San Juan Chamula

san juan chamula

Located 10 km northwest of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the town of San Juan Chamula is home to a conservative and fiercely independent Tzotzil community estimated to be around 80,000 strong.  The Chamulans live alongside several other Tzotzil communities in the highland area surrounding San Cristóbal.  Numbering upwards of 400,000, the Tzotziles are one of the largest indigenous groups in the state of Chiapas.  Other groups include the Tzeltales, Lancandones, Choles, Zoques and Tojolabales.  Each group has its own language, customs and beliefs, including dress.  Chamulen men are typically seen wearing black sheep-fur tunics while the women wear skirts of the same and simple embroidered blouses.

Traditionally, the Tzotziles’ religious beliefs are Catholic and include some pre-hispanic elements.  Their form of Catholicism, however, is different from what many may consider traditional Catholicism.  Polygamy is active in the community and girls are married off at young ages in transactions that typically involve the passing of rather insignificant sums of money from the husband to the new brides family.  Birth control is unavailable and a Chamulan woman will have, on average, nine children during her lifetime while a Chamulan man will take between three and five wives.  Given the fact that births are not celebrated and therefore not recorded it is difficult to maintain an accurate count of the current population at any given time.

Chamula’s church, the Templo de San Juan, is an impressive sight with pine needles covering the floor and worshippers kneeling on the ground chanting in Tzotzil alongside hundreds of lit candles and clouds of incense.  Ironically, the other church in the town (pictured above) burned to the ground as a result of this combination and community members now take turns overseeing church activities in an attempt to prevent a similar occurrence.  Inside the church Chamulans practice some interesting rituals and traditions which include an abundance of pepsi and posh, an alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane, as well as several ancient healing rituals utilizing eggs, bones and live chickens which are then sacrificed and buried in front of the home of the sick.  

It is suggested that the pepsi drinking in the church is to assist the worshippers in expelling the evil spirits from their bodies through, of course, burping.  During our visit we did not witness any of this and according to our guide it’s just a rumor, but interesting just the same and possibly less difficult to doubt given their various other unique practices and beliefs.  The Museo de Medicina Maya in San Cristóbal offers some interesting insights into the theory and practice of indigenous medicine in the state of Chiapas.  As for the church itself, visitors are welcome to visit but photography is strictly forbidden as Chamulens believe the photos steal the spirits of the saints whose images line the interior walls of the building.  

In addition to interesting religious rituals, Chamulans are governed by some unusual forms of social organization including the annual rotation of honored and expensive community leadership positions known as cargos.  We visited on a Sunday and, in addition to being the major market day, it was the day that the town leaders line up in the Zocalo and await those who may approach them with a problem or issue.  A group consisting solely of men, these leaders are responsible for resolving disagreements and disputes as well as handling the majority of more serious issues that occur within the town.  They do so on their own without the help of the Mexican police who are apparently only called into town in rare instances.  Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, not a single person approached the group to present a problem.

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