Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chiapas Part 11: San Cristóbal's vivid street markets

Colorfully woven baskets were on display at the craft market near Templo Santo Domingo. It is impossible to approach the Templo without passing the booths of the large mercado (market) that almost completely surrounds the church on its broad stone platform. When we visited San Cristóbal de las Casas, the market was open every day. As far as I know, it operates year-round, seven days per week. The Maya have been master craftspeople for centuries, and their goods are not only well-made and lovely, but relatively inexpensive. In this posting, we will visit both the Templo's mercado and the nearby Mercado Municipal.

The mercado at Templo Santo Domingo

A Maya woman and her two daughters shop at the mercado. They are dressed in gorgeously woven and embroidered huipils (blouses) and skirts. The woman is wearing a tzute (shawl) around her shoulders. The design of their clothing indicates that they may be from the nearby village of Zinacantan. You can get a sense of their small stature by comparing it with the European tourist approaching from the opposite direction.

Typical booths at the mercado are filled to overflowing with brilliantly colored goods. Here, you could purchase adult and children's clothing as well as candy, wax candles, and other items. The proprietor was absent when I happened by. He or she was probably grabbing a bite at one of the neighboring food boths or visiting with another vendor. Had I hung about and looked interested, someone would have quickly appeared to attempt a sale.

Intricately woven macrame belts create cascades of color. As complex as the designs on these belts are, the craftspeople can weave them with surprising rapidity.

A mask-maker's booth caught my eye. I was attracted by the imaginative woodwork and paint designs on these small masks. The owner of the booth was also the craftsman. Use of masks for festivals and religious activities goes far back into pre-hispanic history and indigenous communities all over Mexico continue these traditions. Carole and I collect masks and I made note of the booth's location the first time I visited the mercado. Shortly before our stay in San Cristóbal ended, I returned  and selected a mask in the form of a deer's head with delicately carved antlers. It is now displayed on our living room wall in Ajijic.

Finely embroidered sashes display Maya artistry. These are worn with the Maya women's ankle-length skirts. The vivid colors contrast nicely with the skirts, which are usually black.

A selection of baskets, gourd bowls, and maracas was arranged along a stone wall. The mercado extended out along the streets beside the Templo. Jícara (calabash) gourds have made ideal containers for indigenous people all over Mexico for centuries. Some of the smaller gourds seen above have been made into small sonajas (rattles) with wood handles. The sonajas are filled with seeds to create their sound.

After visiting the mercado, a Maya woman strolls along Avenida 20 de Noviembre. This photo shows the beauty of Maya clothing as it is worn, not just as seen on a rack. These are not "dress up" outfits, kept only for special occasions, but are day-to-day clothing.

Mercado Municipal

We noticed fancy red trucks like this all around the Mercado Municipal. They belong to people who bring produce, flowers, and other goods from the surrounding villages. The individual owners spruce them up with fancy paint jobs, loads of chrome, lights, and painted designs. Visiting the Mercado Municipal is a delightful experience. It offers fruits, vegetables, flowers, medicinal herbs, crafts, and many day-to-day necessities. The Mercado is located only one block north of the Templo Santo Domingo on Avenida 20 de Noviembre. For a Google map of the area, click here.  On the map, the Mercado Municipal is shown as Mercado Viejo.

The Mercado was packed, in spite of threatened rain. The people milling about included Maya in traditional dress, Ladinos (non-Maya Mexicans), and foreign tourists like ourselves. August is the rainy season, but a little precipitation didn't seem to slow anyone down. Goods were displayed in the open on the flagstone plaza, and also in booths set under umbrellas and canopies. I find traditional markets fascinating and very entertaining. Their history goes back very far, well before the construction of the great urban centers of pre-hispanic Mexico. With the advent of cities, the ancient rulers of places like Chichen Itza in Yucatan and Tenochtitlán in Central Mexico set aside special areas for public markets. Early European visitors described scenes in those ancient markets that were very similar to what you see above.

I was dazzled by the riot of color at this flower stall. The cool, moist climate of Chiapas' mountains is ideal for growing a wide variety of flowers. The Maya growers bring their flowers from their villages to local markets like this, but also use their red trucks to haul them to far-away Yucatan and other distant locations.

