Going to "Church" in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
Over the years we’ve visited all kinds of religious sites. We’ve released birds at a Buddhist temple in Myanmar, lit incense in a Hindu mandir in India, and even watched an Akha hilltribe carry out animist ceremonies in Thailand. But even with all that under our belts, nothing prepared us for what we saw at the church of San Juan Chamula.
We’ll get to all of that in a minute, but first let us tell you a little bit about the town. It’s situated at about 7,200 feet above sea level in the pretty mountains of Chiapas. The weather here is crisp and cool and pleasant. The 75,000 residents are primarily Tzotzil, an indigenous people who are closely related to the Mayan.
Tzotzil are short and sturdy individuals. The men wear Western-style clothes: cotton shirts, jeans, and boots topped off with a cowboy hat and a poncho in colder weather. The women wear woven square-shaped blouses called huipils over long skirts which are often made out of furry black sheepskin. They may also wear colorful shawls to complete their outfits. And, if you look closely, you might even see a baby tucked inside.
Because San Juan Chamula is an indigenous village, it is allowed to operate independently from the Mexican government. This means they have their own hospital, police force, etc. We think it also means they have their own take on Catholicism because we have to tell you what we saw going on inside their place of worship didn’t mesh with any services we’d ever been to before.
Let me set the stage. The church had a pretty and clean white façade with some bright green trim along the edges. Overall, it looked very sweet and inviting. There were a few men who were waiting out front to make sure that we put away our cameras and phones before we entered. Absolutely no photos!!!
As we stepped in, it took a few seconds for our eyes to adjust. The first thing we noticed was a man dressed all in white from head to toe toward the back of the main hall. From our angle, it looked like he was carrying a cross. He had some folks with him that were holding incense while a couple of others played guitars. We asked about the man in white and were told that he was a type of butler who was in charge of the church because they didn’t have a priest. (Hmmm, wonder why?)
The walls of the church were lined with statues of saints, one after the other. In front of each was a table where people could light a candle and pray for their needs, such as for a sick relative, safe travels, or help at work. There were literally thousands and thousands of candles inside the church. Apparently, the folks of San Juan Chamula have a lot of needs.
There were also candles of all shapes and sizes on the floors which were covered with a layer of pine needles. So, basically you have open flames next to dry kindling. Can you say, “fire hazard?” We were told not to worry because they changed the needles out every 3 days. We worried anyway.
As we gingerly navigated our way through the pine needles and candles (the needles made the floors slick as heck by the way), we were able to get to the front of the church. That’s when we noticed a trail of blood on the floor. We tracked back a few steps and saw that there was a group of people huddled together on the ground and praying. In the middle of them was a chicken that they had sacrificed. HUH???? I don’t mind telling you that we were a little traumatized!
Yes, we found out the hard way that chicken sacrifice is a regular part of the religious ceremonies taking place at the Church of San Juan Chamula. Ah ha! So, that’s why they don’t have a priest. It all makes sense now. (I guess the butler doesn’t have any qualms about killing animals in church.)
It was pointed out to us that, in addition to sacrificing chickens, these folks also believe that burping is a way to get rid of bad ju-ju. So, they drink a mixture of “pox” which is fermented corn, sugar cane, and wheat along with some Coke or Pepsi. Basically, they just sit and drink; get a little drunk and burp. (Sounds like a Saturday night in my old hometown.)
We definitely would recommend visiting San Juan Chamula if you're in the area. It's about a 15-20 minute drive from San Cristobal de las Casas. You can easily get a taxi to take you over, wait while you go inside, and take you back for about $10. Keep in mind, you will also have a to pay a small fee to go into the church itself. Or, you can organize a tour from one of the many operators in San Cristobal. Jalapeño Tours offers its Comunidades Indigenas tour that includes San Juan Chamula as one of the stops.