Meet the Tzotzil Maya: Mexico's most intriguing community

The Tzotzil Maya are one of the most distinctive communities in Mexico, with a unique religion that blends traditional beliefs with Catholicism and features animal sacrifice, shamans, fireworks and fizzy drinks. Shafik Meghji met them while researching the new Rough Guide to Mexico.

As we pull into San Juan Chamula, César tells us to put our watches back an hour: “If you ask people here what time it is, they’ll reply, ‘God’s time or the new time?’ The president can’t change the time, they say, only God can.”

© Journey Latin America

On the surface, this village in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas looks like any other in the region: modest, single-storey homes; stores selling paint and pots, soft drinks and tortillas; women in colourful woven outfits; stray dogs idling in the sunshine; shoe-shiners touting for business; the constant ring of mobile phones.

Yet the Tzotzil Maya who live in Chamula and the surrounding area are one of the most distinctive communities in Mexico.

“As well as their own time zone, the Tzotzil Maya have their own language, customs and religion”

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As well as their own time zone, they have their own language, customs and a unique religion that blends traditional, pre-Hispanic beliefs with Catholicism. They put up fierce resistance to the Spanish in the 1500s, were the centre of a major rebellion in the 1800s and still doggedly hold on to their independence today.

César, a guide with Alex and Raul Tours who has family in the village, takes us first to a simple, weather-beaten church on the edge of Chamula. The graves outside have different coloured crosses depending on the age of the deceased; there is a heartbreaking number of white crosses, the colour used for babies.

Before we can get too melancholy, César takes us on to the house of a spiritual leader. “The village has over 120 spiritual leaders who are appointed for a year to look after a particular saint; those who want a particularly popular saint can be on a waiting list for 20 years or more,” he says.

“Spiritual leaders can be either men or women, but they have to be married. They rent a room for the shrine, and pay for everything associated with its worship.”

Rather prosaically, the spiritual leader is out shopping when we visit, but his wife and a cluster of children show us the ceremonial room. The centrepiece is a small shrine surrounded by an array of candles that must be lit numerous times a day and huge drapes of leaves and flowers that are changed several times a year.

A bottle of cinnamon-flavoured posh, a sugar-cane alcohol used in religious ceremonies, is passed round; it tastes something like a rough grappa.

As we drink two teenage boys launch fireworks – another key feature of religious ceremonies in Chamula – perilously into the air straight from their hands; they boom without warning throughout our visit, making an otherwise peaceful village feel a little like a war zone.

"Two teenage boys launch fireworks perilously into the air straight from their hands"

Chamula and the surrounding indigenous communities are essentially self-governing, César explains, as we walk into the bustling central plaza. Civic elections had recently been held, during which local men gathered in the square to vote (women are not allowed to participate) – a process that involves raising hands, cheering, booing, and, frequently, throwing stones. Several nearby buildings still have broken windows.

The community also has its own schools, police force – officers wear heavy woollen tunics and carry large sticks – and prison. “There are two big cells, one for women and one for men, which are semi-open, to expose the criminals to public shame,” César explains. “When serious crimes are committed, lynching does also sometimes occur.” He pauses briefly. “But crime is very low here.”

Whatever your religious beliefs, it is a profoundly moving experience.

Dominating the square, physically and spiritually, is Chamula’s main church, the 200-year-old Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, its simple whitewashed exterior ornamented with turquoise detailing. On the surface it appears little different to other churches in the highlands of Chiapas, but as César leads us inside we enter another world, at once vaguely familiar and utterly alien.

There are no pews or altar and the stone floor is covered with a slippery carpet of pine needles. Locals of all ages, in family groups and on their own, kneel in prayer, facing statues of Catholic saints in wooden boxes lining the church walls. Some chant, others cry, a few sing quietly. Pungent incense fills the air. Glinting mirrors reflect evil spirits. Whatever your religious beliefs, it is a profoundly moving experience.

© Journey Latin America

“The religion here is a syncretism of traditional Mayan beliefs and Catholicism,” says César. “The Vatican has no sway here, the Bible is not used, marriages and funerals don’t take place in the church, and there are no priests, except for one who comes monthly from the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas to carry out baptisms”.

“Instead shamans play an important role, healing people and using animal sacrifices to rescue souls from the god of the underworld.”

Expelling gas through burping is believed to release evil spirits.

In the smoky half-light we watch a female shaman grab a chicken by the wings and move it slowly across the body of the woman hunched over beside her. She then swipes it over an array of multi-coloured candles and fizzy drink bottles – each colour represents a different force in nature – laid out on the floor in front of her.

Finally, in a calm, practised movement, she wrings its neck. We hear a quiet squawk as the bird expires. “The woman will then take the chicken home, cook and eat it,” said César. “The Coke, Fanta and Sprite are there to represent different forces, like the candles. But they are also drunk, as expelling gas through burping is believed to release evil spirits.”

© Journey Latin America

Although proud of their heritage – expressed through their dress and artisanal traditions, as well as their religion – they are not stuck in the past. Modern medicine – including contraception – is used alongside traditional healing, for example.

Locals who convert to other faiths, however, are not tolerated. They are forced to leave the community: thousands of these expluslados live in basic conditions on the outskirts of nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas in the so-called “belt of misery”.

Fireworks reverberate and the smell of toasted pumpkin seeds fills the air

We finish the day a short drive away in San Lorenzo de Zincantán, a smaller, quieter village surrounded by flower fields.

The Tzotzil Maya here have similar beliefs, though Catholicism exerts a slightly stronger influence than in Chamula: the neat little church has pews and there are no pine needles or candles on the floor. When we visit, in late May, a spiritual leader, exhausted from an overnight ceremony, lies asleep and a plastic Santa toy plays tinny Christmas carols on loop.

As a procession of locals marches through town en route to a religious ceremony, we visit a local family to see how the traditional ponchos are weaved and sample some fresh tortillas.

© Journey Latin America

“Many evangelical Christians, often from other countries, visit Chamula and Zincantán,” César says, as the sound of fireworks reverberate around the courtyard and the smell of toasted pumpkin seeds fills the air, “and tell them, ‘You are uncivilised, you are backward – you must convert.’ But the people here are not uncivilised. They have their own beliefs and culture and they live long, happy, unstressed lives.”

The Tzotzil Maya in Chamula don’t mind tourists visiting the village during the day, as long as they act respectfully. They don’t, however, like having their photos taken without permission, and there has been violence in the past towards insensitive, camera-wielding outsiders.

Shafik Meghji co-authors the forthcoming edition of The Rough Guide to Mexico. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com and tweets @ShafikMeghji.

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