San Juan de Chamula

San Juan Chamula [Chamula] with over 35,000 inhabitants is the largest Mayan township in Chiapas 10km from San Cristobal de las Casas, located in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. In proximity as well is the town of Zinacantán and Las Hormigas (The Ants). Chamula is a very traditional high mountain town inhabited by the Tzotziles who speak Tzotzil, a language of the Maya family. The town enjoys unique autonomous status within Mexico, which means the Mexican government must ask permission to meddle in their affairs. No outside police or military are allowed in the village. Chamulans have their own police force, which is evident on festival days.

The main agricultural products are corn, beans, potatoes, and cabbage. The village is in an economic sense relatively well off for a town in one of poorest states. Women often make traditional clothing, blankets, and souvenirs that include Zapatista related items, such as pens with a clay figure on top in the figure of Subcomandante Marcos or Comandante Tacho. The Chamulan women peddling souvenirs can be aggressive. They sell in San Cristobal de Las Casas and at the weekly market in Chamula.

Chamula still has a rigid religious and social structure. The religion is Catholic with very strong influences from the traditional Mayan religious practices and structures. Only Chamulans can live in the village and if a Chamulan becomes Protestant or doesn’t follow the norms of the village they are essentially excommunicated from the village and can never return. Chamulans practice endogamy, and, therefore, marriage is forbidden with anyone outside San Juan Chamula, even with the Mayans in nearby Zinacantán. An interesting fact is that Coca Cola and Pepsi are replacing pox, a kind of rum that was consumed and used as a religious offering. One day a year, El Dia de San Juan (St. John’s Saint’s Day), the town consumes over 100,000 Coca Colas — almost three per person.

The Church of San Juan (St.John the Baptist) is one of the most fascinating and magical in Mexico. It fills the visitor with the calm of being in a uniquely sacred place. Outside, it is white with pastel butterflies, flowers and trim. Inside, the church glows with the flickering light of thousands of candles and is filled with the heavy sweet smell of incense and pine needles, which blanket the floor. The sound of Catholic hymns playing on little stereos mixes with the soft voices of Mayan prayers and chanting. Several rows of candles are laid out before the chapels, statues and altars along with bottles of soda pop. In rituals, hens are used for cleansing females, roosters for males. Sodas and pox are drunk as the burps that they create are believed to expel bad spirits. It is the most significant place for the very religious community and is loosely connected to the diocese. Priests, usually non-Mayan, can be seen performing Catholic masses in one corner of the church, while the rest of it is used by Chamulans for their own worship. Photographs are STRICTLY prohibited.


It must be pointed out that people gathered in the village for religious services react extremely sensitively to tourists with loaded cameras. Photography is strictly forbidden in the church and visitors are strongly advised to abide by this prohibition.

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