The church of Saint John the Baptist in Chamula, an autonomous indigenous municipality in the central highlands of Chiapas, is one of the prime locations in the world to observe elements of the traditional Maya beliefs combined with Catholicism. These practices include chanting, prayer, and, occasionally, the sacrifice of animals. While mostly chickens are made as offerings, dogs and cats are not unheard of. These animals are sacrificed on the church floor during rites of prayer.
Read more about Maya Catholic Syncretism on the World Chronicle.
Tourists are allowed to observe the proceedings for a 20 peso ($1.50) fee. No photos are allowed inside the church. During my visit, roughly a dozen shell shocked old Europeans were huddled together in the back, scarcely having stepped beyond the narthex — their gawking apparently satisfied from a distance. While myself, with my two year old daughter, sought to gawk at closer range.
Hand in hand we walked up to the alter, observing the sacrificing of two chickens as we made our way through the nave. Newspaper was laid down upon the floor to lop up the blood. We listened to the rhythmic chanting of prayers in Tzotzil Mayan. Thousands of candles were blazing all through the church, their wax dripping off in large piles upon the floor and over the shrines to various saints which lined the walls. The air was full of the scent of copal — a resin based incense. The floor was covered with an inch think layer of pine needles.
My daughter Petra was wide eyed, subdued — calmly observing the scene as we walked through it. The candle light was reflecting orange off her pale white face. As I stood and studied the alter area in the front of the church, my daughter walked off a little on her own. A little Maya boy caught sight of her and abruptly stood up from his chants, leaving his worshipping family to continue their rites without him. He walked directly over to the little yellow haired girl who stood nearby looking at him. They closed the distance, their faces not a foot apart. For a full minute, the children just stared into each other’s faces, looking into each other’s eyes. I stood back and watched, and, on the other side of the little couple, the boy’s family had taken a break from their worship to watch as well. Each child stared quizzically at the other — silently, unmoving, looking into another world which had manifested itself in the form of a peer.
The worshipers in the church at Chamula were not overtly unfriendly nor unwelcoming. Some could even be described as engaging, which took be aback a little, as, all too often, I’ve found indigenous people in the Americas to put up a sort of invisible barrier between themselves and outsiders: especially when the outsiders’ sole intention is to gawk at them. In Chamula, I filled the role of a gawker, and the indigenous the gawked upon. But we both seemed comfortable in our roles.
The worshipers were mostly adorned in traditional clothing — sheepskin vests, flower print dresses, wool skirts. When the men had finished chanting they would drink down the pox — a local sugar cane liquor — and sit back against the walls of the church. They would smile at my daughter and I as we walked up to greet them. Some of the indigenous woman would try to introduce their babies and children to Petra, who they smiled at almost gregariously.
The presence of my daughter more than likely eased the gawker/ gawked upon divide in this instance. Petra was walking around the church, wide eyed, observing, apparently amazed. The Maya worshippers seemed smitten with her — sometimes lowering their own children from their papooses to play with her, sometimes just smiling. At one point, a group of worshippers took a break from their obeisances to giggle at Petra when she slipped on the pine needles that covered the floor and feel.
The gawkers are truly part of the scene here — tourism in the church seemed to be at a comfortable state of maturity. I may as well have been a bench or a door or a donation box for all anyone seemed to care about my presence. The tourists in the church were a part of the landscape, and did not seem to interfere with the Maya as they went about practicing their religion, which is truly unique in the visibility of its obvious indigenous elements.
All too often, when observing indigenous life in the Americas — especially when it involves spirituality — there is a feeling of cold separation between you and the people who you are watching. The role of the “cultural observer” is an odd one to be completely at ease with filling. This is one of the cruxes of ethnographic field work: where does being an observer end and being a participant begin? Luckily perhaps, tourism provides no such dichotomy: you are a gawker alone. If you feel like too much of an ass about this, then perhaps travel is not your thing.
But if I felt lik an ass in Chamula, the feeling would have been of my own creation — as the Maya did little to provoke such a self analysis.