San Juan Chamula; Zinacantán

Latitude 16.7371°N Longitude 92.63719°W

Sunday, October 6, 2002

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Today we made an excursion to the tiny nearby villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán. Security in these towns since the Zapatista uprising in 1994 has been pretty shaky and tourists are advised to go with a local agency to visit them. They are the kinds of places where even taking photographs, for example, would risk putting yourself into physical danger.

Despite these issues, the towns were fascinating and well worth seeing. They are tiny, isolated microcosm communities, still living primitively with traditions that have remained largely unchanged since ancient Mayan times. We saw people living in traditional thatch houses called "Hobel", whose frames were built with slender branches and walls covered with mud.

Our guide was from the area and explained many aspects of the lives and culture of these villagers. We learned that Shamanism is still widely practised, and the villagers' fear of having their photographs taken is based on a superstitious fear that the photo might fall into the wrong hands and used to cast a bad spell on the subject (which, we were informed, was very expensive and inconvenient to exorcise later).

Most fascinating was how they had melded aspects of the Catholic religion the Spanish conquistadores had imposed on them with their own ancient Mayan ideology to form a unique, hybrid religion of their own. For example, the Mayans had independently adopted the symbol of the cross to depict the creation of their universe according to their ancient beliefs, long before the Spanish invaded. When the Spanish came with the Christian cross (which symbolises the crucifixion of Christ), they were amazed and perplexed to find the cross already prevalent in Mayan religion. Over time, the Mayan descendants grafted the two religions together, keeping deities and tenets of both religions that appealed to them (or were convenient) and discarding others.

The four points of a Mayan cross correspond to the cardinal points of the compass and each has an associated colour:

  • North - White - represents clarity and light
  • South - Yellow - betrayal, threat, envy
  • East - Red - rebirth, eternal life (considered the best direction for the Mayans)
  • West - Black - absence of life, darkness, negative

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Local handicrafts in San Juan ChamulaA young San Juan Chamula girl weaves cloth on a hand loomFresh pine needles carpet the floor of the village churchThe Mayan cross

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