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Visiting the Zapatista Rebels and the Church at San Juan Chamula

Posted by on May 19, 2012

The stranger side to Mexico.

I have started writing about other areas in Mexico which I have visited that demonstrate it’s beauty and culture and of course the very friendly people. I have made many friends here. Mexico has surpassed my expectations on all levels, but unfortunately I haven’t got around to posting these updates yet, but I will shortly! But what I want to do now is to bring things a little more up to date, unfortunately this involves posting some of the slightly more stranger sides of Mexico, but this to me makes Mexico all the more intriguing and an even more attractive place to visit.

These events took place on the 10th May 2012.

Taka my Japanese motorcycling amigo and I set off for the rebel controlled town of Obentic about 45 minutes ride from San Christobal de Las Casas where we had been staying.

In 1994 a group of rebels taking their name from Emilio Zapata the deceased Mexican revolutionary leader from the early 1900’s, staged an uprising in an attempt to form an autonomous state of Chiapas and to highlight the plight of the indigenous people; the direct descendants of the ancient Mayans. The Zapatistas seized control of 5 cities in Chiapas as well as the government buildings in San Chrisotobal de las Casas. The Mexican government responded with superior military force but the uprising was not fully quelled. To this day they operate an autonomous area and government seperate from Mexico. Though this is not officially recognised by Mexico of course.

Largley the struggle is related to the dispossession of land and the marginalization of the indigenous people.

“We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no food, no education, no right to freely and democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are the millions of dispossessed, and we call upon all of our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation!”
– Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) Declaration of the Lácandon Jungle, 1993


Things have calmed down a lot over the last number of years and the Zapastisa are now pursuing their goals through more peaceful means. Though they remain armed and patrol their area. Their struggle was giving world wide attention and they have achieved a lot of awareness due to their actions.

Of course the issues are far more complex than I could possibly capture here so for more accurate information google ELZN.

We arrived at the gate to the village and are met by two men in balaclavas looking very menacing. They ask us what we want. With my limited Spanish I ask for permission to enter the village. A clip board is produced and we are asked to provide our personal information and the reason for our visit. Being from Ireland appeas to hold some sway with them as they acknowledge Ireland’s historical past.

They go off to speak to their superiors to request permission. We are kept waiting for an hour while whatever beauracy is sorted out.

I try to start some small talk with the 2 serious looking ladies with covered faces maintaining watch at the gates. Not surprisingly its a one way exchange, but as I turn away I hear some giggles, which takes the edge off a little.

We are eventually summoned and allowed pass the gate. Our guide, instructs us that no photos are to be taken of people and vehicles.

As we walk down the street leading to the village we pass some small craft shops selling local handcrafts made by the local indigenous people, and various community buildings. The walls are decorated with the images of past rebel leaders. Emilio Zapata of course, Che Guvera, but also images of a village and a people united, showing a union of nature and a union of people and ideologies.

We walk past a large covered basket ball court and pass by the secondary school. The primary school being located outside the gates for some reason. But everything is quite. There are not much people around. No children playing and no one working in the immediate area. We suspects it is a holiday, but we didn’t confirm anything.

We pass the library and the writing  above the door reads “democracia en la education. libertad en la educacion” (demoracy in education, freedom in education).

The visit is brief and we don’t get to ask a lot of questions and its difficult to get a feel for how the area is administered and operated and what life is like living in the rebel controlled village.

I take a couple of sneaky snaps of our rebel guide as we walk, nothing that might identify the individual of course but something to capture the situation.

Taka stops and asks the rebel can he take a photo of him. He agrees. The rebel with his balaclava takes a few steps back and takes aim at Taka with Takas camera. The scene resembles something  of a firing squad. Taka pulls out his motorcycle balaclava and dons it just as he is taking aim.. I pause. Awkward situation. I look up and see Zapatista rebel is now laughing. Phew. We all have a laugh and I call Taka a crazy man, the rebel agrees and we continue our tour.

