The Tzotzil woman chatted on her cell phone as she walked in a hurry down the streets of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas. It was a wonderful image: the indigenous American, appropriating Western consumer culture through technology. In many similar ways, San Juan is a town happy to be itself in the 21st century.
San Juan Chamula is not small. In 2010, the town counted over 76,000 inhabitants, 90% of which are Tzotzil, one of the Mayan cultures. The Spanish Conquista assaulted the people of the region in the usual way: a combination of takeover of lands, resources and labor, accompanied by conversion to the Catholic faith. Just as in all of Spanish America. As time passed, probably as a result of the wars of Reforma, San Juan was not a priority for the Catholic Church. In the 19th century, priests stopped coming regularly.
As you walk by the decorated cemetery, the grazing sheep and the old burned-down church, you can feel how a culture remains authentic by giving their own spin on new thoughts. All the familiar symbols of Christianity are there: the Cross, the Virgen Morena of Guadalupe, the festivities and the annual baptisms-the only time priests are invited to come to town. San Juan’s leaders are also community religious authorities.
I was fortunate to come on a day when the faithful of San Juan Chamula were celebrating the start of the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon, a series of celebrations beginning on December 12 in Mexico City and ending on January 6. The procession was leaving the church with palms, songs and music. It was all in Tzotzil. The crosses and the Virgin’s dais were all designed with native symbols and the porters were dressed in the same manner they have been dressed for the last 200 years. They will walk from Chiapas (in relays) to Mexico, carrying their Virgencita to the Basilica in Mexico City. The rest of the congregation said goodbye to the group traveling on foot and on buses.
After this spectacle, I walked inside the Church. The candle-soot filled ceilings and pew-less floors were a confirmation that Chamulans made these Catholic rites their own. You could kneel anywhere, set your own candles on the floor along with your offerings and pray. No priest, just you and God. We walked respectfully around the faithful on the floor, admiring their collection of images and figures of saints. Meanwhile, a man swept the leftover wax and pine needles strewn over the floors to make it ready for the next worshiper.
Many are upset that Chamulans do not allow photographs of their people or the inside of the Church-you can go to jail if caught. Our guide, Maco told us years ago the Chamulans found some postcards with their image on it and were so disturbed by this invasion of privacy they prohibited pictures in the town. This village, in the highlands of Chiapas takes the best of the modern world but does not let anybody influence the way they live. Not the Catholic Church, not the Mexican government and certainly not the tourists. They will not be subdued.