We pushed ourselves into the mass of bodies while the uneasy shriek produced by hundreds of horns created a feeling as though something bad were about to happen. In a large circle in the plaza in front of the church, men in elaborate traditional Mayan dress acted out a battle themed march whose phases unfolded throughout the day. The first row of men would run ahead, brandishing wooden switches, then leap into the air, bringing their switches to the ground with a loud thwack!
A young Mayan man came over to us, looked up to me, and asked me something. I couldn’t catch everything due to his thick Tzotzil accent, but he seemed to want to bring us somewhere. I told him we were happy where we were. Before he walked away he slapped the back of his hand on my chest and looked deep into my eyes, his face very serious. He stood on his toes to bring his face closer to mine. “Ten cuidado”, he said in a clear and serious tone. Be careful. He turned and walked away.
We were in Chamula, a town at 7,200 feet above sea level in the mountains outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas. Chamula and other mountain towns in Chiapas are home to the direct descendants of the Maya, and to the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), more commonly known as Zapatista rebels. Taking pictures of people, or within the church in Chamula is illegal and can get you on the wrong end of a group beating. It is the only town in Mexico with autonomous status, meaning that they make up their own laws, and Mexican police and military aren’t allowed to enter the town. Needless to say, I didn’t take any pictures, so all of the pictures in this post are borrowed.
Inside of the church, the explosions shook the walls, while the shrieking horns were muffled into a perfect horror film soundtrack. The scene inside the church was something from centuries past, almost supernatural. Thousands of candles filled the floor and every flat surface, the smoke of burning pine billowed up from a fire that lay smoldering on the floor near a shrine tended by two women, filling the place with a thick haze. The entire floor was covered in a thick layer of pine needles, giving us the feeling that we’d stepped back in time a thousand years. A man stood in the center of the church weeping inconsolably, speaking in Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect. He alternated his hand between his forehead and his chest, stricken with grief.
A family sat in the middle of the church floor wearing traditional tribal clothing, a hundred candles unlit in front of them. The pine needles tangled in the women’s matted goat hide skirts, the children leaned against their mothers. A shaman sat with them wearing a white goat hide vest, its wool poking wildly in all directions. A chicken sat on the floor with them, a plastic bag restricting its wings. Four glass bottles of Coca Cola rested in front of the women. One by one the family lit the candles and for several minutes we watched them staring into the flames, speaking quietly. Suddenly the man picked up the chicken and snapped its neck; it flailed wildly, its head limply hanging from its body. The man held its legs still while the life faded from it, and then he placed its body on the floor near the candles. Its body produced an occasional twitch. One of the women picked up each Coke bottle in turn and waved it over the flames. The sacrifice of the chicken saddened and shocked us, but the feeling was mixed with a sense that we were catching a glimpse of something ancient. Here were the direct descendents of the Maya, still sacrificing animals and carrying out their rituals. Dominican missionaries forced them to accept Catholicism, but it was clear today that they accepted it with their hands behind their backs, fingers crossed.
Feeling shaky from what we saw in the church, the billowing smoke, the candles, and the Mayan faces ringed with emotion, we emerged into the throngs of people filling the vast central square. During the time that we spent in the church, things had intensified. The shrieking horns were being blown with greater vigor and the warriors moved more quickly around the circuit. New characters had joined the promenade, holding pots containing smoldering pine, which gave the zocalo the same smoky aura as the inside of the church. The shrieks, the smoke, the explosions, and the increase in tempo created a sense of impending calamity. The men were running now. We pushed ourselves back into the throngs so that we could see into the center of the commotion.
Suddenly from a side street, a long line of men wearing goat hide vests sprinted into the square pulling a long rope. Attached to the rope was an enormous angry bull. It kicked wildly and swung its head trying to impale its captors with its horns. As the bull passed by in front of us it lurched for the crowd. Everyone recoiled as it passed, while the brave and the drunk ran toward the bull and tried to ride it. Time and again the bull would toss the riders to the ground, and at one point it successfully gouged a rider with its horn.
As time went on, four more bulls were brought into the plaza, creating total havoc. Women and children curled up in the corners of open air food stalls as the bulls passed. Frequently the bulls jumped onto the sidewalks and tried to impale bystanders. Everyone remained serious and kept the emotion out of their faces. Two boys tried walking along the sidewalk in front of us toward a waiting bull, and one of the warriors ran in front of them, striking the ground at their feet with his wooden stick. They tried walking around and he advanced, jumped in the air, and brought his switch onto the ground at their feet again, creating a loud crack. He got up and stared into their eyes. There was no longer any confusion about where they were not to tread.
At the end of the day we shakily made our way back to the top of the hill on the edge of town to catch a collectivo. Seventeen of us piled into a 1970’s Volkswagen van and then its teenage driver sped away, down the steep and twisting mountain road back to San Cristobal. We heard later that a couple of tourists had been chased down by a group of warriors with their wooden sticks for having taken a photograph. We didn’t hear if they got away.
This is why we quit our jobs and left the comfort of home. To discover a world that we didn’t know existed. To wander into Zapatista villages, to run away from angry bulls, to witness Mayan rituals, and to occasionally leap completely out of our comfort zone. Am I happy to be out of the mountains and writing this post safely from the comfort of a Caribbean beach? Well, yes.