It was slightly unpleasant in San Cristobal. The Zapatista uprising had quieted down but there was palpable bad feeling between the Indians and the ladinos, among whom we seemed to be lumped. A cab driver appeared to have tried to run us down and my companion had engaged in a full and frank exchange in colloquial Spanish and perhaps Mayan, as she was a longtime resident of Mexico and could be fluently rude in several languages. When she suggested that we get out of town I thought that was a fine idea, so we rented a car and drove out to see San Juan Chamula.
This was to be, I assumed, a bit of sight-seeing. I had heard of it as a place where tourists went and had seen photos of its famous church with its extravagantly decorated facade and colorful, if reputedly surly, Indians.
From San Cristobal de las Casas it was ten or fifteen kilometers through hilly forest to San Juan Chamula. A couple of years before our visit the town had been seized by rebels, and the whole area was said to be a hotbed of Zapatista sentiment, but at the moment the Army seemed to be everywhere and we were assured that all was safe, and that even the famously touchy Indians would no longer chase foreigners out of town for taking photographs in the village, though photos of the inside of the church were strictly forbidden. This ordinance was enforced by Indian constables: short, serious-looking men with a billy club hanging from their belt.
Once in the village I noticed that their distinctive clothing was the same as some of the ill-tempered Indians we had encountered in San Cristobal, though here we were on their own turf and seemed consequently more relaxed. I paid a small fee for permission to photograph anything in the town, though I was once more warned that under no circumstance could I photograph inside the church. Once inside the church, it was obvious to me why this was.
No description of the outside of the church can do it justice. There is no resident priest and the Indians paint it however they please and there are plenty of photographs of the exterior. The interesting part is inside.
From the bright outside sunlight we passed through a small door into the shadowy nave of the 18th Century building. It was a long, high-ceilinged room, its sole illumination three windows far up on one wall, the shafts of sunlight descending through clouds of smoky incense from innumerable small burners placed around the room before images of saints in glass cases or tended by small family groups seated on the floor, itself strewn with long pine needles. The floor of the church shimmered with rows of candles set before offerings of poultry and eggs and bottles of clear cane liquor around which small groups of Indians sat or knelt and chanted or prayed or stared off into space in quiet adoration of some beautiful, unseen thing. Some men were sharing a small glass of liquor and holding hands, and on their face an expression of profound peace.
There were images of Jesus and Mary, though they seemed to receive no special attention compared to the saints in their glass cases set around the walls of the broad, open room. There were no pews or any seats, and everyone sat on the floor or stood or knelt. In the air there was the pleasant, resinous smell of burning copal and fresh-cut pine, and there was a low background hum from the chants and prayers of the small groups, each lost in their own observances. There were no fidgeting children, nor did anyone’s attention seem to be wandering, but all were quietly focused on what they were about.
We noticed that the glass case that held the San Antonio was empty and we were told that the statue was broken from old age and had been sent to a man who lived in the hills to be repaired. He was not a priest but had, all his life, abstained from sex and was very pure and it was he who was restoring the San Antonio.
It was not long after the Conquest and forced conversion of the Indians -- and the forceable suppression of the old religion -- that a Spaniard would complain that in the old days the Indians worshiped a hundred gods and now they worshiped a hundred and one. From their conquerors the Indians acquired not just one or even three gods, but a whole calendar of saints, and the Indians from their old religion were quite comfortable with the notion that one god might appear in the guise of another, so they embraced the sprawling family of Catholic saints with enthusiasm and a convenient vagueness as to exactly whom they were praying when they offer their chickens and eggs and bottles of cane liquor and burn their candles and incense before a Christian image.
It was perfectly clear to me that the church of San Juan Chamula was not a Christian church but a fully functioning temple to the gods who had always been worshiped here. Not one of the great temples where the pulsing heart would be ripped from living sacrificial victims while thousands looked on from the plaza below, but a small temple in an out-of-the-way town where the people were less concerned with the high priestly business of feeding hungry and implacable gods to sustain the cosmos and more driven by a desire to be in blissful communion with the fundamental, sustaining things of the world, with the sun and rain and the mysterious forces that brought corn from seed and children to mothers.
This would be perfectly clear to anyone who saw it and was, I suspect, a major reason that they did not care to have pictures taken inside the church at San Juan Chamula. Lest these should find their way to Rome and onto the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger.
In the next valley over was the village of Zinacantán. The first thing I noticed was how prosperous everything seemed. There were huge plastic-covered greenhouses: the village was a major grower of flowers. Everything seemed neat and clean -- it was only then that it struck me that Chamula had not been -- and grass grew, well-tended, around the school and public buildings and the people were friendly and weren’t trying to sell us anything.
The church at Zinacantán was larger than the one at Chamula, and looked newer, though it may only have been that it was all pure white, as was its interior: tall and cool and quiet, with almost severe gray and black details. Before the main altar and the side altars were small, clay censers, either tripods or in the shape of an animal. And unlike Chamula, the floor was clean-swept and the church was full of light from tall windows on every outer wall and a group of Indians were at the front of the nave, praying in a recognizably Christian manner. Unlike San Juan Chamula, this was a Catholic church.
As I rested in the back of the church, taking in the details, I noticed that there seemed to be little explicitly Christian symbolism in it spare decoration.
One motif in particular caught my attention, as I could not tell if it were supposed to be a floral pattern or animal or purely geometric, or some combination, so I drew it in my notebook and saw emerging the curved ends of the jaguar’s mouth with other details coming together to form Caso’s Glyph C, that peculiar and enigmatic design that appears in the headpiece of Cosijo, the Zapotec rain god. It may just have been a coincidence, or my overactive imagination, though looking at my drawing all these years later I still see the jaguar’s mouth and I doubt that it was accidental.