An elderly woman wearing traditional dress accosts me as I focus my camera on the exterior of the church. She wags her bony finger at me and ominously hisses “No…no…no….” She unnerves me so much I quickly hide my camera. Later, though, I sneak back to take a photo from another angle.
If you gauge this village by modern standards, it would appear there are only negatives:
* Photos of the people and their church’s interior are forbidden.
* Locals consume no dairy products; the community diet is mostly vegetarian and animals are raised for their skins, not their milk or meat.
* Birth dates are not recorded and birthdays not celebrated. In the community cemetery, high on the hill outside the town, wooden crosses bear only the dates of death.
* Women cannot vote.
* Women neither cut their thick black hair nor wear makeup.
However, it is our guide, César, once a Chamulan resident, who patiently explains why this community locked in time has chosen not to change: Descendant from the Maya, Chamulan society is patriarchal in keeping with traditions of their ancestors that they carry on. Their religion, for example, is based on the ancient healing rituals of the Maya, but adapted to their current needs.
Daily Life in Chamula
Only men can elect civic leaders, who are paid by the Mexican government, which accepts this community’s autonomy. During elections in Chamula, male voters cheer or raise their hats for a favoured candidate, while opponents succumb to catcalls, slingshots and even thrown eggs.
Meanwhile, women breastfeed their children – often eight of them, or even more, per family – for as long as possible and carry them in cloth slings on their backs. Interestingly, children are born with the Mongolian birthmark, a distinctive feature, also known as a ‘blue spot,’ and which is common among Asians, East Indians, Africans and Hispanic people, indicating a connection among the races despite their far-flung locations.
The dress code for both men and women is based on natural fabrics. Men wear tunics of black or white sheep’s wool (depending on the season), while the women wear distinct skirts of black wool, sometimes patterned, set off by hand-embroidered satin blouses of bright hues like lilac and turquoise. In cold weather, everyone hugs shawls around their shoulders, even though their feet remain exposed in the same kind of open sandals worn by their ancestors.
These clothes are worn whether, like the men, they are working in town or in the fields. Many of the men also travel to the U.S. for transitory jobs, whereas the women sell their woven wares all over Mexico, travelling away from home for three months at a time.
The Importance of Ritual
Both men and women make it clear that they do not want to be photographed, and photography inside their church is forbidden. We are warned about this edict again and again and suspect there is a fear that the camera could capture the church’s spiritual energy or an individual’s soul. When the time is right, though, César leads us respectfully into San Juan Chamula Church, where we cross a threshold into another time and space.
Stepping inside the church is a truly mystical experience. The first impression is one of vastness. There are no pews, so family gatherings and rituals take place on the floor marked by lit candles and covered with fresh pine needles. The needles are changed frequently, so the fragrance mixes with that of hundreds of softly lit candles and heady incense, not to mention string and percussion music played continuously at the side of the altar and nonstop chanting. It is all a euphoria for the senses, added to by the mirrors on statues of the saints; they symbolise the reflection of the sun and serve as protection against the evil eye.
As we slowly meander toward the altar, winding our way through families sitting beside rows of glowing candles, we notice a healer. She has clasped a hen’s legs together and, holding the bird upside down, is passing the hen along the body of an ill person to rid him of evil spirits. The family has brought eggs, Pepsi and Coke symbolising black corn, and pox (pronounced ‘posh’), which is a liquor concoction of sugar and pineapple.
The Rule of Law
The locals in Chamula also continue the time-honoured custom of appointing cargo (office) holders, who perform important religious and ceremonial duties. These holders take care of one particular saint for a year. If a cargo holder looks after more than one saint, he is called a mayordomo; overseeing many saints means one becomes a principale, whose role is to offer advice and settle disputes in the community. Status is the only reward for these volunteer leaders, since they are paid neither for their services nor for the festivities over which they preside to honour their saints.
When a resident in Chamula steps out of line, however, local law enforcement is swift. Jail cells for men face to the outside so everyone sees who is in prison. Women, however, are held in private cells within the jail walls. Feeding the prisoner is left to the family or, sometimes, the benevolence of the spiritual leader. Most crime is petty thievery, but if an individual is jailed a third time, he or she is banished from the community. A serious crime, like murder, means the involvement of Mexican police.
In all other ways, the Mexican government has allowed the Chamulans to live according to their own terms and codes of conduct. Even the Zapatistas (a revolutionary leftist wing in Chiapas state) support this acceptance and seek similar rights for other indigenous peoples in their age-old struggle for recognition within the political framework of Mexico.