Chiapas is a beautiful colonially designed city built in a small valley surrounded by the Mexican Central Highlands. Indigenous people walk along the streets going about their business. Nearly all of the women dress in their homemade traditional outfits: elaborately embroidered blouses, heavy woven black wool skirts, some looking like the shaggy wool on pastured sheep, held up by a woven citron or belt. Some wear shaggy wool folded scarves on their heads and some wear a shawl like garb brocaded in bright reds, blues and purple flowers. Women carry their babies and young children on their backs wrapped lovingly in a shawl.Chiapas, the most southern state of Mexico, is well known for it's ancient Mayan ruins. Palenque, Yaxchilán and Bonampak are stunning reminders of an advanced civilization that existed for centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish. A recent week's visit reminded my husband Michael and I of the still vibrant lifestyle of present day Mayan communities: how they earn a livelihood, farm their land and keep their traditional ways while adapting modern ones.
We visited a few small villages with a guide, San Juan de Chamula, Zinacantán and Hanchii and churches where carnival before Lent preparations was underway. We got to see first hand the blending of Mayan beliefs and Catholism.
Our guide came highly recommended by our excellent lodging in San Cristobal, Casa Na Bolom. Maria Teresa who is Tzotzil and part Spanish and who speaks English, Spanish and Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect gave directions as Michael drove our rental car. She was able to explain what we saw and added hugely to our visit. As we drove out of San Cristobal she pointed out a branch of India's Grameen Bank and another micro-lender.
The Danza del Fuego will take place on the large stone plaza in front of the church. Chamula men representing villages from the hills and valleys all around the area will be part of the Danza. Women will prepare the food. We were sorry that we will miss this, but glad we did see some of the preparations.
Through the brilliantly painted portal and past huge wooden doors, the inside the of four hundred and forty year old church, the brightness of thousands of candle flames awed us. There are no pews, instead the floor is spread with aromatic, long pine needles. A few small groups of Chamula women with their children sat on the floor around burning candles praying. One women shook and gently brushed another 's head, back and shoulders with a spray of fresh pine needles in a cleansing ceremony. There were so many candles burning on tables set in front of saint statutes enclosed in glass cases surrounding the walls that I could feel their heat. All of the saints are dressed in traditional garb and draped with colorful ribbons. The saints held small mirrors so their spirits could be reflected out on those who pray to them.
Zinacantán is in a valley on the other side of hills from San Juan de Chamula. Concrete block houses, most stuccoed and painted, line the road. Spread out behind the houses are fields of cabbage, onions, cilantro, beans and tomatoes. Next to many houses are plastic sheeted green houses for flowers that are exported. Asters, roses and carnations. A few shaggy long-haired sheep stand around in fields near each house. Big Chevy pick ups were parked in front of some homes. Maria Teresa pointed out the houses and families that had farm pick-ups, often far more expensive than the modest houses. Trucks are used haul produce to market.