Fresh chicken, anyone? These birds are pretty fresh and it is likely that they were pecking in the dirt only a few hours previously. When you buy a "whole" chicken in a market like this, you literally get the whole chicken: head, beak claws and all. The only thing lacking is feathers and you could probably get those too, if you wanted them.

Some basic elements of the Mexican diet. Above you see many of the fruits and vegetables commonly found in Mexican kitchens. The tomatoes, peppers, chiles, and tuna (fruit of the nopal cactus) are native to Mexico and have been consumed since the earliest times. The garlic in the center basket is the only item shown that Hernán Cortez and his Conquistadores would not have seen when they toured the great market of Tenochtitlán. He described the mercado this way:

"This town has many squares on which there are always markets, and in which they buy and sell. But there is another, twice the size of the town of Salamanca, completely surrounded by arcades where every day there are more than sixty thousand souls who buy and sell, and where there are all kinds of merchandize from all the provinces, whether it is in provisions or jewels of gold and silver."

Hairy balls of rambutan fruit filled a stand in a side aisle. Rambutan grow on an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia. They have become very popular in Mexico and can be found in markets throughout the country. Although it looks spiky, the hairs are soft and the red covering is easily peeled, revealing a soft, sweet, white fruit inside. The presence of rambutan fruit in the remote mountains of Chiapas attests to the long reach of globalization.

In addition to the mercado's open plaza, there are several rows of long, narrow aisles. The aisles extend at lest two city blocks each, and are usually packed with people. When Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo visited one of these markets in 1520, he was dumbfounded:

"When we reached the great square called Tateluco, as we had never seen anything like it, we stood amazed at the infinity of people and goods, and by the method and regularity of everything."

Fresh, whole shrimp lay in a great mound on a broad table. Camarones (shrimp) are very popular in Mexico and are offered in a wide variety of dishes on the menus of many restaurants. Twenty-five percent of the world's farmed shrimp come from Latin America and Mexico is one of the major producers.

Jícara bowls made from calabash gourds were piled high in another section of the mercado. The calabash fruit grows on a tree known in Mexico as the higuera but its botanical name is Crescentia cujete. Pre-hispanic people found many uses for the calabash and modern Mexicans still use them in much the same ways. In addition to jícara bowls and cups, the calabash shell is used for musical instruments, and the pulp is sometimes made into a medicinal drink for flu and colds.

Yellow and green habanero chiles were offered at this booth. I was impressed by the artistic flair of the vendor who created this arrangement. The habaneros are carefully placed so their colors contrast in a wicker basket lined with deep green banana leaves. I found the same sort of artistry in many of the other booths in the produce area.

Masses of children's shoes hung from the support poles in another booth. These are probably cheap imports from China, another indication of globalization. China is becoming one of Mexico's most important trading partners.

Maya herbs in these sacks provide remedies for a variety of ills. The infirmities addressed on the signs above include gastritis, ulcers, and rheumatism. While there are mystical and supernatural aspects to traditional Maya medicine, the use of natural herbs is based on thousands of years of close observation of the effects of various plants on the body. While at San Cristóbal, Carole and I visited the Maya Medicine Museum, which will be the subject of a future posting.

The ultimate in fresh poultry! This one comes complete with feathers and its gobble. I almost tripped over this guy, who was hobbling around on his bound feet while a vendor's little son kept an eye on him. Live animals are another interesting aspect of the Mercado Municipal. Turkeys were first domesticated by the Maya of northern Guatemala during the late pre-classic era (300 BC - 100 AD). They were one of the few domesticated animals of the pre-hispanic New World.

This completes Part 11 of my Chiapas series. I hope you have enjoyed your visit to the local mercados. I always appreciate feedback, corrections and questions. If you would like to do so, please leave your message in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a message in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Chiapas Part 10: The ornate art and architecture of San Cristóbal's Templo de Santo Domingo

Detail of a retablo on the side wall of Templo y ex-Convento de Santo Domingo. A small figure wearing a straw hat and carrying a basket of flowers peers out from the middle of a fantastically ornate retablo made of carved, gilded wood. The floor-to-ceiling retablo was just one of eight that line walls of the main nave and a side chapel of this 17th Century Dominican church. Templo Santo Domingo is located on Avenida 20 de Noviembre, about five blocks north of the Zocalo (main plaza).  Because it has become such a landmark in San Cristóbal de las Casas, I decided to devote a whole posting to this one church. By the end, I think you'll see why. For a Google map to locate Templo y ex-Convento de Santo Domingo, click here.

