Tuesday, April 12, 2011

San Juan Chamula Part 1 (The Town and the Market) English Version

Anything you might have heard or imagined about the hidden town of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas en Mexico; it's completely far from what it actually is. You have to be there to feel people's weird vibe. Good or Bad? You are the only judge of that. I prefer to limit it to unusual and fascinating. When you get to town several things might get tourist's attention:
= The only cars admitted are the locals'; if you don’t live there you have to park at the town limits and walk to the main square. 
=On this walking tour you will see the "humble" mansions fully equipped with Paid Television Antennas, luxurious cars and even american catalogue based designed residences. Oh yes!! Chamulas live like kings and that is completely expected because all of them are dedicated full time merchants. They don't produce a thing but they sell everything from everywhere.  If you have experienced being harassed by a mexican bank to pay your credit card o by american sales and time shares...well this is nothing compared to chamulas' strategies and persistance until you end up buying them something. Some of their tricks are beautifully mayan dressed kids with sad and long faces asking you money to buy a taco to eat or to make the first sale of the day at 8pm -sarcastic if you consider they are doing that since 7am and greatly experienced on getting what they want-  
=The contrast and surprise when you see on the gardens of these high/median social class residences to extremely young mayan moms and owners (13-18 years old) doing the laundry on their typical outfits and carrying at the same time their babies, feeding sheeps to make their clothes later and the begger kids running and playing on their nice backyards. 
v    =Over here the black sheep of the family is the white sheep; meaning most of the sheeps are black and very few are white. The everyday skirts and vests they wear are made with black wool. The white wool being a lot more expensive for being also less common; it is used just for festive attires or gala etiquette. 

       =All chamulas have a cellphone! No matter if they are in the middle of a sale, they ask you to wait for your change until they are done with their phone call; so if you want to get your change: sit and wait for them or give them the pleasure to say: Keep the change! jajajaa -Im telling, you they're tricky- 
After all display of actual modernity something awaits for you as you get closer to downtown, nothing better to give you a cultural shock when you get to the main square than visiting at your own pace two chamulas' treasures: Their market and their church. Once you get here there is an extremely important rule to remember: NO PICTURES TAKEN TO CHAMULAS, NO PICTURES INSIDE THE CHURCH AND NO PICTURES TO RELIGIOUS RITUALS OR PROCESSIONS THROUGHOUT THE TOWN. And you better respect this because over here they don’t mess around. They break your camera and get you arrested immediately. Chamulas RULE HERE!! Seriously! Municipal authorities dont enter this town. They have their chamula police with their specific uniform and embroided cane meaning they are authority. Jail it is just some horrible room with bars next to the Major's building facing the street. When anyone walks by, the prisoner yells bad words or whatever he likes. I guess not everyone is like this prisoner and unfortunately I couldn’t take him a picture because of the laws just mentioned so I could show you he looked more like a crazy or demoniac possessed man than a bandit. He was scary.
Saying this, and just for not being prisoned with a man like that, I think it is enough no to even ask for permission to chamulas to take them pictures. (If they give you permission it is ok, as long as you give them a tip, but it is not very common; they believe that their soul gets trapped on the picture.)
Live Snails
 I decided not to take the chance and I just asked permission to picture the things they were selling without involving them on the image and trying to be very discrete to not stress anyone.  
The highlight of the town it is San Juan Chamula's Cathedral which it was built on top of a Totzil Ceremonial Center. Just to clarify: Chamulas are all people living in San Juan Chamula, totzil it is one of many types of mayas and they are defined by the region they belong to, yet we have to specify region and city because their ways change from town to town. You will also find Mayas Tzotziles from Chamula, Mayas Tzotziles from Zinacantan, Mayas Zoques from .... etc i hope I explain myself. An easy way to distinguish them is observing the different attires they wear to know immediately the city and therefore the region. On this case, these mayas-tzotziles-chamulas wear sheep skirts and vests all year around.  These dressing things take me to narrate you the following incident:
Innocent me!! I went dressed with a skirt from the maya tzotziles from Zinacantan, another town!! but like I was planning to buy the shirt on that particular community I wore the shirt you can see on the picture; you know just something nice that would pair up. This is what I call the mistake #1: Invading them with an attire from other place, and not being from that other place. Mistake #2: I was clearly doing or wearing something wrong and none would tell me. And this was so obvious just because the fact they were eating me alive with their eyes worst than if I were on the most popular wedding in my hometown or in Monterrey's 12:00clock Sunday Mass!! I decided to ignore them; I was fascinated with the salted fish and dried shrimp, turulas (some type of mexican toasted tortilla), live snails for soup, all types of herbs for teas and natural healing, sweet bread, white bread ($1 peso each); beautiful flowers from the most exotic to the most simple, natural copal mineral for incense (just because of this purchase incense lovers should envy me, it is just the best), baskets, capes, crafts etc..
A friend from the north of Mexico bought some salted fish. For northern people like us is very common to have dried beef or dried shrimp so he found it as an excellent companion for the marvelous cheese ($5 pesos a huge piece) he got. I grabbed half of the salted fish and kept walking around the market. I started feeling a lot of eyes on me, whispers at my back, loud laughs and don’t forget the detailed look to my outfit of the day. So while buying a huge natural tortilla taco with beans (just $1 peso) I couldnt resist it anymore and asked them: 
-  Hi Girls! I'm curious...what are you laughing at? What is that I'm doing wrong?
-Will you eat that without tortilla???? jijijiji (gossiping in low tone)
-Not at all! I will have tortilla with it  jajaaj (so I bite the taco and the fish)
-Will you eat it then?
-What is it for if not for eating?
-Well, it is for eating but not like that, It has to go on the pan first and cooked again. It is so obvious; salted food should be prepared that way. 

