Tag Archives: spirituality

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas: No Photographs, Please

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Interlude: Santa Cruz, California

Work as I have known it, with routine and some semblance of structure and predictability, has ended.  My office is cleaned out of all the essentials and my personal memorabilia, ready for the next person to inherit and create as their own.  I will return on December 27 for my exit interview and give up my identity card, office keys, building pass and parking permit.  My last act of separation will be to remove my name plate from the office door.  I will give intention to this and I will be very aware of what this means as a transition in my life.  My identity will be elsewhere.

Now, I am in my sister’s house far from my own North Carolina home in the land where I was nurtured.  My elderly mother, still fresh of mind and spirit, lives with assistance in her own space where she is cared for.  I aspire to become her age with such grace, beauty and intelligence.  Meanwhile, this is my interlude.  The sustenance of family connection that takes me to my roots before I launch into Oaxaca on December 28 to begin the next adventure.

After dinner, I show my mother photos:  of the casita where I will live in Teotitlan del Valle, of the cemetery rituals of Day of the Dead, of the landscape of mountains and corn fields, of the church at the center of this universe.  She asks about Catholicism and the Zapotec practices. She lives in a Dominican community as a non-Christian and she understands spirituality.  Oaxaca was founded by Dominicans.  These are the constant connections in our lives.

She is old.  We talk about the symbolism of Day of the Dead, the celebration of the spirits of loved ones returning to share in the emotional connection of the living for one day.  We relate to that because in our tradition we light candles once a year to bring light to the memory of those we have loved who have died.  She is taken with the photos of grave sites and altars covered with  flowers, photos, the offering of food and beverage, the enticement of copal.  I think she would like to be honored this way.  With celebration and reverence.

The Spaniards brought Catholicism to Mexico, I explain to her, and laid it upon indigenous belief.  It was like a porous blanket.  Their intention was to embed the new religion and eradicate the old.  But the ancient spirituality was strong, older than the new religion, and I create this image for her:  it is like the smoke of the copal incense rising through the fabric of the blanket to find its original source.  The power of the Church was officially eradicated during the Mexican Revolution when church holdings were appropriated and returned to the civil state government.  Today, ritual and celebrations are family focused and held in the home, in the altar room.  My mother and I discuss the similarities of our own religious traditions.

As the Christmas lights twinkle and the elderly from the Dominican community assemble for the bus tour to see the holiday lights, I think of my transition to Mexico at this time of year.  The village posadas will begin.  I will arrive in time for the magic caves of Teotitlan ritual that pre-dates the conquest, and move into epiphany.  I will pray for the completion of the casita as I have for the past four years.  The cycle of celebration continues with the aid of many saints and virgins who are called upon to protect the believers — all an amalgam of indigenous belief and Catholic ritual.

This is easy for me to understand and appreciate, I tell my mother who has never traveled outside this country.   And, she gives me her blessing which is all I need.