Carnival in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

The red flags fly from banners carried by men young and old. Their faces hidden with paisley scarves or animal masks. A dried ocelot skin hangs from a belt, connected to brass bells that jangle with each movement. Is this the man’s spirit animal? In the church courtyard there are troupes of celebrants on parade. Air is broken by the sound of cohetes, the firecrackers sent skyward to awaken the spirits.

Inside the church, groups of families, kneel, keen, sit cross-legged, light red, black, yellow, white candles representing the four cardinal points. Green is the symbol of earth. Fresh pine needles on the floor are swept aside. A shaman prays with them for the family to receive extra blessing.

No photos allowed or cameras of any type will be confiscated.

A church official carrying a smoking copal urn perfumes the air. The smoke trails him, raises toward the pitched church room, rafters adorned with ribbon. There are no pews. The air is dense, musky, a shroud. The light is like a Rembrandt painting.

Shuko is with me. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. She is originally from Japan and writes a blog, where she is sharing her experience of this day.

One of us asks, Is this Catholic? No, I say. It is syncretism. A blend of the mystical and divine, the spiritual and the ancient, the Catholic evangelization of Mexico. Who are they worshipping? he says. Mother earth, the thirteen levels, life and death, something soulful and unnamed, I say.

We sit in silence on sideline benches. Candle glow is the only light, other than from where the sun tries to enter the dark space where the roof meets the walls. This is a meditation.

Outside, bright sun illuminates Chamulan faces. They speak Ttotzil, one of the Mayan languages of the region. Men wear white and black woven and combed sheep ponchos. Women wrap themselves in woven furry black sheep skirts. The temperature is close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot.

Beyond the church is the market on the zocalo. Today it is packed with fruit, vegetables, raw meats, belts, fabrics, Western and traditional clothing, cooking stalls, people packing through narrow helter-skelter aisles that can dead-end. Children cry. Babies suckle at bare breast. Amber vendors ply their wares.

The men on parade continue to process around the periphery, drink pox, blow ancient horns, beat drums, play flutes, strum guitars, connect with their identity.

We buy wool chals with pompoms, clay copal incense burners, avocados, woven bags adorned with embroidery, ceramic candleholders.

I am taking a list of those interested in going with me to Chiapas in 2020. Dates will be late February or early March. Let me know.

12 responses to “Carnival in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

  1. Hello Norma ~~ thank you for refreshing memories. A friend and I were there several years ago for a different fiesta. The church was filled with big bouquets of white flowers with looping streamers of flowers hanging from the ceiling. Families on the floor with with candles, CocaCola, and liquor.
    Baptisms going on with babies and toddlers dressed up in their new outfits.
    After baptisms, priest spoke to me (in English) asking how I was and where was I from. He was Spanish.
    Such a moving and indelible experience!

  2. I’m loving every minute Norma! Thank you for providing such an excellent adventure,

  3. I’m interested in going why you to Chiapas next winter

  4. Wow! Nice pictures! I love your tour and blog. Thank you Norma about my blog too 🙂

  5. We are interested in going with you to Chiapas next winter.

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