External features of the Templo

The stone facade glows as it is bathed in the warm sunlight. The facade was carved to imitate a retablo, with the statues of eight saints set into niches framed by Solomonic columns and esoteric designs. In my experience, the Dominican Order has produced the most elaborate and ornate churches in Mexico. The cliche "over-the-top" isn't sufficient to capture the overwhelming intricacy of Dominican church decoration. I have mixed feelings about this because most of the resources to produce it came, directly or indirectly, from indigenous people who occupied the economic bottom of the colonial society. Above, in the center, Carole mounts the stairs to the broad platform on which the Templo stands. On either side of her, Maya vendors have set up semi-permanent craft stalls which nearly surround the building and occupy much of the flat space on the platform. The presence of the stalls makes photography of the church exterior difficult, but the wares and people are interesting. Perhaps this is just the Maya way of getting back a little of their own.

Detail of one of the two saints whose niches bracket the main entrance. The figure shown above is San Pedro Martir (St. Peter the Martyr), a Dominican friar who was active in suppressing heresy in the 13th Century. Both this statue, and that of San Jacinto on the right side of the door, are missing their heads. This vandalism may have occurred in the anti-Catholic repression of the mid-19th Century Reform War or during the 1926-1929 Cristero War following the Revolution. Ironically, the actual St. Peter was assassinated when the top of his head was cut off with an ax by Cathar heretics in 1252. The Solomonic  columns on either side of the statue are typified by their spiral shape and lush floral decoration. The columns get their name from the columns that Emperor Constantine the Great brought to Rome in the 4th Century AD as a gift for St. Peter's Cathedral. Legend has it he got his columns from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, hence the name. However, it is much more likely he salvaged them from a pre-Christian building in Greece. Solomonic columns did not become widely popular until the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th Centuries, when they became one of the signature elements of an architectural offshoot known as Spanish Churrigueresque.

A bald, jug-eared, and bearded man wears a mustache which becomes luxuriant foliage. Baroque architecture in general, and particularly Spanish Churrigueresque, tends to decorate every surface with countless little details like this. The effect can be overwhelming, but also mesmerizing as the viewer's eye is drawn from one fascinating little detail to another. The Churrigueresque style is named after Spanish Basque architect and sculptor José Benito Churriguerra (1665-1725). Early influences on the Churrigueresque style were the Moorish Mudéjar architecture of Southern Spain, as well as 15th Century Italianate. Churriguerresque is basically Baroque on steroids.

Double-headed Hapsburg eagles frame a statue of Santo Domingo de Guzman. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was member of the House of Hapsburg. Charles became King of Spain in 1516 and three years later became Holy Roman Emperor. This occurred just shortly before Hernán Cortéz conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521. Cortéz' exploits radically increased the power and wealth of Spain. In turn, Charles exerted a powerful influence over Nueva España for the crucial first 35 years after the Conquest. The Hapsburg double-headed eagles can also be found on the facade of San Cristóbal's Catedral, and their appearance in both places demonstrates the intimate relationship between Church and State in Nueva España. As to Santo Domingo (St. Dominic), he founded the Dominican Order in 1217 as an order of preachers. Dominic was an ascetic and wore old robes and walked with bare feet on stony ground. When he died, he asked his followers "to guard their humility and to make a treasure out of poverty." I can't help but wonder if he would have approved of the lavish decorations typical of Dominican churches.

A pair of cherubs tends to a sacred flame or sunburst. I confess that, as a non-Catholic, some of the imagery is pretty obscure to me. In fact, much of the imagery of Mexican Catholicism is heavily influenced by pre-hispanic indigenous beliefs, as well as styles adopted from the Muslim Moors of Spain. The wire netting you see above covers nearly all the facade to protect it from pigeons and their inevitable droppings. Carole, who has a distaste for pigeons, calls them "rats with wings."

