Situated at the highland heart of Mexico’s south eastern state of Chiapas, San Cristobal de Las Casas is bustling, colonial town that has been a magnet for anthropologists, bohemians and ordinary tourists since the 1960s, when it drew the attentions of the California university crowd. Although the town is colonial in appearance and cosmopolitan in feel, the tourism that is its lifeblood focuses primarily on the indigenous peoples living there and in the surrounding villages.
Just under one third of Chiapas state’s 3.6 million inhabitants are of direct Mayan descent, speaking at least nine different languages, the most common being Tzeltal and Tzotzil, which is what you are most likely to hear spoken around San Cristobal. These tribes are fiercely proud of their heritage, but have been forced to endure hundreds of years of maltreatment at the hands of first the colonising Spaniards and more recently a corrupt government regime. In 1994 the town achieved international notoriety as one if those captured by the Zapatista rebels, many of whom come from villages in the area, and some locals still refer to it as San Cristobal de Marcos after the pipe and balaclava-touting Zapatista leader.
The continued application of centuries old Mayan spiritual and medical practices is one of the key ways in which the region’s indigenous peoples have maintained their power and their pride. While their religion has been successfully exported to the USA and beyond by countless “white shamans”, the Mayan healers’ knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and herbs is desperately sought after by pharmaceutical multinationals looking for that next big patent. These companies’ clumsy attempts to plunder the indigenous pharmacopia for the next wonder drug is the cause of a constant series of fierce protests and bitter disputes.
The small town of San Juan Chamula (St John of the dead/dried lake), 10 km (6 miles) northeast of San Cristobal, fought hard against Spanish conquest, being one of the last to succumb in 1524. In 1869 it rebelled again, but now another battle is being fought, a battle for human souls. San Juan is really little more than a market square surrounded by a few single storey mud, wood and breezeblock buildings – most of its 2000 inhabitants living on tiny farms, edijos, in the surrounding hills. A popular tourist destination, it is famous for its market and for its church. The colourful façade of the large 18th century building is fairly typical of many to be found throughout Mexico. But take a look inside and you enter another world.
The only way to gain a real understanding of what goes on in San Juan Chamula is through a good local guide. Mercedes Hernández Gomez from the neighbouring village of Zinacantan, has been leading tours in the area for 20 years and, as a trainee shaman can provide a unique insight into local customs and beliefs. Twirling a multicoloured “auric” umbrella, she leads our small international group down a dusty street where we are soon outnumbered by wandering turkeys and hens. Passing through a cypress leaf archway into a low concrete building we immediately enter a realm of spirits.
The light inside is dim, provided only by grey sunlight and a few candles, and the air is thick with smoke from burning copal resin incense, common throughout southern Mexico and particularly pleasing to the gods. Pine needles cover the floor completely, and the walls are draped with the dense foliage of cypress branches, which look a little like green animal fur. A central cubicle has been partitioned off by a rectangle of branches, in front of which is a table covered in offerings. Here stand four clay bulls with two candle holders in their backs. Two more carry Mexican farmers. Elsewhere on the table are clay bowls containing incense, and fun glasses and Coca Cola bottles, some carrying candles, others filled with a clear liquid. A young Indian woman carrying an infant lights candles and refreshes the incense while muttering incomprehensibly quickly under her breath. Every now and again she disappears into the cypress canopy to make offering to a figure whose sparkling robes can just be glimpsed inside.
This is a holy house, dedicated to one of the many local saints – in this case an important one, Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are many such houses throughout the town, all decorated in similar fashion, but containing different saints. Each December 31, men in the village are selected to perform “cargo”, literally a burden. This involves taking responsibility for one particular saint for the whole of the next year, taking care of its statue and paraphernalia as well as organising festivals and celebrations. This is no simple task, as such caretaking involves a rigorous daily schedule of prayers and offerings of food, drink, incense and song. Lesser cargo-bearers, alfereces, arrange music and festivals, bearing their saint on their shoulders during processions; while capitanes dance and ride horses.
Those who perform cargo several times become mayordomos, and gain responsibility for the more senior saints, as well as the respect of the villagers. Some saints have several mayordomos - the town’s patron, St John, has eight. After performing several cargos, mayordomo’s are elevated to the status of principales, town elders who settle disputes and offer advice. They deserve it – there’s no financial reward for these duties, and organising the appropriate festivities can cost up to 50,000 pesos (approx 00 USD) a year, a staggering amount for the average Mexican (teachers only earn around 3000 pesos a month). In the case of the holy house we were visiting, clearly that of a senior mayordomo, his wife was left tending to the Virgin as he was off on business.
A constant volley of explosions erupts above us – homemade fireworks, a popular form of veneration. Mercedes can’t remember who was being worshiped though – every day is a saint’s day here. The bangs stop and suddenly the rains begin. It’s the end of the wet season here, but this is a downpour and we are trapped in the holy house at the mercy of St Isadore, patron of rain. As a human farmer, Isadore refused to stop working his farm on the Sabbath, despite God’s threats of locust plagues and flooding. He eventually conceded and God rewarded him by sending an angel to farm his land, after which Isadore dedicated his life to prayer. Now he helps farmers by providing good farming weather.
Mercades takes the chance to explain to us some of the Mayans’ spiritual beliefs. For the Mayan, particularly the shamans and healers (curanderos), energy is everything and everything is energy. It’s an animist system in which all life is spirit and all nature is holy. The greenery covering the building walls thus represents nature. As Mercedes explains: “caves used to be churches and nature used to be a temple.” Every moment of our lives, waking or sleeping, is spent expending and absorbing energy. A good balance of energy will result in a happy, healthy life; an imbalance produces anything form physical illness to depression – “the greatest disease in the world”. “Greet each other with a word and a smile,” she tells us, “this way you spread the energy around.” The curanderos serve as channels for these spirits and energies, drawing out the bad and replenishing the good.
