to the graveyard for internment. I pondered the straightforward customs surrounding life and death in this place. This man had been dressed in his normal pueblo attire and was “available” to family and friends who would be gathering for the last service with him.
I left the church having felt its tremendous power of faith and healing.
One other little tidbit of joy for the day. I had watched many women carrying the huge bundles around the towns, I kept thinking that I should offer to help since I am traveling light and without great purpose. Today as I was leaving Chamula to go back to the horses, I overtook a woman with a young boy and small child climbing the hilly path. We exchanged pleasantries and she set her basket down. I asked her if I could help..and she let me. Her basket was soooo heavy. I carried it as far as her turn-off where they reclaimed their burden and waved goodbye. I loved that experience!
I fully realize that by visiting I had an impact on the culture in Chamula. I was an onlooker rather than a participant (although I did light a candle for my niece who is ill). I am grateful for having had the experience and truly pray that the eclectic faith represented here can be maintained in spite of the assault of visitors like me.
*I felt that taking photos would be intrusive.