Santo Tomás de Aquinas is framed by four more Solomonic columns. This statue is located on the right side of the second level of the facade. Its height apparently helped it escape the vandalism suffered by the statues on the first level. Notice that the spirals of the pairs of columns on each side move in opposite directions from each other, and that only the middle part of each column uses floral decorations. St. Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274) was another illustrious Dominican friar. He is considered the greatest theologian of Catholicism and one of the greatest Medieval philosophers.  He wrote and taught on matters of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory. Much of modern philosophy is based on his ideas, or was developed to refute them.

Only the tops of the steeples are decorated.  In many churches, steeples are the most prominent features, often soaring high above the rest of the building and visible for many miles. At Templo Santo Domingo, the bell towers on the corners of either side of the facade are almost an afterthought. The facade itself is the dominant feature of the exterior of the church. The Dominican friars who built the first version of the church reached San Cristóbal in 1545. A year later, they persuaded Spanish authorities to provide them with six lots for their church/convent complex. More importantly, they were assigned the labor of 16,000 local Maya to build their religious establishment. Bishop Francisco Marroquin of Guatemala laid the cornerstone of Templo Santo Domingo in 1547. Chiapas was then part of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, and much of the architecture of colonial Chiapas was heavily influenced by Guatemalan styles, as well as those of neighboring Oaxaca.

A Maya woman and her son set up shop by the side door with their three baskets of goods. Notice the ancient wooden doors. Usually these are kept shut and the smaller doors set into them are used for day-to-day purposes. The work on the first version of the church proceeded very slowly because a lack of funds, or possibly due to Maya resistance to forced labor. The Spanish Crown finally intervened in 1550 and ordered that the cost be shared, with 1/3 from Royal funds, 1/3 from the Spaniards, and the remaining 1/3 from the free labor of the province's Maya inhabitants. This intervention, along with the Royal 1/3, may account for the double-headed eagles on the facade. The first modest adobe-and-thatch buildings were finished in 1551, but the church has gone through several reconstructions since then. 

View of the Templo's domes from the rear.  The mountains surrounding San Cristóbal rise in the distance. The Dominican complex apparently prospered. By 1555, the friars were back petitioning the authorities for more land to expand. Disaster, in the form of a lightning strike, occurred in 1563, but the damage was repaired, and in 1582 dormitories were built to upgrade the friars' formerly modest living quarters. The 16th Century Convento dormitories are now part of a museum that adjoins the Templo. Sometime between 1660-1670, the old flat roof of the church was replaced by barrel vaults and the domes you can see above. It is believed that the main body of the present church was completed in 1698. The facade around the main (west) entrance, including the Hapsburg eagles, was completed sometime during the 1700s. In 1863, a battle during the French occupation of Mexico left the facade in a mutilated state. The Dominicans sought to restore it in 1872, but had to sell many of their valuable artifacts and retablos to raise the funds. In 1902, an earthquake shook the entire length of the Templo and the Capilla del Rosario (Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary) was severely damaged. As a result, the Templo was closed for many years, but it was finally restored in 1975.

The Templo's main nave

The focus of the main nave is not the altar at the far end but the side walls. The main altar, seen in the distance, is rather simple and sparsely adorned. In contrast, the intricately carved and gilded retablos on the side walls are filled with paintings and statues. Oddly, although I was able to gather a great deal of information about the history and exterior style of the church, I could find very little about the history or designers of  the retablos or other interior decorations. San Cristóbal's Templo Santo Domingo is thought to be one of the most highly decorated Dominican churches in the Americas. Its only rival in ornate splendor was destroyed in the massive 1773 earthquake that left most of Guatemala's old capital at Antigua in ruins. 

The left wall of the main nave contains three massive retablos. A retablo typically has at least one central niche in which a statue of a saint is exhibited. This niche is usually surrounded by others filled with more statues or paintings of religious scenes. The niches and statues are usually surrounded and framed by intricate floral designs carved in gilded wood. Often, small faces peer out from the foliage. In Templo Santo Domingo, even the pillars set into the walls--called pilasters--are highly decorated. With all this splendor on each side, I wondered how people could focus on the ceremonies and rituals conducted at the main altar. 

The pulpit was carved from a single piece of oak. It is considered one of the special jewels in an already overflowing treasure box. The pulpit is entered from the right, and the priest stands under the canopy, with the painting behind him. The pulpit itself resembles a rich, gold chalice. The effect is breathtaking.

