The custodian of the church is waiting for me outside the main entrance of the small and colorful structure. His name is Miguel. His eyes are red like fire, but he is very calm and kind. I cannot even imagine all the “pox” (type of tequila homemade in Chiapas) he has on him. He smiles at me, and that makes me feel more confident, and after paying the ticket to get into the Catholic church of the village, he invites me to get in. It is the first time that I have to pay to get into a religious place, but Miguel keeps telling me that it will be a great experience that I will never forget.
I leave behind the square of San Juan Chamula, crowded of Indigenous people selling any kind of food available in the market, and I turn my eyes inside the Church. I never seen a so dark and frightening “House of God” and I think that it would be dark night if it was not for the hundreds and hundreds candles situated on the floor the church, creating an incredible and evocative atmosphere. I slowly start to walk into the church, while surprised; I have to stay away from the candles piled on the floor. It is hot in here, and the smoke makes me feel sick. The images of the Christian Saints are covered with textiles, ornaments, mirrors, while under their chapels indigenous women, in trance, are repeating incomprehensible litanies, blazing incense and placing candles in front of them. The floor is covered with pine needles, and the cross behind the altar does not have Jesus Christ exposed, but a crown of yellow corn leaves. A Tzotzil woman is recalling my attention.
The atmosphere is peaceful, even if my heart is pumping hard for the enthusiasm. I had never seen a practice of cult where the beliefs of an indigenous culture and catholic rituals were getting united in a wonderful syncretism. Besides the other indigenous women there is only me into the church. I wonder where the other men are, but while my mind travels into illogical hypothesis the woman that I was looking at, begins her religious service. She begins placing candles around her, colorful candles, and lighting up incense and praying in her Mayan language. I remain amazed, thinking how their beliefs survived so powerfully to create a new practice. Taking my eyes off of the woman for a moment, I look around and I notice something that I did not see before: the images of the saints are missing their limbs. Miguel, the custodian, will explain later that they are paying for their punishment, inflict by the Mayan women because long time ago, the church where they were initially exposed went on fire, and the women believed it was their responsibility, so the right solution was the punishment of the saints.
I look back at the woman, which in the meantime was holding an egg on her right hand, while with the left one was holding another woman’s hand. She begins to trace the other woman’s body, keeping chanting her prayers, and waiting for the bad spirits to leave the body of the woman possessed to get into the egg. I had never imagined seeing a Mayan ritual in person. And I know understand why there are corn leaves on the cross and not Jesus Christ crucified: keeping in mind Mayan Gods ( Yum K’aax) and their religion, the corn leaves in the cross symbolize fertility to Mayan women. It is an incredible scene the one that I see in front of me, where the Mayan culture still predominates, and it found into a Christian church the possibility to profess their practices. The woman keeps going on with her purification ritual, and offering to the other one food mixed with blood. It is their blood that they leave drip into a dish, after cutting their arms. Finally, she expresses thankfulness to the Gods, taking out from a sack a chicken that silently stayed in there all that time, and careless of my presence, broke the neck of the animal scarifying it to the Gods, as a sign of thanks. Miguel, later, will explain that if the saints do not satisfy people’s desires, they get punished also. The forms of punishment differ: they are not taken to procession, or in other occasions the Mayan women wont pray them anymore.
I realize that I saw enough, and I decide to leave the church, when getting outside I get blinded by the light of the sun, and even before reacquiring a perfect vision I get approached by a group of kids begging for food or money. My thought remains with the Tzotzil woman. With her practices and her ethical sense she brought me back in time, when religious sacrifices and respect for their beliefs were the origin of the Mayan cultural principles.