Traditionally, Mayan curanderos specialise in particular areas, pulse reading, bone setting, midwifery and plant healing being particularly important. According to Mercedes, a typical visit to a curandero today will be a relaxed affair. After chatting for a few minutes about your general state of well-being, your recent dreams and your relationships with friends and family, the shaman will check your pulse, from which they claim to be able to diagnose a variety of physical and spiritual illnesses. Mercedes uses the analogy of computer networking to describe the way in which the healer receives information about their patient’s ailments, perhaps thinking that we tourists would better understand this than spirit talk. The shaman will give the patient a list of different sized and coloured candles to buy from the special candle stall and arrange to meet them at a certain time in church the following day.
And so it is that we prepare to enter San Juan itself. Its picturesque white façade, lined with aquamarines and yellows, looks like many others, except for the brightly coloured fauna and fauna sculpted around the arched doorway; butterflies, shells and pine leaves. We are warned not to take any photographs inside the church, at risk of arrest, fines or even a night in jail. The precise reasons for this remain unclear, though Mercedes suggests that a photograph might be seen to draw energy from its subject.
Today is church cleaning day, so it is relatively quiet inside, but the impact on entering is immense. The first thing to notice is the lack of pews- there aren’t any. Instead, like the holy house, the floor is completely carpeted with pine needles, freshly laid today. Their aroma combines with that of several bowls of burning copal to create an overwhelming odour of otherness. Then there are the sounds, coming from four groups of people sat at different points on the church floor. Whispered chatterings, groanings, chanting and wailing echoes across the nave from shamans, their patients and their assistants, as all carry out their duties. Spread out in arcs before each group are collections of brightly burning candles of different colours and sizes, creating a shimmering sea of light around the subjects of the healing ceremonies. Most are white, signifying health and good fortune, but others are black, gold, yellow and red – different combinations working on different problems, but recipes are hard to come by. Each also calls on the power of Jesus, “the light of the world”, who is identified with the sun.
In each group the shaman reels off the names of saints at such a speed that they merge into a single flow of sounds. One healer with a very sick, shuddering, female patient rubs a bag of eggs over her body and holds them above the candles for a few moments, then repeats the process, bringing them up to his mouth to immerse them in holy names. The healer is attempting to draw the sick spirits out of the woman and into the eggs. It’s not unusual, Mercedes tells us later, to see live chickens being drawn over a patient’s body before suddenly having their neck broken to remove curses or dispel bad spirits. Sometimes the patient will be instructed to take the live chicken home afterwards, where it will die on a pre-assigned day. It always does. Other shamans will encourage the patient to give the chicken – live or in a meal – to someone they don’t like
Liquid offerings are another key element of the ceremony. In San Juan this takes two forms. One is a local firewater called pox (pronounced “posh”), made from distilled sugarcane and pineapple. Raw but effective, it certainly cleanses the sinuses, if not the soul. The other is more famous – Coca Cola. Tourists guides like to explain that fizzy drinks, though particularly Coke, are popular because the hearty belches that follow a swig help to expel unwanted spirits. Mercedes, however, claims that the truth is simply a triumph of marketing over tradition, with the townsfolk being won over with smooth talk and cheap supplies. Whatever the case, huge soft drink murals can be seen on walls throughout the town, but in a nation whose president was previously the director of Coca Cola Mexico, this is hardly unusual.
Presiding over the action, almost invisible, from the cypress-smothered walls are a host of saints, familiar and unfamiliar, their bodies adorned with mirrors, photographs, toys and other objects. The mirrors, we are told, are to ward off the evil eye. The rest are “milagros”, offerings dedicated to the saint after a successful miracle working. Photographs are usually of people cured, sometimes just of body parts. Hung here are doll eyes, arms, legs, heads – any connection to these most potent channels of holy power. Such sights are not uncommon at Catholic pilgrimage sights in Europe but, coupled with the psychic dramas being carried out before them, their power is suddenly all the more affecting.
Once every 20 days – once a Mayan month - a Catholic priest performs baptisms in the church. It’s an initiation that the townsfolk can relate to, bearing similarities to ceremonies of their own. But the church has had no priest of its own since 1968, the last time a traditional mass was heard here. Not surprisingly, Christian missionaries – particularly Protestants – rushed in to fill the vacuum. Thousands were converted, but suffered expulsion and persecution, continuing to this day, at the hands of the syncretised Mayan Catholic majority. While for many anthropologists and tourists, San Juan Chamula represents a small triumph against colonial spiritual imposition, religious freedom is not a creed of the new, old faith.
So rich is the syncretic current flowing through Mexico – itself such a melting pot of indigenous and foreign cultures - that the notion of a “traditional” religion is becoming ever more distant. Many of Mercedes’ interpretations of Mayan shamanism owe as much to the East/West fusion of American New Ageism as they do her own peoples’ traditions. She explains, for example, that the varying colours of the shaman’s candles represent different the chakras of the body – an idea that reached the West via the Theosophists in the late 19th century.
Mercedes also referred to the winter Solstice of 2012, when the Mayan astrological calendar comes to an abrupt end. Her take on this increasingly resonant date sounded like something one might expect to hear from a contactee: the planet Earth will shift out of its orbit and nearer to that of Venus, the most important planet in the Mayan cosmology. “Only the strongest souls will survive,” she added, cheerful in her confidence that she will be among them. The rest of us are advised to visit San Juan Chamula before it’s too late.