Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I spent the better part of last summer traveling through Southern Mexico and Central America.  I flew into Tuxtla Gutierez, Chiapas MX with a one way ticket and a loose plan to be gone for about 3 weeks.  I stayed for two months.  When I can, I will post tales of my adventures, snippets from my travel journals and photos from a trip that culminated in a week of sleeping on a bench and working in a Zapatista clinic in the autonomous town of Oventik.  I will start this series off with my first mind blowing experience of the trip, an afternoon in San Juan Chamula.

The first adventure of my somewhat recent trip to Mexico happened on my first full day in Chiapas.  I woke up and realized that I somehow forgot to pack toothpaste.  I left the hostel in San Cristobal de las Casas that morning intending to purchase a tube and come right back but somehow I ended up in the indigenous Mayan mountain town of San Juan Chamula instead.  Chamula is extremely unique, there is surely no other place on earth quite like it.   It is a town occupied by Tzotziles (one of many Maya ethnolingustic groups in the neighborhood) though they self identify as Chamulas, which is notable, making them literally an ethnic minority within a minority within a minority.  Chamulas live only in Chamula, or in small exiled (more on this later) groups outside of larger San Cristobal de las Casas, or Oklahoma.  Yep, Oklahoma is the destination of choice for Chumulatecan migrant labor.  Anyway.  After a long walk from the main one lane mountain road, jumping a few creeks and ditches and a stroll through a cornfield you come to this:

Note the dirt path into town.  Also note the big white cloud over the green building...  They were partying Chamula style that day, which means they were drinking liquor out of gas cans and blowing shit up.  There was some kind of religious festival going on and every few seconds there was a large explosion, which were locally made fireworks.  No actual visual fireworks but they had these little bomb like things that packed a hell of an aural punch.  Think gigantic m80s. 

Chamula is an interesting place.  The people who live in Chaumla occupy kind of the extreme end of the Mayan religion, which they call catolica tradicional.  Catolica tradicional is anything but traditional catholic.  Inside the church there are no pews but there is green pinestraw all over the floor, as well as candles.  There is an odd pantheon of saints with a different hierarchy than you may be accustomed to.  Jesus is there but he is second in line to John the Baptist.  Go figure.  Anyway, the religion is basically a mixture of traditional Mayan beliefs and catholicism.  There are “pulse readers” in the church who can diagnose illness with an egg and a bottle of grain alcohol, and if you bring them one, they will sacrifice a chicken (in the church!) to cure what ails ya.  I really wanted to have my pulse read but was not feeling comfortable enough in my command of the language to ask.  There is also a vibe of don’t-overstep-your-boundries-outsider in Chamula so I didn’t do it.  They don’t believe in the crucifixion story or any of that mess, but do believe in animal spirits etc.  Pretty cool.  The religious/community leaders wear ski masks under pointy hats with colorful tassles.  Unfortunately I have no picture of this as that is rule number one to outsiders:  absolutely no photographs inside the town, except of the outside of the church.  Especially people and especially especially the religious leaders.  The impression I got was that it was not wise to fuck around in Chamula.  In the 60s they ejected the catholic bishop from the town, and he and all representatives of the catholic church are now banned forever.  The military and federal police are also forbidden to enter the town, under any pretext.  They do not observe daylight savings time, nor do they go in for any sort of freedom of religion; any religious dissenters or christians are evicted and denied re-entry, for life.  Hence the small Chamultecanos-in-exile communities outside San Cristobal.  If a Chamula wants to marry anyone besides another Chamula (someone who was not born in the town) they will be exiled.  If you were not born in Chamula, you can never live in Chamula.  There are no hotels, as no one is ever allowed to spend the night in Chamula but permanent residents.  They have their own judicial system and their own police force.  There is also trash everywhere and most people you come across are completely hammered off of the local ‘shine they call “poxe.”  Dudes drink this out of old water gallons, water bottles, gas cans, whatever.  I had the great fortune to get to sample some and it really wasn’t bad.  It is liquor made from corn and all sorts of other shit.  You can buy a regular water bottle sized portion of poxe (pronounced posh) for 10 pesos, or $1 USD.  This is probably enough to kill you.  

There are chickens everywhere.  I walked around and tried to talk to some people but a lot of people there don’t speak Spanish, only Tzotzil.  And definitely no english.  I got some great chicken tacos (figured they’d be fresh) from a really friendly guy at a stand outside the market.  I walked around and watched guys blow shit up with their no-flash fireworks and saw the religious leaders tearing ass around the main square on horses, wearing their masks and hats and all that.  Very cool.  The men of Chamula wear these thick black (or white) wool vests and cowboy hats, the women wear thick black wool skirts.  This goes for everyone except the religious leaders, who have the cooler mask and hat uniforms.  Though not taken in Chamula, this photo shows guys dressed in the traditional Chamula digs:

This was some kind of parade a week later in nearby San Cristobal.  The music was cool.

Perhaps the most different of the very-different things I saw in Chamula was their jail and police force.  There were a few guys behind bars in this kind of storefront jail behind the main square.  When you get arrested in Chamula, you sit in this cell where everyone can see you (shame is the punishment) for 3 days.  Always 3 days.  There is almost no crime besides fighting and spousal abuse in Chamula.  If there is a murder, they turn the murderer over to Mexican authorities in San Cristobal.  I asked what happens if someone commits the same crime twice?  The answer is that instead of doing more time in the jail, they are forced to work as police officers for 1 year!  What!! Multiple offender status makes you a police officer!  I would say thats crazy but you know, at least in Chamula they are honest and open about the fact that their cops are criminals.  They don’t try to deny it like we do.  And the police uniform?  Whatever black or white wool vest you were going to wear that day but with a stick tied to your back.  Tight.  

Chamula is an awesome and different place.  I spent my time there walking around looking at stuff, trying to talk to people and figure out what was going on.  I had a great experience there just witnessing it all, and writing about it now makes me want to sell everything I own and get back on the road.  If you are ever in the area, check it out. 

this is the church taken from outside the town

this is the church from the market, taken very carefully

the market


the xarlacc said...

thearticles.org is the shit. that was really fucking tight to read!

kegbenk said...

yeah man, that's wild stuff.

articlescollective said...

GAWD DAYMN i just went on a journey reading that shit. so tight. for real.

also, old chamula in purple shirt in front center of the second to last photo is so tight when you click it to blow it up. booyah.