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🇬🇧 One of many Mexicos by Nora Mercedes.

The first time I went to San Juan Chamula, in the Chiapas´ highlands, I discovered an unknown Mexico to me. San Juan Chamula is an incredibly enigmatic place to any outsider, national or international. The mixture of cultural elements from the Maya-tzotziles and the Christians, has resulted in a sociocultural collage, from my point of view, quite unique in the country.

I remember walking happily to the town plaza after buying a raw wool poncho. There were only a few people at the square and right at the back, stood up the famous church colorful façade. I walked to the door, holding my camera in my hand. But sacred places have been so and will continue to be so; and within the precinct photos are not allowed. The community is very jealous of the ancient rituals happening here. Besides, they believe their souls can be stolen by taking a picture of them.

Sacred places have been around in every culture. On the other hand, cities have turn to modernity and in doing so they have displaced from their daily nature the importance of rituals. But in the rural world, and especially here, these are powerful places and ceremonies are an essential aspect of their community. When the pre-Hispanic society was ripped off its temples and altars, the locals took the Christian temples as their own. This is how the mixture of believes and rituals happened.

As you push the church´s heavy wooden door, you feel the smell of pine trees; voilà the first evidence of syncretism. There are no seats on the inside; instead, the floor is covered with pine tree´s fresh leaves. People are sitting on the floor, talking quietly to each other or praying. The figures of saints stand all around, as the candles enlighten the faces of those martyrs who gave their lives for God. But there is no priest, instead, a Chaman takes over the ceremony, holding his smoking copalera*.

People carry sodas and eggs. You can hear a hen covered under a blanket. The Chaman, who is a healer, speaks quietly to the ill person and then he starts the ritual. Suddenly, the hen is in the main scene, the Chaman holds it by the legs. The sharp knife cuts the animal´s neck, who convulsing loses his life. Blood is a vital part of the ritual; it is offered as a sacrifice so that it heals those who come looking for a remedy. The chamula people believe that as the animal perishes the illness does so too. Illnesses can be mundane or not, but only the harshest ones will require a sacrifice. The cleansing with eggs and soda, the praying and the copal offers will be enough for the rest of the cases. This is how centuries of history are resumed in an authentic ritual, a ceremony with an ancestral origin happening within a sacred Christian temple.

But the surprise of being in San Juan Chamula goes further than rituals and syncretism. San Juan Chamula belongs to the Zapatista region. In the past, they have fought to defend their autonomy. Part of the community´s tradition is ruled by extremely strict precepts, which they follow religiously. This is a patriarchal society where women have not much of a voice. Women are still sold in marriage. Their value will vary depending on how diligent they are for home activities, and if they have an additional talent such as sewing wool, the value goes a little higher. Girls can be married as young as fourteen years old.

Boys run freely, some barefoot, never mind the rain. Some get closer and try to sell bracelets and embroidery. The merchants offer all sorts of wool products, which is a common material in the region. Men wear their black or white wool coats. The color depends on their status in the community. Women take care of the children, the house and the shop. Men take care of everything else.

Feelings can be mixed when you visit San Juan Chamula, going from admiring the cultural wealth of these communities where rituals as well as the ancient social organization are still valid; to the reality of the social situation in which, the respect for their autonomy means sacrificing some recognized human rights; to the harshness of the economic situation. All of these represents a challenge for those who defend the rights of these people; those who legislate as well as for a more respectful, conscious and responsible tourism.

San Juan Chamula is a must visit if you want to get a deeper profile of Mexico, rich and complex, cultural and diverse. It is nevertheless needed an open mind and a wide criterion to make out of this visit what its worth.

Nora Mercedes

Photos by Nora Mercedes

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