First, a word of warning: Photographs are forbidden in the church at San Juan Chamula. This is one of the most important things to know when visiting there. If you are caught, your camera or your memory card will be confiscated . This is not heresay, but fact. Fay, my travel friend, and I saw a plainclothes church guard sitting with a tourist going through photos to guarantee none were taken inside the church. I was asked to cover my camera several times during our visit and reassured them I had taken no photos.
The church at San Juan Chamula is a shrouded, mystical place, filled with thousands of lit votive candles illuminating the space. Built as a Catholic church during the conquest, the church is now community owned and is a worship space that blends Catholicism with pre-Hispanic Mayan rituals.
The tile floor is obscured, covered by fresh pine needles. Families sweep away the needles to make a space in front of one of the many altars to Catholic patron saints. They sit together quietly on the floor, light candles and murmur prayers. Copal incense fills the air. Banners stream from the high ceiling. Dozens of lilies cover the main altar competing with the aroma of copal.
It is Sunday and we are lucky, there are very few foreign visitors and we can take our time to respectfully observe and appreciate this religious experience practiced in this part of Mexico. This is a very traditional region, protective of their culture and way of life.
At an altar near the entrance to the church a young woman sits with her small son, her mother, and a curandera. A live white chicken dances beside them and tries to fly, its legs tied together. Five fresh eggs are lined up in front of the young woman along with a dead brown chicken. The curandera takes three eggs in one hand and two in another, passes them in front of and behind the young woman speaking to her in tzotzil. The young woman then makes a sign, is it a blessing, on the forehead of her boy, who is about four years old.
As I stand leaning against the 16th century adobe wall of the church, a guard in traditional Chamulan dress approaches me and asks where I’m from. Carolina del Norte, I reply. He says he worked in Bellingham, Washington, a few years ago, and then goes on explains that this is a purification ritual to cleanse the young woman. Perhaps she is despondent or depressed, having negative emotional feelings, and the exorcism will give her relief. The chickens and the egg are the receptacles and the curandera is the instrument.
After about an hour and a half in the church, Fay and I went out into the plaza, where Carmelo sold us a string of gorgeous amber for 700 pesos (after serious bargaining) that we agreed to split the cost and share. I bought two woven ixtle bags from a farmer from San Andres Larrainzar.
Then, before we took the collectivo back to San Cristobal de las Casas, we wandered the market street where there were extraordinary textiles at excellent prices. As for the church, you will need to imagine it. I took no interior photos.
What I do love are the women with furry black sheep wool skirts, the brightly colored punta de cruz (cross point needlework) blouses, and the children. The collectivo costs 12 pesos each way. You get it near the Jose Castillo mercado. Very easy and safe.