Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mexico travel notes – San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan

Other posts on my Mexico trip: Traveling to Mexico City, A whirlwind summary of Mexico, Ganesha in Mayan country, Karina's world, Arqueologia and Cibersexo in Mexico City, and Along the Usumacinta. Together they might give a better sense of the trajectory of my travel and the themes I am trying to explore.

Near the highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas in southern Mexico are the towns of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. These are Mayan towns. The people are short in stature, their complexions are dark, and their eyes small. As in many places, skin color here is an indicator of socioeconomic status. In Mexico, most people are of mixed Native American and European descent but the darker you are, the more indigenous you are, and therefore – given the history of subjugation – the more likely you are to be poor. Spanish is the lingua franca throughout Mexico, but Tzotzil and Tzetzal, both Mayan languages, are spoken in this part of the country. And the religions practiced are a blend of Mayan and Christian beliefs.

In San Juan Chamula I went to a “church”. I use quotations because this wasn’t a typical church, even if from the outside it looked like one. The picture above (I know, it’s a bad picture, and features a stranger's head prominently) is of the large, haphazardly organized market facing the church. San Juan Chamula is a materially poor place. It is not unlike an unclean and crowded small town in India. Food stalls flanked the main road. Children ran around visitors trying to sell trinkets. The day I visited, a ceremony was in progress near the church entrance, where a group of men, women and children had gathered for a slow dance. In commemoration, some town officials – wearing shawls and sporting wide, sombrero-like hats – set off rockets at regular intervals. I have missed Diwali in India for the last nine years, but the fireworks at this December event in southern Mexico made up for it somewhat.

Inside the church there were no pews; the floor was strewn with aromatic pine needles. Along the sides were figurines of saints in glass cases, whom the locals, seated on the floor, worshiped with great reverence. But it was the altar that was striking. There was no visible statue or image of Christ. All I could see was an excessively decorated space: the principal adornments were banana leaves and balloons. I was startled by this use of banana leaves. In south India they are everywhere of course: they may be used as, say, disposable plates, or to build makeshift arches at entrances to weddings and religious events. But I had not expected to see them used in somewhat similar fashion in Mexico. And there was a further similarity: getting a glimpse of the decorated altar in the church felt akin to getting a darshan of an overdressed, impossible-to-see deity at a crowded temple in India.

Later in the afternoon, I went to Zinacantan, to a house where textiles were sold. The building was a simple, single-storied structure. The interior was cool and the floor earthen. A living room led to an enclosed courtyard where clothes in bright colors and patterns – scarves, blouses, skirts, bed sheets – were displayed for sale. These were also the colors and dresses that the women of the region wore. Bright blue seemed to be a favorite, like the dress of the woman in the picture (she’s demonstrating the weaving process). The house seemed like the communal space of a large family. The sellers were all women; the men stared shyly from a distance.

1 comment:

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