It’s impossible to take a photograph inside the once-Catholic church of San Juan Chamula. It is a Sunday haven of pre-Hispanic mysticism, with folk practices that go way back in indigenous history. Tourists are warned to tread lightly.
My body aches to take a photograph of the family crouched on pine needles in front of a sainted altar surrounded by a pile of eggs, a live chicken, and dozens of burning candles affixed to the tiled floor where the pine needles have been swept aside.
Taking photos in the church is verboten. Forbidden. In years past I have seen village officials who mind the church protocol confiscate the cameras and memory cards of those who sneak a pic. Impossible to be sneaky here. Sometimes, if a tourist resists, s/he is put in the local jail.
Our group from Penland School of Crafts is compliant. We tuck camera’s away into shoulder bags and backpacks. We are not going to tempt the fates or the village fathers.
A woman kneels in prayer singing in an ancient tongue, a melody pitched so that the gods will hear her. Another keens. Another weeps. A shaman makes a blessing with an offering of coca-cola and mezcal. Burping the fizzy drink is believed to cleanse the soul. Sunlight streams through the high side window and beneath the glow the people are bathed in shadow and light. The space is illuminated. Smells like piney forest, smokey candles, the burst of lilies and roses.
Feet are bare and worn. Feet are brown and calloused. Women’s furry black sheep wool skirts are tied at the waist with glittery cummerbunds. Their blouses, silky polyester, are embroidered with intricate diamonds, birds, flowers, zig-zags and snap at the throat. It’s cold at 7,000 feet elevation.
This is sacred space, like being in a cave. Here the human and divine spirit are one and belief is powerful. I guess no photographs are necessary to remember.
Beyond the church courtyard is a lively market place to buy hand spun and embroidered wool from the town, strange fruit, clothing from surrounding villages, meat, poultry, vegetables tortillas and bread. Amber and jade vendors hawk their wares. Little old ladies whose garments are beyond wearing, peddle purses, bracelets and keychains.
Today, the plaza is lined with indigenous women and children from outlying hamlets, hundreds of them. They sit on the edge waiting. What are you waiting for? I ask one of them. She replies, we wait to receive an every-two-month stipend of 850 pesos. Soon, they form a line and hurry to the back of the government building. Their support is equivalent to $45USD per month. Of course, she doesn’t want her picture taken.
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