There were locals everywhere. Some sat, others stood. Some chatted carelessly, others were deep in solemn devoted prayer, entranced by the fumes of burning copal and by the heavy hypnotic tones of a group of men strumming harps and dingling bells. Nearby, men were ironing clothing and colourful ribbons with utmost reverence and ceremony.
Women richly costumed in the local fashion sat before hundreds of burning candles, all different lengths, mostly white. They sat on a floor strewn with pine needles and metal bottle caps, most branded with the Coca Cola label. Other women sat cross-legged with bored looking children. One breast-fed her young baby. Here and there was the body of a limp hen or rooster, or a row of eggs.
This is the church of San Juan Chamula, a town in Chiapas not far from San Cristobal de las Casas. It is unique for the method of worship practiced by the townspeople. The locals here observe syncretism, a melding of local traditional faiths, the influence of former African slaves, and the teachings of Catholicism.
The church exterior is unprepossessing with a creamy white façade and marine greens and blues outlining the arched entrance. As I stood outside the church door, a splodge of primary-coloured green paint landed on my guide’s shirt. Above us, painters balancing on the church roof were lowering a rusty paint tin to the ground by a piece of string.
In the plaza, men in furry black knee-length ponchos and straw hats hung strings of multicoloured flags. Some boys nearby released handmade fireworks that erupted like gunshots mid-air.
San Juan Chamula was preparing for its most important annual celebration, the day of their patron saint San Juan de Bautista (John the Baptist) on 24 June.
Before entering the church, my guide warned me to bury my camera in my bag. Photography, he said, was strictly forbidden and punished with arrest. It was a challenge indeed to resist. Never had I been anywhere where my surroundings called for visual recording so strongly.
On first entering the church, I was engulfed in a thickly perfumed air and blinded by smoke. This was copal resin burning from basic wooden cups as a means of purification. After adjusting to the overpowering aroma, I was struck by an atmosphere oddly in tune with what I imagined a medieval market to possess.
There were no pews, indeed, no room for pews. And the more floor space available, the better for me as I walked with trepidation, fearful of knocking over the candles placed on the ground everywhere. Among the candles were glass bottles, mostly Coca Cola bottles (although some were Fanta, or clear corked bottles of the local alcohol pox). They were revered just as much as the candles themselves, and every once in a while, someone would pop the lid, drip a bit of drink on the floor among the candles and take a sip themselves.
The only furniture inside were large plastic and metal tables men used to iron clothes and ribbons. They handled the clothing as though they were Jesus’s original vestments. In fact, that’s not too far off the mark. I was later told that this ceremony was unique to this month; the clothes are those of John the Baptist, to be paraded on 24 June.
Processions of people passed. Some held wooden goblets of burning copal that made me sleepy. One of the women had a hen nestled under her arm.
It was only after my rendez-vous with my guide that the pieces of the puzzle came together. As a group beside us knelt among the pine needles and poured themselves copious glasses of beer, my guide enlightened me on the church’s idiosyncrasies.
The meaning behind it all
The pine needles on the floor hark back to a time when the Mayans performed sacred rituals in their natural environment, inside caves and in forests. The sacrificed animals and eggs, and the Coca Cola, relate to a spiritual cleansing practice.
Chamula cleansing practice
When a Chamulan relative becomes sick, their loved ones approach a curandero, a local medicine man. This curandero, is gifted with the ability to diagnose a person’s illness by the rhythms of their pulse.
If something is found to be wrong, be it physical, mental or spiritual (even a curse of the evil-eye), the relatives are told to meet him at the church of Chamula the following day with a shopping list of medicinal items. These include, depending on the severity of the illness, candles varying in size and colour, drinks, and perhaps even a hen (for a terribly ill woman), rooster, or eggs.
Inside the church, the curandero lights the candles and moves the sacrificial animal over the invalid. Thus absorbing the disease, the animal must then be killed. The curandero, so close to the illness, is also at risk of contracting it. As a preventative measure, he drinks. Copiously. And then he quite literally burps out the sickness.
In an ingenious, brazen and possibly immoral attack of marketing, Coca Cola Company infiltrated this traditional community’s spiritual practices by convincing locals that their fizzy drink was far more suited to the cause of burping than the traditional beverages. In ‘sponsoring’ the communities and lowering the costs of their products, Coke has become the drink of choice for both spiritual and common purposes.
My guide explained all this and far more to me in unimposing whispers over the popping of fireworks outside and the instrumental music dominating inside the church.
I took one last look around me, trying to imprint the details of this place irrascibly into my memories. The locals hummed conversations, their rustic faces lit up by dancing candlelight. And then another procession passed, obscuring my view with smokey copal incense, and I turned to leave that intimate cultural display behind.