Though I must admit Taka looks something like what I imagine Marilyn Monroe might have looked like were she ever to have faced a firing squad!

I stop at the craft shop and buy a couple of small items as we walk back to the gate.

We see many murals depicting woman as part of the armed struggle.

We walk back to the gate and complete our tour. The two guys who initially approached us at the gate come out of their hut to bid us farewell. They shake out hands firmly and thank us for coming.

It is possible to tell when somebody is smiling through a balaclava, their eyes scrunch up in the corners and their cheeks are raised.

We are given a warm farewell and toot the horn as we go..

Adios Zapatistas. Gracias y buena suerte.

We ride into Chamula soaked from the afternoon down fall. We cross the plaza on our motorcyles and park up at one end.
Within a couple of minutes we are surrouded by a man is his 40s and 7 or 8 teenagers.

They demand 300 pesos from us. I protest and ask what for? I  can’t make out exactly what is going on, beacuse many people are talking but the people are acting in a agreesive manner standing in the path of our motorcycles. I refuse to pay, plus i dont actually have any money on me.

No tengo dinero!’

The  man  reaches and tries to snatch my keys from the ignition. I grab his hand and shout “no tocar mi moto”! Said aggressively, with sudden braveness despite our situation.  He says he is going to call the police and takes out his radio. I ask him who is his and whether he is the police? He tells me he works for the Presedencia which I believe is local government. All the time demands of money, threats to call the police and the teenagers circling like little vultures. I turn off the bike take the keys out and say.

“Entonces  llama las Policia! .. (So call the Police).

The whole situation  is a tense affair and a stand off between me , Taka,  and the circling rent-a-mob. Taka seeming to have escaped most of the barraged and intimidation tactics (sometimes no knowlegded of Spanish is better than some, and playing dumb is a better option).

After calling his bluff no Police show up and the man backs down and says we can go. With things calmed down a little I can make out that he said no traffic is permitted to cross the plaza and the penalty is 300 pesos, yet I can see no signs and no curbs to delineate it, and besides it is up to the Police to issue fines and extort money from dumb tourists but hey, they might as well give it a go as well. Threats of the police in Mexico are usually enough to make any gringo hand over some green. (though in all honesty all my dealing with the Police in Mexico have been positive, bar one and that’s a story for another day.

Happy the stand off is over I make my apologies for crossing the plaza and leave.

I was very much looking forward to San Juan Chamula and particularly the church. I heard so much about it.  A very unusual place by all accounts.

I still had a bad taste in my mouth after our experience and I almost decide not to spend anytime in the town out of protest.

In the end I said “fuck those guys! I’m going in anyway”.. (.. just about the right attitude anyone should have immediately prior to entering a church…)

Nothing can quite prepare you for entering the church at San Juan Chumula and its difficult to find the words to  describe the feeling as you enter. It is something very strange and something very unique.

The locals have taken over the church here in Chumula.  What is undertaken  here it is certainly not condoned by the Vatican. What they practice has orgins in ancient mayan religious cermonies mixed with Catholisim.

As you walk in you are met with a very large open space in the church possibly 25 to 30 m wide by 120m long. Large fabric curtains hang from the center of the ceiling down in an arch to almost floor level. The air is slightly smokey with the incense and candle smoke. There are no pews and no chairs. All the furniture has been pushed to one side and piled up. The floor is covered with  fresh soft green pine needles. Along the lengths of the walls there are dozens of small alters and tables in front of them covered with candles, there must have been a thousands candles burning all over the church.

There are several groups of people all sitting on the floor in seperate groups performing their own prayers, offerings and rituals.

I stand at the door not moving for maybe 5 minutes very much taken back by the scene in front me. I watch for a few minutes and try to absorb the athmosphere before I walk through and to try to become a part of what is going on and not simply a bystander, a curious tourist. But that is impossible, not here. Nothing could be more alien to me and I can only stand out like the foreigner, I could never be accepted here, I could never partake in the goings on of San Juan Chamula.

