San Cristobal de las Casas, the Heart of Indigenous Chiapas

The Spanish colonial city of San Cristobal is in the state of Chiapas which has a population of approximately 25% Indigenous peoples. This was very evident when roaming the streets since indigenous men, women and children also walk the streets selling goods throughout town. Women were laden with blankets, clothing, weavings and often carrying infants or small children on their backs. Children, I’m sure as young as four were also carrying what goods they could manage to carry and they were not afraid to ask for the order.

 

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San Cristobal is surrounded by a number of small towns where villagers in the surrounding hills come for markets and ceremonies. These populations, the decedents of the original peoples of Mexico are quite varied and identified largely by language and dress. In one village they wear coats, skirts and shawls of thick shaggy black wool.

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Higher ranking men wear white shaggy wool vests with fanciful woven head and waist bands. In another village men and women wear pink and purple elaborately woven tunics, blouses, shawls and dresses.

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The languages heard in these towns to me sounded more Asian than Hispanic.

We attended a Sunday market day in two of the small towns and they were unlike anything we’ve experienced in Mexico to date. It was a cool, drizzly, cloudy day which added to the other-worldliness of the experience. In San Juan Chamula the Tzotzil people dressed almost exclusively in thick, shaggy lamb’s wool. There was an odor of wet wool everywhere. Some of the vendors sold raw wool in a variety of colors. Many vendors sat on the ground behind their wares of raw vegetables or spools of colored yarns or boiling pots of soup or tamale like foods freshly wrapped in blue corn husks. There was a hum about the place and in spite of there being very few tourists in the place we drew little attention.

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We were told, in no uncertain terms, that there is absolutely no photography allowed inside the church. Since tourists were welcomed inside the church for a small fee, we got in line to enter.

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There was one small door for both entry and exit with a stream of people exiting the church when we arrived. Finally we gained entry to the dark church and an unfamiliar world of “Catholicism” mixed with pre-Hispanic beliefs emerged. There were no pews or chairs in the entire church and it was packed wall to wall with people. Most of the floor was covered with long green pine needles where people sat or knelt by themselves or in random groups. An intense smell of incense filled the air from many burning bowls throughout the church. Some people sipped an alcoholic beverage used in worship though we’ve heard that there are evangelical groups that oppose this practice. Small lit candles were stuck directly to the floor cleared of pine needles. There were hundreds of burning candles throughout the church-on the floor, on side tables, going up the stairs to the main sanctuary where there was a priest presiding over a mass. This raised area where the mass was being conducted had throngs of people jammed in following along. There was no p.a. system or microphone so it was very difficult to hear the mass. The sanctuary area seemed disconnected from the larger floor where the people seemed to amass in separate groups for particular ceremonies apart from the mass. One area seemed to have a group Baptism going on with several babies and a priest giving the sacrament. The people in the main hall spoke in low murmurs further disconnecting it from the main mass. We walked through very slowly and respectfully but the sights, smells and sounds were overwhelming. The thought occurred to us that a significant fire hazard was at hand with the pine needles, the candles and the one small entry/exit door. This certainly did not deter this mass of humanity though from worshiping in their own unusual way.

One thought on “San Cristobal de las Casas, the Heart of Indigenous Chiapas

  1. Lovelovelovelovelovelove San Juan de Chamula. I could not get enough of the church and the ritual of the people there, the Saints in their cabinets dressed in indigenous garb, the chickens, the little kids playing slip and slide at the back of the church on the pine needles. That is how I want to worship!

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