Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fat Tuesday, the Mayan Way

Our experience continued. Today, Tuesday, we were heading to San Juan Chamula, a site of the true mix of catholicism and local ancient beliefs. Here the ban on photography was taken to extremes - DO NOT get caught with a camera. It has been known, and witnessed, that people that disregard this are beaten and their cameras taken away. In fact, all through out the zocolo they had locals with walkie talkies watching very closely. One instance a sudden rush of hordes of men behind us surrounded 2 older gringos. It was scary to watch. Don't think they got beaten but have no idea if they lost their cameras, their disc in their cameras, or naught . After all was said and done, however, they nonchalantly walked off towards the church.

When we arrived in the village after a fascinating taxi ride, we had to walk down into the zocolo, the area where the festivities/activities were going on.
 a view from the top with the church in the main plaza

 ...we weren't the only ones coming in, people from all over Mexico were here, including members of other villages in their local costumes as well as a few gringos like ourselves. We were definitely in the minority. 

The village was nestled in a valley with spreading of the village going up the mountainsides, as are most of these villages or pueblos that we are visiting. Very picturesque and very Mexican in flavor. Yes the people are Mexican, but they are also proudly Mayan (indigenous). the colors were brilliant, the dress unique, in many instances similar yet different. Each region is know for their unique textiles and it was observed today as they came into town. On both sides of the road, from the top of the hill to the main zocolo, were vendors and shops of all flavors, all vying for the next sale.  and not all from the pueblo of Chamula.

We arrived in the zocolo as the festivities were getting started. People were milling around an area identified by yellow paint, while around the perimeter every square inch was taken up. 
These people, as we did in the zocolo, sat out in the sun from who knows when in the morning until the festivities were over. Don't kid yourself, darker skinned people burn just like we do and many had shirts, t-shirts, sweaters, shawls and the like over their heads to keep the sun off. We had hats but it sure didn't prevent us from getting a pretty good burn.  It may be hot during the day, but when the sun goes down, so do the temperatures. 

Children and adults alike wandering aimlessly, dressed in 1 of 3. The one set of costumes was very colorful: yellow/orange or tawny leather/simulated leather britches in the style of the Spanish: white trousers under them. What was odd was that some had heavy, stiff leather backs attached to their sandals (see on the man on the left with the guitar). They were ungainly and looked to be hard to walk in, somewhat like a ski boot. Danny likened them to something that he had seen somewhere that would prevent the backs of their ankles (archives tendons) to be slashed in war, thus loosing the ability to walk again. The tops were multi-layers covered with a facsimile of a waist coat but in black and red stripes and this covered with a zarapa-styled shawl, tied together with colorful strings and pompoms. They also had a face covering that was reminiscent of a bandana covering but one that was shaped to their lower face, usually in black. Could this be where the Zapistas got their balaclava-like face covering? Then their hats - high, conical and covered with brilliant ribbons and held on with another chin strap, all in leather. They carried a carved/ornate stick and a polished bull horn. Their sandals were homemade and had very think soles.  Borrowed...
 These men seemed to be the guardians or the elders, but then there were some who were very young. Who knows.

Then there were the ones in country dress: jeans, shirts, big belt buckles, cowboy boots/regular shoes, with a white lambs wool tunic over that and a white straw cowboy hat. They carried a bag of sorts as well. Often these men also were the police and acted as such.  Borrowed ...
And then there were the ones dressed in everyday clothing. They too had their functions, some carried walkie-talkies and acted very suspiciously like undercover cops at times.
The young boys all were dressed in similar fashion as the adults and that included in the local dress from the other villages. The women were dressed in either their local dress, which was a varied as any style of clothing and just as colorful, in regular western-style clothing.  Borrowed ... Some of the greatest people-watching that I have encountered in a long time. I could have sat and watched them all day.

So what were we waiting for: 3+ hours of standing and milling around, baking under the direct noon-day sun, ferociously holding onto our spot by the highlighted part of the zocolo? We were here to witness the celebration of Fat Tuesday, the Mayan Way.