More gilded carvings and another painting adorn the corners of the nave. Even the ungilded parts of the structure are beautifully carved and decorated. The figure in the painting wears a rich scarlet robe and holds an iron tipped spear. This may indicate a royal status.

Above the main altar sit two metal objects whose purpose is unclear to me. They stand about 30 cm (12 in) high, and each is set with a large yellow jewel in its center. The intricate designs include what appear to be clusters of grapes. In response to a request for information from my blog viewers, I got two replies with three different possible answers. Christina, of the "Mexico Cooks" website, asserts that they are Baroque-period palmatorias, used to decorate altars. My friend Erik from Denmark suggests that the devices may be ciboria, used to hold holy wafers. He sent me a photo of a ciborium that looks quite similar to the objects above. Another possibility is reliquaria, used to hold sacred relics. 

The first of the three retablos along the left wall. Various paintings of the Virgin, Christ, and other religious figures surround the central niche. The paintings on either side and above the niche are framed with Solomonic columns, indicating that the retablo was probably created in the late 17th or early 18th Centuries.

A triumphant angel is framed with gold. The Catholic Church of the Baroque Era found itself embattled with surging Protestantism. Europe was wracked with intense religious wars and the Church pursued the Inquisition with its embrace of torture and the burning of heretics. Nueva España had its own very active Inquisition aimed at keeping everyone on the straight and narrow. Figures like the one above were a sort of war-time propaganda poster meant to inspire confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Church.

The left wall's center rebablo. The child with the straw hat seen in the first photo of this posting can be seen here in the full context of the retablo. The two oval spaces above the child's statue probably contained paintings at one time.

Detail of the floral designs on one of the pilasters separating the retablos. The Maya inhabitants of Chiapas have been skilled carvers of wood and stone for thousands of years. Their richly decorated pre-hispanic cities are witness to this. Apparentl, a good many of the thousands of Maya who were drafted to build the Dominican edifice were gifted craftsmen.

The third retablo on the left wall, nearest the main altar. This one has paintings not only surrounding the central niche and its statue, but on the pilasters on either side. As you may have noticed, the retablos get more and more elaborate as the main altar is approached.

Capilla del Rosario

The Capilla del Rosario is small but gorgeous. Saving the best for last, the Capilla del Rosario (Chapel of the Rosary) has the most elaborately decorated retablos in the whole church. Dominican churches we have visited in various cities also have side chapels devoted to the Rosary. The Capilla del Rosario del Templo Santo Domingo in Puebla is a particularly good example. The Capilla above has two retablos, one at the end of the transept and one on the left wall.

The Capilla's main retablo has ten pairs of Solomonic columns framing its niches. There are five paintings and two statues in seven niches. The central statue is the Virgin of the Rosary. The Dominican Order has a long association with the Rosary and legend has it that St. Dominic himself was given the Rosary by an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the church of the Dominican monastery at Prouille, France.

The Virgin of the Rosary occupies the central niche. The identity of the statue above her is not clear but it is possible that it represents St. Dominic. The Catholic Rosary refers both to a set of prayers and to a string of beads that are used to count them off. The use of beads for similar prayer purposes is very ancient and probably has its origins in India. Some scholars think that such beads were used by Christians as early as the 3rd or 4th Centuries AD. Use of the Rosary did not really catch on until the 15th Century. Legend has it that Alanus de Rupe, a Dominican priest and theologian, received a vision from Jesus directing him to revive the use of the Rosary, which had apparently fallen out of general use since St. Dominic's time. In fact, the first documented mention of St. Dominic's involvement with the Rosary and his encounter with the Virgin are found in Alanus de Rupe's writings. The form of the Rosary used today is essentially the same as the one popularized by Alanus de Rupe in the 15th Century.

A worshiper prays in front of the side-wall retablo. The retablo above is even bigger and more elaborate than the main Capilla's retablo. Pope Pius V officially declared the Church's support for the Rosary in 1589. Not coincidentally, Pius V was a Dominican himself. The Rosary began to appear in Catholic art in the 17th Century, about the time when the Capilla del Rosario was built.