As I venture in threading carefully over the pine needle covered floor I watch as some one very carefully clears the ground on his chosen space to make room for his family and commences placing candles on the floor.

I move further on and hear people repeating prayers and chants in a language that I have not heard before. I walk to the alters lining the side of he church and see all the candles laid out before the statues in cases of glass. Each statue has a mirror hung around it by the chest giving appearance or sense of a hole, or the sense of infinity and dept as you look into it, or perhaps personal reflection as you catch your own image in it at certain angle.

I walk further in and see 3 ladies sitting on the floor in front of an alter. There are two older ladies and one younger with a young baby perhaps 2 or 3 months old. The ladies are dressed in the traditional dress of Chiapas, they have what looks like blacks sheeps wool skirts down to their ankes and a black cottom top or blouse usually woven in the style traditional to their village.

In the space in front of them I notice some soda bottles there and a chicken, yes a chicken, actually its a cock. The chicken is being stroked gently and the feet are bound.
The ladies are playing with the baby, chating and smiling, but all the time the older lady is busying herself purposefully with some activity or other.
My presence is obviously a bit of a distraction and I can tell they are aware of me so I move on. I do another circle of the church trying to embed in my mind the scene and remember the small details, taking photos here is strictly forbidden and the advise is not to take photos of the people outside the church either.

I make my way back to over to the ladies after a while, the ritual is underway I stand by a statue pretending to say my own prayers but I am listening to the hypotnic prayer that is being repeated from the start of one breath to the next. Its very soothing and I stand there allowing myself to drift away with it for a while. I glance across very aware of not trying to intrude but keen to see what is going on. The scence is the same, so I move on. I  come back a few minutes later and now the chicken is an ex-chicken. As part of the ritual the chicken has been sacrificed as an offering, I am told that some of his blood is also drank as part of this ritual. Though I did not witness this, but this is a very common occurence in the church in Chamula.

Sometime later the ladies tidy up their things and leave, they have a couple of plastic bags and a reusable shopping bag with them.  We presume the Chicken is somewhere contained. Taka surveys the scene, he can make out some blood, we try to surmise what the significance of this sacrfise was and we presume that this was an offering  performed on behalf of the new baby to bring it good health as it starts out in life.

I walk further up the church back close to the door towards the man who was clearing his space for his families prayers. He is dressed in a black woolen tunic, kneeling on the ground hands held high and praying aloud.

Laid out in front of him are maybe 100 to 200  candles. Immediately in front of him are 4 glass bottles of Coca Cola. After his prayers he individually picks up each bottle of Coke, makes a swirling motion, and swings the bottle from the top back and forward. He does this with each bottle as if a Priest might with incence, he places them back back down, recites  some words and finishes the ceremony. He then hands each bottle to his family members. They each take one sit back and drink the Coca Cola and chat casually and burp.

Coca Cola has become a sacred drink to the indgenious folk of Chiapas. It’s gasiness and resulant burping is linked to the release of evil spirts from the body. During times of stomach problems the releasing of gas through burping is a great reliever, thus Coca Cola has assumed a status of a sacred drink in Chiapas.

Its hard to fathom the goings on in San Juan Chamula, the town its self looks like any other town in Chiapas, Mexico, there is little indication of what takes place behind the doors of the brightly painted church. But one thing is for sure it is very unusual and a very interesting experience.

One Response to Visiting the Zapatista Rebels and the Church at San Juan Chamula

  1. Tom in Vancouver

    I wonder – do you feel that you love Mexico and hate Mexico at the same time? I’m following your adventures with a combination of wonder, envy, and a feeling of relative safety!

    BTW, I’m replacing the steering head bearings in my ’83 C70 right now. That’s a nasty little repair – gotta take the whole front end apart! But it is a new experience, like all the rest.

    Keep it up, padre!

    (Zombie Beatles!!!)

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