San Juan de Chamula & Zinacantan

We were staying in St Cristobal de las Casas when we were given the opportunity to visit two indigenous cities which have merged local customs to the Spanish/Catholic traditions that had been brought over from Spain. These cities live independently, practicing their own law that stills falls under Mexican Legislation.

Lets start with San Juan de Chamula. In this town, men and women still wear their traditional clothing and work as a cooperative between businesses so that they can all support each other. One of the places we visited was a prison, their system in San Juan is different and if anything, a bit barbaric in my personal views. Prisons are open to the public, as in the cells face the outside, so that the prisoners can be publicly shamed. At times, depending on the severity of the crime, towns people are able to implement the death penalty within their land, as death penalty is actually illegal in Mexico. To an extent I understand why they have taken control of their own legal system, making it an area that has an extremely low crime rate in comparison to the rest of the country, however, I am still unsure as to whether or not I agree with it.

San Juan de Chamula

In this town men are also allowed to marry multiple partners, which is quite interesting as this is a hybrid Christian/Indigenous community. Also, what man would voluntarily surround himself with multiple wives and mothers in law? I know I am feeding the stereotype myself, but I actually think that sometimes women are very difficult to understand as are men I suppose.

These communities are highly influenced by the Mayans, which is evident by their use of the Mayan calendar and several ceremonies/rituals which include animal sacrifice, shamans, fireworks and music. Their ceremonial buildings (pictured below) are made of the skeletons of catholic churches but are very different inside. We were not allowed to to take photos inside, but the floors were covered in pine needles (oh so slippery!) and candles of several colours, as well as soft drinks of matching colours. Chickens are sacrificed by being furiously spun around by their heads then strangled. It is quite the ordeal and quite frankly, traumatising to see. The church is also filled with Catholic saints which are adorned with necklaces with mirrors. This shows the amalgamation of the Christian faith and the Mayan, for they have featured their own objects that are connected to the sun on the catholic figures. We also visited a spiritual leader’s house and learnt about their work in the society.

Religious building in San Juan de Chamula

We then moved on to Zinacantan a town that is also Catholic Traditionalist, as they put it to refer to the combination of both religions. Here the churches are much cleaner but decorated with flowers on the altars as this is a flower town. Here they do not have shamans performing rituals in church and there is also no prison. Men are still allowed to marry multiple women. Unlike in San Juan, people in Zinacantan can marry people from outside the village, but these new partners need to embrace Zinacantan life and way.

Women weavers of Zinacantan

Women in Zinacantan are taught how to weave to the best of their ability and we visited a family of weaving ladies. Their work is so beautiful and intricate, I bought my mum the most beautiful handwoven teal coloured scarf here. Zinacantan was much quieter than San Juan when we visited it, but it was truly mesmerising. The idea of a cooperative still stands here and the community support each other.

Visiting these two cities was an eye-opening experience, I feel that this truly unique experience broadened my understanding of hybrid religions and beliefs, and of Mexico in general. It wasn’t something I was going to do, but after a conversation with our tour leader, and expressing my desire to learn more about the culture and how the two beliefs blend together, he encouraged me to take this specific trip and it really was worth it. I could not recommend it more!

Festival gazebo in the centre of Zinacantan

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