Sunday, March 2, 2014

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.
 San Cristóbal de las Casas, the cultural capital of 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. 
 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.

A traditional cemetery in the nearby town of San Juan de la Chamula, was our first stop. Graves were marked with the Mayan cross; the ground a mosaic of soda bottle caps.  According to Maria Teresa and our guide book, drinking the carbonated Coca-Cola products induces burping that is thought by Chamula people to release bad spirits.

In the town zocolo, we stood respectively aside while several different groups of Chamula men in shaggy white wool long tunics, leather huaraches with a high backs up to mid calf, like the back part of a boot,  and cone hats wrapped in red and green ribbon, led others from their village marching and dancing with musicians and a censor swinging pine incense smoke to Iglesia St Juan de Baptiste.  They were there to present themselves with occasional loud fire works for their village prior to the following Tuesday's Danza del Fuego.  The men were fulfilling the tasks of their specific positions in their village cooperativo. Each cooperativo has a major duomo who was among the men leading each villages' procession.  One group marched with four polzoleros,  men carrying boxes loaded with bottles of pozol, a fermented corn liquor, and another group marched with water jugs made of plastic to look like traditional gourds.  Maria whispered that taking pictures was okay, but an older man behind us in the crowd hissed and waved us off.   So of course we didn't raise our camera again.

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.

Mayan women weave on back- strap looms, some incorporating elaborate brocade designs. After fabric is woven they hand  embroider designs upon the fabric. The designs are distinct for each village. In the villages small shops open onto cobbled streets. We walked along several streets following Maria Teresa who greeted many of the weaver-vendors. Maria Teresa led the way into shops where she knew the owners and gently bargained for us.
We  came home with bags stuffed to remind us of Chiapas' Mayans.