Lawless village displays long disdain for outsiders


February 01, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico -- A walk through this village is as close as one can get to stepping into ancient Mayan society. But be warned: Chamulans like a good fight and they do not like visitors.

"Parents in other villages discipline their children by telling them, 'If you are bad, the Chamulans will come take you away,' " says Andrew Mutter, an anthropologist who studies Mayan culture.

There are no police in Chamula. Disputes are settled violently. Over the last few months, many Chamulans eagerly joined the Zapatista Army for National Liberation. The rebels began their war against the Mexican government on New Year's Day and vowed to fight as long as necessary to secure a more prosperous future for Indians in the southern state of Chiapas.

However, for years, the Chamulans have fought to save the traditions and beliefs of their past. Several years ago, a group of European tourists were killed in Chamula because they took photographs inside the Chamulans' main cathedral.

Anthropologists explain that the Chamulans believe when a camera flashes, it is stealing spirits.

Some 28,000 people live in wood huts in the hills surrounding the town square. Most of them grow corn and beans on small plots of land. The farmers speak mostly Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect, instead of Spanish.

They all wear the same colors, sort of a uniform that tells others where they are from. The women wear black cloth wrapped like skirts around their waists and blue shawls over their shoulders, while the men wear black wool ponchos and straw hats.

Women do not wear shoes because the Mayans believe they came from the earth and should always have direct contact with it. Men wear leather sandals.

Instead of modern medicine, many Chamulans submit to medicine men called "curanderos" who often get rid of infections by bleeding the patient.

Women rarely speak in public, unless it is to sell a visitor hair ribbons or bracelets of woven wool thread.

Chamulan families raise chickens to eat; sheep are raised to provide wool for their clothing.

After dark, the men gulp down a sugary liquor, called posh, and stumble through the square. It is a barren, austere plaza of concrete, with the church on one side, the mayor's office on another, and a school and several flat concrete huts on the other two sides.

Their cathedral, a plain white structure, dominates the plaza and is the center of activity. Almost every day there are families who go there to worship, practicing a mixture of Roman Catholic and Mayan rituals.

The families enter the church carrying bundles of thin candles and bottles of posh. Pews have been stacked by the back wall of the church because worshipers prefer to squat on straw that is scattered on the green tile floors.

A candle is lighted for every favor they are going to ask from God. And then, to enter a state in which they can communicate with God, they share glasses of posh. Everyone from the youngest to the oldest member of the family participates.

Drunk, they mumble prayers, cry over their hardships or pass out.

The crosses in the church and around the central plaza all have tree branches attached. The Mayans believed the cross was a tree of life, Mr. Mutter explained. So they attach branches to it to make it look more like a tree.

To keep their religion pure, village leaders have organized expulsions of their neighbors who become Protestant. Anthropologists say one of the reasons for the evictions is that the Protestants threaten to infect the village with new ways of thought and behavior.

Chamulans believe they exist to keep alive the tribal traditions.

"They relate to their past more than to their future," Mr. Mutter said. "We often think about what people might want in their future, but Chamulans do not think about tomorrow.

"And it's not because they are mindless," he adds. "It is because they are different."

Understanding the way these people think will be critical if the Mexican government hopes to find a peaceful solution to the rebel uprising in which more than 200 people have been killed.

"There is no doubt that this is a Mayan uprising," Mr. Mutter said. "If government officials try to ignore that, then they miss the point and they will never find solutions."

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