This completes Part 11 of my series on Chiapas. I hope you have been as impressed as I was by the spectacular art decorating both the interior and exterior of this amazing church. If you have any comments, questions, or corrections, please leave them in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chiapas Part 9: The pueblo of San Juan Chamula and its other-worldly Maya church

Green Maya crosses symbolize the ancient religion as well as Catholicism.The crosses above embody what Mexicans call sincretismo, which means the mixing of cultures. After our visit, Carole and I agreed we had never visited anyplace quite like San Juan Chamula. The town's Maya name, Chamula, means "Thick Water" in the Tzotzil language. At first glance, the green crosses appear simply as the familiar Christian emblem, but there is much more going on here. If you look closely at the crosses, you will see smaller crosses at the tips and along the cross pieces. Some of them are the simple 4-point cross, as found on either arm of the left-hand cross above, but others have 8 points. The symbolism of both the 4 and the 8-pointed crosses goes far back into pre-hispanic history. The 4-point crosses relate to the Ceiba tree, which the Maya call "Tree of Life." Its roots are in the underworld, its trunk forms everyday reality, and its leafy canopy--represented by the cross piece--forms the heavens. However, most of the crosses have 8-points made up of one 4-pointed cross superimposed on another. The Maya were the greatest astronomers of ancient Mesoamerica. The 8-pointed crosses relate to their observations about the layout and movements of the various celestial bodies. The Maya connected those movements to recurrent cycles of time and thus to their famous and extraordinarily accurate calendar. Now, hold on to your seats, you are about to enter another world.

The ruins of the Templo de San Sebastian brood over Chamula's cemetery. The church was originally constructed by the Dominicans. It appears to have been built in the baroque style of the 17th Century, but some elements of it may go back to as early as 1562. The Templo de San Sebastian was destroyed almost a century ago, by causes I have not yet ascertained. Given the timing, the destruction may have have been a deliberate act during the Revolution of 1910-21, or possibly during the Cristero War of 1926-29. It could also have been the result of a simple accidental fire. In any case, the parishioners were upset that the saints of the church did not prevent its destruction. They decided to punish those saints by leaving the old church in ruins and taking the statues of the saints, which had somehow survived the fire, to the main plaza's Iglesia de San Juan Chamula. There they joined the San Juan church's saints, but the San Sebastian saints were placed facing the wall, much as one might punish a child who has failed to do his chores. In addition the images' hands were chopped off and they were deprived of the rich robes saints' statues often wear. In recent years, they have been allowed to face forward again, but they are still not accorded the reverence normally given to other saints. The large town cemetery surrounds Templo San Sebastian and, as we approached, we realized that local leaders were conducting a funeral.

Attired in traditional dress, Chamula mourners gather around a gravesite. The men wear cowboy hats but also the traditional, thigh-length tunic made of furry black wool. The one officiating wears a similar tunic, but made of white wool. All the traditional clothes are handmade from materials locally gathered. The wool comes from sheep that are revered and protected as a part of the family. Upon its death, a sheep is mourned as if it had been a person. As the official in the white tunic bows forward with his arms outstretched, he appears to be conducting a funeral rite. So as not to intrude upon their gathering, I stood a considerable distance away and used my maximum telephoto setting for this shot.

The street leading from Templo San Sebastian to the main plaza is lined with crafts stalls. Most of the goods we saw were handwoven textiles and clothing, but many other items were for sale too. Tourists flock to the pueblo of San Juan Chamula and the locals have a decidedly ambivalent attitude toward them. On the one hand, a good deal of the community's income results from selling crafts to visitors. On the other, the Maya residents are very shy about being photographed themselves, and they are especially adamant against photographs of the inside of their famous church. As to the crafts, I have generally found that the closer to the source, the better the price. Many of the craftspeople who make the goods sold to tourists on the streets of nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas come from San Juan Chamula. For a Google map showing Chamula's location in relation to San Cristóbal de las Casasclick here.

An example of the exquisite embroidery created by local Maya. Other nearby towns have taken advantage of Chamula's popularity with tourists and sell their goods here too. The flowery style of this  shawl and skirt outfit indicates that it may have been made in Zinacantan, a few miles away. I will do a later posting on Zinacantan and its textiles.

