13:49. 2-Jan, 2012. San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico.
This one will require a bit of imagination. When I entered the windowless dorm room last night in San Cristobal de las Casas, the only other inhabitant who was sleeping stirred, asked me what time it was, and I replied half past 12. Springing to life, as if he’d lost track of time and forgot to set an alarm, he thought I meant half-past noon, but it was only midnight. Settling in for the night and not even knowing each other’s names, we chatted for over an hour, and one thing that piqued my interest was a church in a village half-hour outside town, where he assured me “just go inside, and notice the Coca-cola”.
This morning after rising early and attempting to find a combi to catch the AM session of an open symposium at the Zapatista school (and failing), I hopped into another collective minivan bound for San Juan Chamula, the Tzotzil (hill tribe) village with the aforementioned church. I’m here, now, and so happy for it.
It feels a bit like Bolivia, in that everyone is in traditional dress, the men sporting black fuzzy woolen coats and cowboy hats, the women wearing long skirts of the same shaggy black fleece, which look an awful lot like the fake fur you might find people wearing in the wee hours before sunrise at Burningman (but it’s probably real.) Beautifully decorated, some old women have bright, rainbow-colored streaks woven into their long platinum braids. (Maybe this is where Burningman borrowed it’s signature aesthetic.)
The white church has aqua and blue-painted arches, with gold adornments, pictured above. But nothing would prepare me for the interior, a vibrant and sacred space, a special combination of the Christian and indigenous world, where photography is not permitted. (Sorry guys! I really am, as it was amaaaazing! I made a sketch though, see below.)
Entering through the wooden door, the scent of pine fills the air. The cathedral floor is covered in pine needles, and there are no pews. Cloth arches of flowered fabric arc down from the loftiest beam in the center down towards the sides, lending a very homey feel, like your grandmother’s linen closet, and from the center of each of the inverted arcs a giant bouquet of real flowers hangs upside-down, suspended like huge chandeliers. In fact, there are huge arrangements everywhere, not only like treasure at the ends of every arc, but also in-between and on top of every one of roughly forty life-sized boxes that line the walls, made of wood and glass, each encasing a saint or virgin, and reflecting a thousand points of flickering candlelight. The statues are beautiful, lifelike, colorful, maybe porcelain, with names like the Sacred Heart of Christ or the Virgin of This or That (there were many of each), robed in fine linens and ribbons of every color, enthroned and immortalized like carnival Kings of kings and Queens of queens, all wearing at least a few mirrors to further multiply their illuminate glory (and I’m sure there’s some historical significance, too.) In front of every box was a wooden table covered in candles, at least a hundred on each. Locals and pilgrims knelt on the floor, everywhere, chanting aloud in the Tzotzil language, and lighting candles. Each family prayed over an arrangement of 50-100 candles, stuck with dripped wax to the floor, commemorating family and loved ones, alive and deceased, and they also had Coca-Cola. Yes, everyone had Coca-Cola. Old ladies were swigging Coke like it was going out of style… just a few more ounces… This part I couldn’t begin to guess about.
I walked-up to what would be the altar, (being careful not to slip on pine needles or start and fires), but there was none. Instead pilgrims took turns praying before an elaborate display of garlands, pines, flowers, blinking lights, tinny electric Christmas music, and there was a small stature somewhere in the middle (reminding me much of the small but extremely sacred, hardly distinguishable powder-colored idols in ancient Indian temples), and of course hundreds upon hundreds of candles with gyrating spiraling-decorations powered by the heat of fire. One woman was holding out a chicken in front of her and her family, waving it around in circles, reciting some prayers, which seemed like a long time. I walked around some more to check out what everyone else was drinking, some people slipped and fell, and would-be altar boys were going around with scrapers, taking up wax from the shiny tile floor. Coming back around to the altar, I could see the family literally pulling the chicken apart. It looked difficult for all parties involved, as no tools were being used. Feathers were everywhere. When I noticed they had another chicken at their feet, I decided to go outside and take a breather.
Aesthetically, in detail, originality, and viscerally in scent and lighting, this was the most interesting church I’d ever been to. But what was going on in there was so different than any Christianity I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I read that when the Mayans were assimilated by the conquistadors and missionaries, they ‘adopted’ the new religion, but rather simply renamed their objects of worship (ie. Mary being associated with the moon and stars, God and Jesus the sun), and were permitted a ‘synchrony’ of the old and new rites to exist alongside each another. I love it!
Except for those poor chickens, of course :(
Addendum: I recently stumbled upon this article which reports on the significance and politics surrounding the Coca-Cola consumption in these parts. Illuminating and disturbing: Cola Wars in Mexico