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Chamula, Mexico: A Step Back in Time with the Tzotzil Indigenous People

  • Heather Rath
  • 28 July 2011

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.

We are about 10 kilometres from San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, in a town called Chamula, where the indigenous Tzotzil people earnestly protect their society and way of life.

San Juan Chamula Church near San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

Unlike traditional churches in Mexico, the San Juan Chamula Church near San Cristobal de las Casas does not have pews or even allow photographs of the interior. Inside is a syncretism of Christianity and Maya spiritual belief. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

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.

Market, Chamula, Mexico

Women from nearby indigenous villages in Mexico, such as San Cristobal de las Casas, sell their produce and textiles in the Chamula marketplace, which takes place in the town's centre square in front of San Juan Chamula Church. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

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.

Tzotzil women on a beach, Mexico

Women from Chamula, Mexico, often travel for up to three months to other parts of the country to sell their weavings. This helps them sustain their communities in their struggle for recognition as indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

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.

Tours of Chamula, Mexico, can be booked at any of the several travel agencies in the main square of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. Guides like Cesar try to explain everything in great detail so that visitors can understand how important it is to understand the locals.

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Heather Rath

Since winning a writing contest at the age of 11, Heather Rath knew writing would be a major part of her life. When she grew up, she was sequentially a reporter, editor of a weekly newspaper and a monthly business magazine before becoming head of communications for a multi-national company. During this time she edited and contributed to two anthologies of southwestern Ontario writers. Her writing has been published over the years in various publications and some of her work for children has been translated into Braille. She is a member of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators & Performers). Heather and her husband, Norm, live in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Their passion is travel.
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architecture & landmarks, cities, holy sites, indigenous culture, Mexico, North America, Northern America, personal experience, traveller tale, WHL Group newsletter,

7 Responses to “Chamula, Mexico: A Step Back in Time with the Tzotzil Indigenous People”

  1. gretchen dewitt says:

    Also just returned from Chiapas and loved our visit to Chamula.

    Read this report quickly, but noted comment on animal skins, i.e. your comment that the animals are not eaten, but rather raised for their skins. They are NOT killed for their skins. Twice a year the sheep and goats are shorn for their wool These animals are never eaten or killed. “Posh” is a potent mixture (38 percent alcohol, of rum, sugar cane and pineapple. I am always surprised that local customs that do not harm the visitor are not respected. The locals don`t want their photos taken. Easy to respect that. I loved my visit to Chamula and found nothing negative other than plastic and glass bottles in the graveyard. Glad there are still places that are strangely beautiful.

  2. mickey fernandez says:

    Your attitude is sadly full of judgments. Everyone going into San Juan Chamula is asked not to take photos and yet you write about it and then still try to sneak in photos. You are arrogant and without respect for these people. Although your article was well written, your superior white modern point of view is indicative of why our world is the mess it is. Yes, their customs might be different and strange to you, but they are trying to hold onto what’s left of their culture whether you understand or like it. The women who marry outside of their culture leave the community…..they don’t have to stay there. A good travel writer should write what they see and have a little compassion for these people and their way of life rather than judging them. Shame on you starting out with all the “negatives”….your superior privileged self is showing. My husband and I were recently in Chiapas and visited Chamula….we found an interesting and sweet people there and were fascinated by our differences……a highlight of our 4 month journey through Central America and Mexico.

  3. Candy Treft says:

    I just visited this site. I have to say its been one of the highlights of my trip. MUST SEE!

  4. AJ Destreza says:

    Thank you for all the details on these wonderful people. They seem quite like the Mayan people in Guatemala, especially the aversion to pictures. The Mayan in Guatemala I am sure get more exposure to tourists though. Hope this group is successful in remaining independent and traditional.

  5. Thank you very much Heather for your excellent read. Your article revived my memories of that place. I used to visit Chamula 14 times in the period 1991-92. At that time photographing outside the place of worship was no problem. You could also take pictures or film from the Local People sitting on the stairs leading to the temple. As you maybe know, the stairs are the real places of worship for the Maya, as their ritual stones and statues were covered with stairways by the conquistadores. The most interesting for me at that place was and still is the Vatican’s fake-counting of its Roman Catholic ‘Sheep’. The Chamula-Maya have a complete own religion which they practice in a colonial church building. That’s why there are no pews. St. John, patron saint of the church is for the Maya just a modern statue of an idol with a sheep in his hands, exactly fitting their beliefs of a god protecting the holy sheep. Your article shows that there are developments and adaptations in the society, like the ban on photographing outside the temple, healing practices adapted to current needs and recognition of their rights as Indigenous People. Hence I do not agree with your tittle “… a Step Back in Time….” as your article shows these Maya are standing with both feet in The Present to keep on living in the Future.

  6. David Burlison says:

    Well done unique travel site-very informative..nice photos.

    Travel Safe- WORLD TRAVEL UPDATES-FOREIGN TRAVEL GUIDE

  7. Yogita says:

    Such a unique read, its great to know the variety of cultures still prevalent in the bosom of our world.

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