Catholicism and Mayan Religion in the Same Building

Some friends had recommended that while in San Cristobal, we take a tour to a nearby village called San Juan Chamula. We had an English speaking guide who had been giving the tours for over a decade and really had a good understanding of the culture. The village was completely autonomous from the Mexican government and its church was autonomous from the Vatican. Their native language is Tsotsil and they continue to use the Mayan calendar. The village has their own policemen who enforce the rules and penalties; one to three nights in jail for petty crime or death for a major crime. We passed the burying ground as we entered the village. The graves were simple dirt mounds as large stone tombs and shrines are prohibited. It was prohibited to put a fence around the area. The crosses on the graves were black, green, and white denoting the death of an adult, young person, or infant respectively. By the way, the cross (especially a green one) is a prehispanic symbol, not always connected to the Catholic or Christian faith).


Despite the large Dominican church built in the 1700s, their relationship with the Vatican has had a tumultuous history. In the late 19th century, they killed a catholic priest who had destroyed some sacred stones which were worshiped, but it wasn’t until a century later that the departure was final and official. Instead of catholic priests, they have 122 spiritual leaders at a time in the community who serve for one year terms and, with their wife and the partnership of another couple, take care of a saint in their home. The 122 does not count the shamans that serve the community.

Before entering the church, where we could not take pictures, we were startled by loud fireworks a few feet away and entered the church right after a procession of musicians. The noise from the firecrackers and musical instruments was part of their worship ritual. There are no pews in the church as most people worship on the floor and no sermon is delivered. I am doubtful if they even hold mass. They do not read the Bible. The saints all around the walls have literally replaced the Mayan gods and are worshiped in similar ways as their predecessors. There are rows of candles in front of them; different colors representing different things, including food for them. The saints are decorated with mirrors, going back to the practice of putting a reflective stone on an idol so it could draw energy from the sun. Jesus is associated with the sun and Mary with the moon. From the doorway, the center line of vision is drawn to John the Baptist. Jesus on the cross is lower and to the right hand side. We also had the privilege of going into one of the spiritual leaders’ homes though I could barely breathe because of the heavy incense and smoke shrouding the room where a saint was enclosed in a shrine of branches.

The people in this village are known for growing vegetables and for their wool work. The women’s traditional clothing is a heavy black wool tube that they belt to form a skirt and a traditional blouse.

In a nearby town of Zinacantan, we got to see a completely different lifestyle in the same indigenous language group. These people were known for growing flowers and weaving and embroidery. Their clothing was very distinct from San Juan Chamula and was beautifully embroidered with flowers in blues, purples, and pinks. This included the men’s clothing. We visited a home where the family demonstrated the back loom method for weaving and shared fresh made tortillas with us. We also arrived just in time to see a procession into their church. This village, though originally more syncretistic, has somewhat reformed and now follows more acceptable catholic practices.


On the whole, it was an incredible experience and really opened my eyes to the spiritual condition that existed in Mexico before the Spanish conquest which has clearly persisted to an extent, especially in the more isolated regions among indigenous peoples. It also gave me an idea of just how difficult it would be to come into an unreached, hostile people group and bring the gospel. Though our guide kept insisting that they were a lovely, respectful people, they do not allow anyone to live in the village who does not follow their religious views. Apart from this, there is the evidence of how they responded in violence various times to the catholic priests. There would also be opposition from the outside because of the global tolerance culture. Our guide was complaining about how these people are persecuted even today. His example of persecution was that a few people had been giving free medical help at a clinic, including free glasses, medicines, etc. and at the same time giving out New Testaments. Our guide asked the police why they weren’t stopping these people and they responded “Don’t worry. They won’t read it anyway.”


Photos are my own.


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