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  • Day114

    Chamula

    January 17 in Mexico ⋅ 🌙 15 °C

    The Chamula people make up a piece of a larger group of indigenous people in southeast Mexico referred to as the Tzotzil Maya people. San Juan Chamula is a self-governed municipality with it’s main town centre located 20 minutes (driving) from San Cristobal de la Casa, Chiapas. It has a population of approximately 80 000, of which nearly 100% speak Tzotzil, a native Tzeltalan Mayan language. Standard Mexican law-enforcement is to remain outside of the municipality as San Juan Chamula has achieved its own police force and autonomy after five centuries of rebellion from Spanish and Catholic invasion.

    There is a church in the main town of Chamula where many important cultural ceremonies take place. The physical church and religious practices are a mix between Catholicism and Chamula’s traditional Mayan beliefs. Foreigners may enter for a small fee, however, no photography is permitted inside of the church otherwise you may be forced to delete the photos, or sent to the local jail for one day to be subjected to public ridicule. The Chamula believe that photos may steal their soul and for this reason it is encouraged to respect their beliefs and refrain from including them in photos, even in photo permitted areas.

    Our colectivo dropped us off directly outside of a massive outdoor market. As we walked through the market we saw many women dressed in thick black wool skirts, and men dressed in similar jackets which are seen as a symbol of status. The market consisted of anything from food, charging cables and adaptors, kitchen ware, clothing, produce, and colourful knickknacks. We weaved through the market to a central square where stood the infamous Chamula church.

    As we entered, a woman holding a copper pot full of burning copal resin walked past us. The church floor was absent of pews and instead covered with pine needles. It smelled wonderful. The walls were lined with glass cases that housed colourfully dressed statues of saints (representing Mayan gods) with unsettling porcelain faces. In front of the saints were tables covered in hundreds upon hundreds of burning candles . We walked further into the church to find many families sitting on cleared portions of the floor in front of rows of thin burning candle sticks stuck to the floor with wax; typically one family member chanted in what I assume was Tzotzil. As we proceeded through the church we looked up to see the A-frame ceiling adorned in rows of white fabric banners sprawled from the centre highest beam connecting to the lower left and right walls to form an arc. Bouquets of flowers, most notably large deep-yellow sunflowers, hung from the ceiling and decorated the tables lit with candles. Coca-Cola bottles sat empty on the floor.

    As Auryn and I arrived to the very front of the church we noticed a family and a live chicken sitting on the floor in front of several rows of very tall white and coloured candles. A woman was leading the ritual with chanting, occasionally stopping to pour a small glass of pox or Coca-Cola, which was then swept over the burning candles and then handed to other members of the family for drinking. Eventually she picked up the chicken. She gently swept it over the smoke of the burning candles and then proceeded to rub the chicken all over the body of the woman to her right. She then took the chicken and secured it close to her lap with her left arm and took its head in her right hand and pulled until the chickens neck snapped. Both of our hearts were thumping violently. She then proceeded to continue chanting, and pouring pox and Coke, before eventually packing up and leaving with her family.

    As Auryn and I turned to leave the church we stopped to watch a group of men carrying a very tall and relatively thin pine tree which they stuck into a whole in the floor in front of one of the saints.

    So what was happening here?

    Well, all of these different practices are obviously part of various religious cultural rituals, most of which I do not understand. However, I have learned that the colour and size of the candles represent various types and severities of ritual intentions; I had even heard that dark coloured candles are used during the night during more sinisterly intentioned rituals. The Coca-Cola is used to induce burping which is thought to expel sickness, or evil. The chickens are rubbed on the body to absorb a persons ailments, the different coloured coloured chickens are used for different illnesses. The chicken is then sacrificed to kill the absorbed ailment. After this segment of the ritual the family will leave the church and eat the chickens body while the ailed person will eat its head and remain solitary in a room for five days.

    Okay, but... why Coca-Cola?

    Well, the Chamula have induced burping with various drinks, however, Coca-Cola caught wind of their rituals and schemed a marketing technique that led to such intense distribution of Coke in San Juan Chamula that it is now one of the most frequently purchased and cheapest places to buy Coke in the world.

    ***I did not take any forbidden photos, however, I did find some photos on the internet to better illustrate the setting. Therefore, the first two photos and last video are taken by me, and the rest are from various sources on the internet.***
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