Outside City Hall, a statue of a Chamula leader stands in full regalia with his staff of office. The plaque entitles it "Monumento A Mi Raza" (Monument To My Race). The figure wears a broad-brimmed, be-ribboned hat similar to those seen in Part 8 of this series. He is attired in the same furry tunic as the men at the funeral. The statue's pedestal mimics the hat brim draped with ceremonial ribbons. Despite the modern appearance of the buildings that surround the plaza, the people here are very traditional, and also very independent. In 1994, the Zapatista Movement rose up and seized San Cristóbal to protest the implementation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). San Juan Chamula and the surrounding towns are still a major center of Zapatista support in Chiapas. The people of Chamula have been resistant to outsiders since the earliest days of the Conquest. In 1524, after the Spanish defeated an indigenous army, Bernal Diaz del Castillo was granted an encomiendo for Chamula. This gave him the right to demand free labor in return for the dubious benefits of Christian instruction. Diaz del Castillo was the young officer serving under Hernán Cortéz who wrote the famous first-person history called "The Discovery and Conquest of New Spain." Outsiders have been trying to oppress Chamula's Maya ever since, but they have resisted, most recently through support of the Zapatistas.

The PRI is a big political player in Chamula. At the time we visited, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had just won the governorship of Chiapas and a number of other state and local posts, as well as the national presidency. The PRI maintains a large office right on the Chamula plaza. The party held national power in Mexico for 70 years between 1930 and 2000 and in the process gained a reputation for blatant electoral manipulation and corruption that finally resulted in their ouster by the PAN (National Action Party), a conservative, business-oriented group. The PAN lasted for two 6-year presidential terms before being defeated in 2012 by a rejuvenated PRI. Between 2006-2012, PAN discredited itself with its feckless, US-sponsored, War on Drugs which has left 60,000, and possibly as many as 100,000 Mexicans dead. Many Mexicans feel that PAN has been too compliant with US infringements on its sovereignty and that the real problem originates north of the border. That's the huge market to which the drugs flow and therefore is the source of the money that funds the drug cartels. It is also where the majority of  the guns originate that have been used to kill thousands of Mexicans. However, many in Mexico also feel that the "new" PRI is simply old wine in a new bottle. Only time will tell whether the PRI will be successful in bringing the drug war to a close and a better life to Mexicans.

Carole (left) and our tour group listen to the instructions of our guide (center in green blouse). There were several Italians as well as Mexicans in the group. We were the only English-speakers and the guide asked us if we could understand Spanish, because presenting the information twice would slow things down considerably. We agreed to try, if she would agree to speak slowly and distinctly. It actually worked pretty well and we were pleased at how much our Spanish comprehension has improved. The guide's instructions were very important at this stage because we were about to enter Iglesia San Juan Chamula where photography is absolutely forbidden and it is perilous to disrespect local customs. Taking unauthorized photos can, at a minimum, get you ejected from the town with the probable confiscation of your film or even your camera, and possibly even a trip to the local jail. Some time ago, when feelings were running particularly high against foreigners, a European tourist was reported to have been beaten to death for refusing to abide by the no-photos rule. Consequently, the most mind-blowing part of our tour had to go unrecorded by my camera and my written description will have to suffice.

The church occupies one side of a broad, cobblestone plaza. On the right side of the photo, a kiosco (bandstand) occupies the center of the plaza. As you can see by referring back to the photo of the San Sebastian church in the cemetery, the design of that facade is very similar to this one. The San Juan church is named after St. John the Baptist and was founded, as San Sebastian was, by the Dominicans. They took over responsibility for the area's religious affairs in 1549, but had little initial success in converting the Maya. After much preaching, only a single old man came forward to be baptized. At this point the Dominicans adopted the practice of many evangelical orders of those days. They tried to coopt local customs, practices and beliefs to serve the interests of Catholicism. The Maya, in turn, recognized that the oppressor was not going away and that the Dominicans were simply the ideological arm of the Conquistadors, or the velvet glove that covered the mailed fist. They decided to adapt themselves to the formalities of Christianity, but to build in--or sneak in--as much of the old religion as possible. Thus, sincretismo.

