Chiapas Textile Study Tour Snapshot: If It’s Sunday, It Must Be Chamula and Zinacantan

San Juan Chamula was our first stop on Sunday, the big market day in the Tzotzil speaking Maya village located about thirty minutes outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas. This also happened to be a day for baptisms.

The Maya church at San Juan Chamula, no longer Catholic

As we arrived at the Chamula church, extended families were emerging. Children of all ages were dressed in white. A Catholic priest comes once a month to perform the rites, but other than this observance there is little resemblance to traditional Catholicism.

Family outside the church poses for post-baptism photo

Chamulans practice a pre-Hispanic mysticism inside the church. No photos are allowed. The space  magical. It is dark inside. Votive candles that sit atop at least twenty wooden tables illuminate the space. On the tile floor fresh pine needles replicate the sacred forest.  There are no pews.

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In the Chamula market, how women transport babies

Areas of needles are swept away. Worshipers light red, green, white and yellow candles and affix them with dripping wax to the floor. The colors represent the four cardinal points. They kneel and pray, singing in ancient Tzotzil.

Women wait for weekly government food stipend

Cynthia and Gail shopping for agave fiber woven bags, called ixtle

Sometimes a Shaman will go with the families, holding a live chicken. The Shaman will hold the fowl by its legs, wings outspread, then wring the chicken’s neck. In this way, the ill that is disturbing a family member will pass to the chicken. Then, the chicken is buried and the ailment will go away.

The cemetery is another spiritual center for Maya families

This stuffed fox may be someone’s spirit animal, used in ritual cleansings

Ancient beliefs run deep here. We tiptoe across the pine needles. The officials watch carefully to make sure we take no photographs. We are respectful and don’t try. Stories of confiscated cameras are rampant.

Post-Baptism celebration in the church courtyard

Ducks and a turkey for sale along a hidden market side street

Out on the church patio, the families who celebrated baptism gather along the periphery for a meal, music and refreshment. Cases of beer sit atop tables. Visitors are here from all over the world. I hear German, French and Dutch.

Vendors sell fresh fruit and vegetables

Beyond the church is the vast market where vendors sell everything from fresh fruit, vegetables and handcrafts.

Chickens for sale along a side alley — food or sacrifice?

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Village mayordomos are distinguished by furry white tunics

After a walkabout, we set out for neighboring San Lorenzo Zinacantan. This is a flower growing village. Once allies of the Aztecs, whose empire extended as far south as Nicaragua, Zinacantan enjoyed special privileges as an embassy. Mayas married with Nahuatl speakers and adopted the Aztec practice of incorporating feathers into wedding dresses.

Zinacantan women doing business in a doorway

After the September 2017 earthquake that destroyed the church roof and bell tower, it seems like tourism has dropped here. We hoped for a more robust market, but only a few vendors line the street surrounding the church. We were able to find textiles in a local shop that deals in new and vintage blouses, dresses and skirts.

Zinacantan embroidered chals, a floral display on cloth, photo by Carol Estes

Visitors from Mexico City model the local costume that they bought

Earthquake destroyed church roof, bell tower, walls crumbled

Hundreds of historic churches in southern Mexico were damaged in the 2017 earthquake. Under the purview of INAH, it’s not likely church repairs will take place any time soon. Fear is that neglect will destroy them.

Saints inside corregated metal make-shift church — oops, no photos!

Now, for a brief fresh-off-the-comal tortillas stop to stave off hunger. We entered a smoke-filled room where a young woman prepared masa, patted it, pressed it and cooked it on the comal. We filled the hot, steaming tortilla with fresh beans, ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds), tangy Chiapas cheese, avocado and smoked sausage.

Another view of the traditional kitchen.

Sausages hang over the smokey area to cure and take on flavor.

Preparing fresh, organic tortillas on the comal

Cynthia and Lanita sit back after our hearty snack

We returned to San Cristobal de Las Casas late in the afternoon where we enjoyed lunch at Tierra Adentro, the Zapatista cafe on Real Guadalupe. Another culturally stimulating day!

Pattern on black fabric for embroidering

On the way out of town, San Lorenzo Zinacantan — waddle and daub, tile


10 Responses to Chiapas Textile Study Tour Snapshot: If It’s Sunday, It Must Be Chamula and Zinacantan

  1. I would like to go to Chiapas. Your information and photos are wonderful. So sad about the earth quake destroying sacred churches. Do you have any suggestions for guides, taxi drivers, accommodations?

  2. I love reading about these tours. Do you think they mind Gringos going into their spiritual space?

  3. You’re braver than I was, we had a very similar experience but no photos. Outside the church, people were participating in the rotation of mayordomos, mostly wearing black wool tunics in parade. We were strongly cautioned not to take any photos of that ceremony. The images and feelings will always be a part of me. It’s a very powerful place. There’s a reason for the little rolling hills over the graves too, but I don’t remember what it is. Do you?

  4. I’m loving these daily travel diaries with all the photos!

  5. Norma, Thank you very much for sharing your very interesting tour. In your post-baptism photo, I zoomed in to the four adults and the child in front. What an incredibly handsome family.

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