Chamula is an unique blend of catholicism and Mayan traditions, but definitely heavy on the Mayan side. Their church, a traditional mission-style early Spanish church, stands proudly and majestically on one end of the zocolo.  The church is different in so many ways.
~the outside decoration is definitely tied to the traditional ways altho the bell towers are distinctly Spanish
~ there has not been a traditional mass said in the church since 1968 but once a Mayan month a priest comes to perform baptisms which are singularly similar to Mayan custom
~ you are not allowed to enter the church wearing a hat - this is the first time and place ever that I have had to remove my hat as a woman. You can, however, carry an open can of bear and a lit cigarette, one in each hand, when entering.
~ the floor is covered with pine boughs and needles and smells heavenly, until you catch a whiff of something else - a mixture of burning candles, copal, liquor, and body smells. 
~ there are no pews, instead family groups sit together on the floor, in front of traditional statues of saints in non-traditional garb and totally surrounded and infused with candles. The family groups are drinking a form of probably the traditional drink, pox (like posh) or coca cola which is revered in the belief that it cause the evil spirits to leave the body with the belching (from the gas).
 borrowed from someone braver than I as photography is NOT, and I mean not allowed in the church. You go directly to jail if caught.
~ there are cascading fabric pieces, like a tent, throughout the church starting in the alter area 
~ the cross is in the form of a corn stalk 
~"police" or community members patrol the church and gently remind those of us that forget about the hats and any other infringements
~ in front of the church on the steps is a 5 ice band utilizing home-made instruments playing the same plaintive tune heard through the plaza/zocolo.
~ the community goes to the church to be healed as opposed to the Christian way of gaining salvation with healers performing their rites at the alter.

Oh yes, I have gotten off tract here a bit - the outdoor activities in the zocolo. We were here to see the celebrations of the fire walking and the bull run, both Mayan activities related to some form of traditional belief system. In order to fully understand the significance of each activity would take far more than an day's visit to an area. 

Fire-walking: the festivity begin as the various barrio representatives of the comity arrive in the zocolo amidst the sounds of the band playing the plaintive, repetitive music and the shouts of those present in the group. The ones dressed and carrying banners do use that, carry the banners, file the rest of the contingent carries sheaths of straw. They run around the zocolo having these sheaths cleansed and blessed (or so it would appear) at the cardinal points, in front of the church, and in front of the dignitaries. After doing this 3-4 times, they then lay the straw very thinly within the demarcated area of the square in front of the church, eat to west. 
This then is guarded by the brightly colored"uniformed" men and boys, waiting for the next group to do the same thing. After the last barrios has arrived and performed their "rites" the guards then start moving everyone back from the edge of the straw. The crowds grow in numbers and intensity the closer we get to the actual fire walking. At the sound of the horns, to the accompaniment of fireworks, the straw is lit and the ornately dressed run back and forth over the coals, carrying their banners. The heat is intense and the crowds move back with a few brave souls remaining close to the burning straw. They don't fire-walk in their bare feet - they wear their sandals.
 again, borrowed for illustration purposes.

As this activity comes to an end the crowd moves en masse towards the church. Having been forewarned, we move behind the barrier of the stone fence around the church. Here the bull running will take place. We can't see anything but a wave of people, moving and then running and screaming. So we move off to the side where there are actual breaks in the crowds. Where we end up is where the bus are being brought in for the run. The brahma bulls are roped around their horns, one stretching forward ahead of the bull and one behind, restraining the bull. What we see is an obstinant bull who lays his head down on the ground and refuses to move. The crowd roars, the runners bull, whip and cajole. Finally he runs as does the crowds. 

Not seeing much, getting definitely overheated, and having seen the works, we leave. To get around the square and wall to wall people we have to take the back streets. As we come back onto the main street, a few blocks from the square, a man suddenly gently pushes us over to the wall. Around the corner comes a team and their bull. We have front row seats as the bull snorts, paws, rebels and fumes past us, pushing the ones in front who are trying to steer him clear of the people and pulling the ones in the back who are trying to slow him down a bit. The people love it. Fascinating to watch but knowing the fate of the bull, I couldn't help but feel sadness for him. He acted as if he knew his fate.

And so ended our Fat Tuesday, a decidedly unique way to celebrate a Christian holiday in a way that will stay within our memories for decades to come. The colors, the smells, the sounds all intermingled to produce one big picture that is so hard to describe with mere words.