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Once Upon a Time in Mexico – I haven’t seen anything like San Juan Chamula

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Chamula is a town in the Chiapas area of Mexico unlike all others. Upon arriving in San Cristobal de las Casas, we were told that our first excursion outside of town must be Chamula in order to fully experience the Chiapas region. I love a good recommendation, so on Sunday (market day) we headed to Chamula by the small local bus, or colectivo.

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One of the largest indigenous groups in Mexico, the Tzotzil Maya live in this area. In San Juan Chamula the Tzotzil are seen wearing traditional clothing. The men wear tunics made of black or white wool that are belted around their waists, these tops are called chujes. The women wear blouses called huipils and long black skirts made of black wool.

 

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One of the most incredible sights is that of the Cathedral San Juan Bautista, which is unlike any church I’ve seen. Photographs inside are strictly forbidden. When entering, there are no benches or pews and there hasn’t been a priest here since 1968. Instead, the townspeople follow traditional Mayan beliefs and use curanderos, or native healers, to perform ceremonies on the church floor. The floor is covered in pine needles and copal incense is burned. Wax is melted at the base of candles and they are attached to the floor in rows. The sight of numerous candles in a vast space is magical. During the healing rituals one can see the use of candles, eggs, CocaCola, a sugarcane alcohol beverage called Pox and at times a live chicken. These healing rituals are very important to the people; there are no medical clinics in town.

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Another interesting sight is that of the mayordomos, who are the caretakers of the saints that are found along the church’s walls. On Sunday, the mayordomos are seen on the plaza and are guarded by the nearby police. After care taking for several saints, or performing “carga”, they are seen as elders in the community and offer advice. San Juan Chamula has its own police force and set of laws. This is allowed by the Mexican government to preserve its unique culture. Women are not allowed to vote; and crimes, such as theft, result in a jail sentence.

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Chamula’s local cemetery, similar to the church, pine boughs are used.