Whatever! I thought and laughed at them in my interior for being so square. The town thinking...I said exhaling. I kept walking and finding what looked like a friendly family and I asked:
-Could you help me and explain me why is everybody laughing at me? What is this thing I have on and it’s clearly wrong?
-jijijiiiijijiii (and they started laughing, pushing each other to see who would answer me and whispering on their own dialect)
Now with proper knot and correct way
I kept going...Look, I know this shirt doesn't go with this skirt. I'm on my way to Zinacantan and I will buy there the whole appropiate outfit.
-No answer.
-So… I kept going...I know my hairband doesn’t go with this but sun is too strong for me and you don’t protect from it. 
Finally someone spoke:
-Your belt is wrong. You shouldn’t wear it like that ever. The knot is wrong too.
jajajajaja Blessed God on heaven and earth I finally found out!...
-Would you teach me to put it on please? 
Three girls untied me, fixed my shirt inside the skirt, folded the skirts (these skirts are folded on 3 huge sections) and tied me in a very short minute with a very tight knot so I could barely breath as if I were a Mexican tamal!
I thanked them a lot and they mentioned me I wouldn’t ever pass for maya even though I had the entire outfit because of my eyes. So…as you can see chamulas women are something hard to please but that applies also to men: I was going to buy 6 huge baskets and the seller didn’t like one of my $100 pesos bills: Too old he said, get another one; and refused to sell me.
This is crazy I know but wait to read the visit to the church on the second part. At the moment let’s just rescue some interesting concept: Progress doesn’t mean to quit your traditions and cultural ways. You can receive the modernity benefits and use them to live better without losing your identity as family, community or nation. I agree about chamulas being extremely square but that same integrity has kept them alive as population. They simply ARE. In all the extension of the word. THEY ARE. And they don’t get impressed by the foreigner, they don’t adored them or imitate them. They reject them as invaders and mold them to their essence or you can leave their territory. They make them respect what they treasure, worship and value or you get your consequences. Influencing or following others because of your insecurities or for social acceptance it’s an evil of these times and that is the reason for not finding true people very often anymore; but when you meet them, you feel good and you respect them.
Hope you have enjoyed. Coming soon The Visit to the Church! Namaste! 

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