Driving out on the worn blue pick-up truck, we went to rural and municipal Chamula to pay a visit to Huancayo and Maruch.

In the blessed Mexican state of Chiapas, the region of Chamula covers a large territory and is about 25 kilometers outside of where we live. We drove along the Periférico, which encircles the town of San Cristóbal, and soon the road became more mud than gravel as it inclined against the slope.

It reminded me of the Adirondak Mountains. But there were fewer trees, one effect of civilization massively cutting down firewood to toast their tortillas and boil water. One effect of the air wafting of firewood smoke. Since the 1994 Zapatista uprisings, the settlements had changed from quaint Mayan huts and garden plots that peppered the rolling landscape, to cement-block dwellings that neither appealed to aesthetic or comfort—being drab and cold for the rainy environs of Chiapas. Even though traditional adobe and stick homes would have been more charmingly appropriate, a pscyhotic frenzy for real estate resulted in a strong preference for infrastructure constructed out of measurable value. (Cemex blocks had a cost which could be simplified and estimated. The traditional thatched huts could not, and so disappeared.)

Performing a Ceremony

Maruch's Hands

Huancayo is a Mayan violinist and an artist who works with plastic arts. Among the curiosities of his cement home which leaned into the slope, he had two raccoons, several quails and five squirrels running about in sorry captivity. The children accepted our mangoes, and an elderly woman concerned herself with harvesting the garden. In the municipality of Chamula, civil authority and religion are one and the same and so every seven years or so, couples take on a responsibility called the carga, in which it is their great honor (and personal cost) to serve the community by building symbol infrastructure, by hosting elaborate festivities, and discussing issues that affect Chamula. The rain started to pour again, and soon we were on our way to the countryside.

Thankfully, from my perspective, Chamula still has its allure. Mayan women still wore beautiful blue floral tapestries and paid homage to ancient rituals. One of which was the elegant art of washing their long dark hair, tying it into a knot, and later braiding. And the way they walk, the cadence of their rhythm evoked gentler time. I saw a few Mayans, men and women working in their homes, who were especially attractive, and this fascination almost prompted me to photograph them. But I’d been advised to be discreet and only take photos of scenery or of the surroundings of Maruch’s home. The tattered adobe and wood-plank homes that comprise of her neighborhood have no access to water infrastructure (treatment, distribution, nor sewage,) so everyone collects metal tubs of rainwater that drip from the roof. The view, however, At that altitude, the sierras rested among gauzy clouds all the way to Tuxtla was breathtaking, and concealed a humble road which used to connect San Cristobal to the outside world. History fact: When the colonizers wanted to leave they would sit in a seat and the indigenous would lift them all the way. The Mayans could carry more than 200 pounds, more than their own weight, and the upper class would exploit them. They’d carry goods all the way to the Gulf of Mexico too. Until the 1950s, San Cristobal was rather isolated.

There was the sound of crying cicadas….Despite her meager circumstances at present, Maruch used to dwell in a cave. She is a medicine priest, one who has curative powers and an ability to connect with the spiritual world and communicate with souls. Maruch is a bewitching woman who is deeply tuned with the Mayan cosmology and mysticism. And regardless of her circumstances, she has a gift of generosity and an uplifting temperament. Of the five children I met, (I remember only Marian and Manuel now) she had adopted them when their birth mother contracted typhoid fever, and she legally adopted the unwell mother. Maruch has a refreshing wit and a charming sense of humor.

We sat on tiny chairs around the fireplace while the cauldron boiled water for our coffee, half enjoying the wonderful company and half asphyxiating from the heavy fume of the smoke. While I was uncomfortable in the beginning—perhaps being too self-conscious of my own privileged clothes contrasted against the chlidren’s ragged clothes, the dirt floors and a dilapidated dwelling of molding wood—it gets easier to love when you focus on how wonderfully open they are. We were in a wilderness of sweets. And in moments, I was in a blissful state with their company. We shared snacks and cookies while Maruch explained things in Tzotzil. In between Ambar’s translations into Spanish I might’ve understood only 15% of what was happening.

Later, she performed a beautiful Mayan ceremony for us, with no less than thirty tapered candles against an altar of a cross embellished with pine needles and herbal greenery, Christian paraphernia next to a line of calcium stalagtites. She recounted the history of these limestone formations, which were sacred and had souls of another realm. I will have to read the story in the Book of Incantations, but it involved floating heads, spiritual omens and children dying from desecrating the caverns and angering the gods. Anyway, when all the candles were lit, she began a prayer on her knees and I closed my eyes to sear the experience into my memory… it felt folksy and deeply spiritual at the same time. And being aware of this special moment, I photographed a lot.

Now, as a Christian, I felt rather awkward as I always do when I experience the religious ceremonies and chantings of a foreign culture. My mind and my doctrine from church focuses instictively on the differences, on the uncertainties, on the unfamiliarity of the rituals, and for a while it always feels uncertain. However, also as a Christian, I can also focus on the spiritual, that God is there. Faith is there. Love is there. And simply knowing that the spirit inside of me can experience a communion with the spirits inside of everyone in the room… that the energy that uplifts us is real… I feel that in almost any religious context, I can experience God through someone else as a conduit. And this was one of those moments, we were focused on the present and connected with one another, all living human beings on equal standing. And that was what mattered.

Anyway… In one of the poorest states of Mexico, where class divides rip sharply across town and country, politicians use instability and psychology to their advantage. Corruption is widespread. Its history recounted various incidents of indigenous Mayans being forcibly evicted out of communities…for religion or for ideas…and there were plenty of mass invasions too. And so, Mayans campesinos would take arms and settle on private property, and striking an agreement with the government, who’d then purchase the plot of land from the private owner. Sometimes though, they weren’t compensated. It depends on who owes who favors. The EZLN notwithstanding, to be Mayan indigenous is to be a second-class citizen.

Spanish Words of the Day:raiz‘ roots | ‘cólera‘ anger, rage | ‘rabia‘ fury

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