Wednesday, February 20, 2013

myth and maize

The Spanish Conquistador, Diego de Mazariegos, founded San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1528. 

Or so the residents of San Cristóbal de las Casas believe.  Its colonial architecture -- along with the syncopated orchestra in its park gazebo -- provides evidence of that genesis.

But, if you are a Tzotzil Indian living in San Juan Chamula, you know that is simply another myth of The Conquest.

Because, as we should know, San Cristóbal de las Casas was founded by John the Baptist before the Spanish arrived.  He came here to bring sacred sheep to the Indians.  Well, some Indians.

That is why sheep are still sacred to the residents of San Juan Chamula.  They can be sheared and their wool can be loosely loomed to make shaggy black skirts and coats.

But, just as cattle are sacred to Hindus, sheep are sacred to San Juan Chamula.  The sheep are individually named and prized as a sign of wealth.  But they are not to be eaten.  Nor is their milk to be consumed by anything other than lambs.

Welcome to pre-Columbian America. 

We visited two villages on Tuesday.  San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán.  The former far more traditional than the latter.

In San Juan Chamula religion is the driving force of the entire social structure.  Even though the village was converted to Christianity soon after The Conquest, the conversion did not quite take.

Catholic priests were quite clever throughout Mexico (and elsewhere in the world) by identifying local deities with Christian saints.  Not actually a merger.  More like  a hostile corporate take-over. 

In San Juan Chamula that approach backfired.  The Indians readily identified their pagan deities with saints, but the saints were then converted into the pagan deities -- keeping only their saintly names.

The notion of a monotheistic God disappeared in favor of old gods tarted up in saintly garb.  With John the Baptist topping the list.

In the local church building, there is no saintly intercession.  The curing ceremonies and prayers are directed to the saintly deities.  No need for a priest here.  In fact, the Catholic priests were evicted over 40 years ago.  Think of Martin Luther with a very crowded altar.

The village enforces a strong no cameras policy.  Even the cell phone on my belt was subjected to a TSA search.  So, all I have is prose. 

I have witnessed ceremonies in almost all of the world's faiths.  But the interior of the church was a new experience for me.

There are no pews in this church.  Congregants sit on the floor to bring themselves closer to the earth's fertile power.  A floor strewn with fresh pine needles -- to decorate and add a pleasing odor to John the Baptist's house.

Because it is his house.  Where he lives.  And where he hears their prayers.

When we were there, the floor was filled with groups conducting cleansing ceremonies.  Complete with candles, chants, and chickens.  The latter being sacrificed.

The Totzil believe illness is merely a physical manifestation of a sick soul.  And if the rites are conduced properly, the soul will be cleansed, and the person will be healed.

Traditional societies are not receptive to change.  And that has caused social problems for San Juan Chamula.

In the 1970s, a large number of the community converted to Evangelical Christianity -- partly as a way to cure the alcoholism that was destroying families in the village.  The faith of the Evangelicals is far different than the religious practices of their neighbors.

As a result, the Evangelicals were expelled from the community.  About six to seven thousand of those exiles now live in San Cristóbal de las Casas -- mainly women and children.  You see them on the streets making a living by selling handicrafts.

I say mainly women and children because many of the Evangelical men died in the pogrom.

The survivors now live more modern lives outside of their former traditions.

I had a conversation with a young woman named Anita-- one of the exiles.  That is her on the right in the photograph above.

She makes her living selling personalized pens and other goods.  At 27, she is not married.  She has no children.  Shooting her arms to the sky she declared she is free.

The second village we visited was Zinacantán.  Just a few kilometers from San Juan Chamula.  But it is quite different.

The people of Zinacantán are a mixture of Tzotzil and Nahautl -- partly a legacy of the era when the area was an Aztec vassal.  They were also instrumental in helping the Spanish defeat the ancestors of San Juan Chamula.  As a result, bad blood still exists.  Almost 500 years later.

There are no sacred sheep here.  The people of Zinacantán raise flowers.  In over 6000 greenhouses that dot their valley.

Similar to San Juan Chamula, the church in Zinacantán is a mixture of pagan and Catholic elements.  But the Catholic elements predominate.  There are pews.  And, with the exception of a few tourists, the place was bare of adherents.

We stopped at a local weaver to see a demonstration of how the village's woven goods are created on small back strap looms.  The demonstration, of course, was to induce tourists to leave with a few products.  I didn't.

Our hostess then invited us to a light lunch of blue corn tortillas that we could fill with beans, a variety of salsas, local cheese, and a powder made of crushed squash seeds.  It may have been one of the best and simplest meals I have eaten in Mexico.

Someone asked me last month what had happened to the Maya after their city-states collapsed.  The answer is -- they are right here in Chiapas.  All around us.

Some traditional.  Some less so.

And I had the pleasure to spend a day with them.

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