The old church steeple has three bells, rung by hand ropes. The dates just below the middle bell, 1522-1524, correspond to the period of the initial struggle to conquer Chiapas. It is unclear exactly when the San Juan church was built. However, it may have been around the same time as the San Sebastian church. Like Templo San Sebastian, the style is late 16th or early 17th Century Baroque. According to "Architecture and Urbanization in Colonial Chiapas Mexico" the San Juan Church is a somewhat larger replica of the Templo San Sebastian.  It has a single nave, with a peaked roof covered with barrel tile made of terra cotta. While the corners of the building are of cut blocks of stone, the walls are rough stone held together with lime mortar. On the facade above the main entry, and below the bell tower, is an unusual window (see previous photo). Apparently the window was used as an open-air pulpit from which crowds in the plaza could be addressed. This may have been because the church itself was much too small to contain the large number of reluctant Maya who would have been involuntarily assembled so that the Dominican priest could harangue them from the window. The object just behind the cross is duplicated by two more of the same on either side of the top of the bell tower and another two on the top of the two front corners of the church (see previous photo). These objects, called merlons, appear to have stoppers in their necks and strongly resemble the demi-john jugs in which aguardiente (brandy) was stored in colonial days.

The main entry is colorfully decorated and closely guarded. The only entry was through the small opening in the main door you see above. The great door is opened each June 24, the feast  day of San Juan Bautista. Several men stood or sat in the immediate area, eyeing visitors closely. The door is recessed in three arched steps, each decorated by alternating 4 and 8-pointed crosses. Once we passed the portal, we entered a world where Catholicism largely disappeared and ancient Maya traditions took over. The interior was one long room with little furniture except for an altar at one end and tables along the walls. The tables were lined with San Juan's saints as well as the displaced and disgraced saints of Templo San Sebastian. Family groups sat cross-legged on the pine-needle covered floor, in no particular order. Each family had lined up several rows of lit candles on the floor in front of them. The various sizes, shapes, and colors of the candles relate to the sort of plea being made, or the thanks being given. The only light in the room came from many hundreds of these twinkling candles. In addition, cups of liquid sat among the candles, obviously part of an offering ritual. Copal incense swirled about and quiet Tzotzil chanting filled the air. As Dorothy of Wizard of Oz fame said to her dog at one point, "Toto, I've a feeling that we're not in Kansas anymore."

Detail of the entrance door and its 4 and 8-pointed crosses. Among the Maya, religious mysticism, mathematics, astronomy, and ancient traditions are woven seamlessly together. The atmosphere of the interior was magical and totally unlike anything in my background. Close beside me, Carole was murmuring similar thoughts. We moved among the family groups and saw that some were focused on curanderos (healers), and the rituals they were performing. The curanderos used feathers, copal smoke,  Tzotzil chants, and other devices to summon mystical forces to battle against the ailments of their clients. Some families had brought live chickens that they were preparing for sacrifice on the church floor. After the ceremony, the chicken would be taken away and cooked by the family for a sacred meal. Although it is considered sacrilege to wear a hat into the church, someone arriving with an open can of beer will be welcomed. Alcoholic beverages are part of the ceremonies. One of these is pox (pronounced "posh"). It is made from cane and is 38% alcohol. Senselessness through drink is considered a way to connect with the Otherworld. Another interesting tradition relates to the mirrors worn by the saints lining the church walls. The Maya believe that during the worship of a saint (who may in fact represent an ancient deity), the soul leaves the body. The mirror helps reflect it back to its owner. Mirrors have been used as a portal between worlds since ancient times. Some were found buried inside the Temple of Kulkulkan (also called El Castillo) at Chichen Itza, as well as in other ancient Maya locations.

As we walked back along the craft booth street, I noticed this line of snarling jaguars. The colorful little statues stand in front of a row of beautifully woven Maya belts. Jaguars appear in the Maya world again and again. They are one of the most powerful and important creatures in the natural world and in Maya mythology. Our visit to San Juan Chamula had been enlightening, not to say mind-blowing, and totally unique. The Catholicism of the town seems to be about an inch thick, overlaying 3000 years of Maya religion, culture, and practice.

This concludes Part 9 of my Chiapas series. I hope you have found it as interesting and eye-opening as we did. I always encourage feedback, questions, and corrections. If you would like to do so, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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Hasta luego, Jim