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A Hamlet in Foothills Is Mexico 1,000 Years Ago

February 23, 1986|M. BOOTH GATHINGS | Gathings is a San Antonio, Tex., free-lance writer

SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico — In the foothills of the awesome Sierra de Chiapas in southernmost Mexico, this incredible highland hamlet is a must visit for the traveler staying in the charming colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of Chiapas.

This magical, Mayan mountain village of about 2,000 inhabitants is only six miles from San Cristobal, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years away from today. Easily accessible by collective van, taxi and even on foot, a journey here through the often cloud-laden valleys is an unreal expedition back in time.

As one enters the environs of San Juan Chamula, groups of two and three crosses begin to abound in the hilly countryside. They are indications of places sacred to the Chamula Indians. Direct descendants of the peninsular Mayas, this Tzotzil-speaking group of Indians is one of the largest in the highlands of Chiapas and one of the least acculturated in Mexico. In these mystic foothills, their ancestral gods live.

Religious Center

It is no wonder that with so many crosses, San Juan Chamula is a center for religious ceremonies. The religion of the Chamulas is a complex mixture of Roman Catholicism and the faith of the ancient Maya.

The sun continues to be the principal god and is identified with Christ. While the Virgin Mary is associated with the moon, Saint Peter and the Rain God share the same responsibilities. The Chamulas' devotion to saints is intense; however, it does not diminish their belief in an Earth God who creates clouds and sends them skyward.

To determine the dates of religious festivals and important agricultural activities, the Chamulas consult a calendar in use for about 2,500 years.

Along the side of the road a Chamulan couple is walking to town, the husband a stride or two ahead of his wife. He's wearing sandals and carrying nothing. The wife is barefoot and carries a hefty load of firewood on her back.

Sunday Market Day

It's Sunday, and as one arrives in downtown San Juan Chamula, the primal pageant of market day is in full force. The village square is full of Chamulas selling and buying all kinds of subsistence goods, everything from potatoes to pottery. A few are selling beautiful, handwoven woolen items.

The color of this spectacle comes from the traditional clothing worn by many of the Chamulas. The women wear huipils (formless blouses) and heavy, black, wraparound woolen skirts pin-striped in red and gray. Red woolen or silken tassels hang from their huipils . For a belt, a red woolen sash is pleated in the front. A piece of folded, woolen material, in varied colors but predominantly blue, covers the head. Unfolded, some women use it as a shawl, others as a sling for carrying a baby.

Dressed in white calf-length pants and shirts covered by black or white woolen tunics, the men are less colorful but certainly as impressive. Secured to their heads by bands tied under the chin are flat, handwoven straw hats.

Officials on Display

At the distant end of the square, 20 village officials are seated in a splendid row. Holding silver-tipped canes and wearing hats with brightly colored ribbons and tassels, these men are of obvious authority.

Grouped around the square are the municipal building, thatched adobe houses and a 16th-Century Dominican church. Although the square is the center for social and commercial activity, the church is the heart and soul of the community.

This large, solid and architecturally simple temple is really what San Juan Chamula is all about. Its chalk-white facade is festively adorned with red, yellow and turquoise motifs, and the border of its wide-arched, recessed entrance echoes the same colors.

Before entering the church, a trip to the tourist office in the municipal building is necessary. There, for a few pesos, a pass to visit the village and especially the church must be bought. Also serving as a kind of safe-conduct, its warnings should definitely be heeded: Do not take pictures inside the church or of village officials without permission, and respect all village ceremonies.

It also states that those who ignore this notice will be severely punished. And the Chamulas mean this, as cameras have been smashed and some visitors very roughly treated.

Entering Another Time

Upon entering the church, one is taken far back in time and engulfed by exotic sights, sounds and scents. It seems that history has come to a halt in a bizarre, religious emporium.

The church is uncluttered, but the absence of pews, a priest and religious art is compensated for by the presence of people, an overwhelming atmosphere and several statues of saints along the walls.

Mirrors--to keep out evil spirits--hang from the necks of some of the statues. At the altar end of the church stands a statue of San Juan, the village's patron saint. It is covered and will not be unveiled until his festival day, June 24.

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