Syncretism in San Juan Chamula

Talking about the Mayan religion today forces a conversation about syncretism. After the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Latin America, the Mayans were quite forcefully exposed to Catholicism. While some converted, others maintained their traditional religious beliefs, and others still managed to build an understanding of Mayan and Catholic beliefs that accomodated both. Exaclty how this works is up for debate–some scholars believe that the Mayans simply took on Catholic names and rituals, cloaking their own beliefs in Spanish terms that would protect them from danger. Others think that Mayan beliefs truly shifted over time with exposure to the monotheism of the Spanish Catholics. It’s extremely difficult to determine which way is which (This paper, by a college student whom I don’t know, does a very nice job of explaining some of the debate, if you’d like further information).

On my travels to Mexico in 2011, I visited a town called San Juan Chamula de Chiapas. This town is a prime example of the facade of Catholicism being maintained simply as a cover for preserving Mayan tradition. In the church, San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), a Catholic priest comes once a year for baptisms. We were told that while he presides over the sacrament of baptism in Spanish, many Mayans continue with their own practices in their local language. It’s easy to imagine this when you are there; the interior of the church looks unlike any other Christian church I have seen. There are no pews, and the floor is covered with long pine needles, the melted wax of colored candles, empty bottles of Pepsi-Cola, and, depending on the day, there may be chickens squawking. Those chickens still squawking are the lucky ones.

Iglesia San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula de Chiapas

Iglesia San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula de Chiapas

While images of Catholic saints line the walls and the air is thick with incense like some cathedrals, the primary ceremonies going on are led not by priests, but by Mayan curanderos, or healers. They commit sacrifices (including the chickens mentioned before) and cure illnesses of the soul. Pox, a type of liquor was traditionally drunk, but now sodas are commonly used in its place. Pictures are strictly forbidden inside the church, and discouraged in Chamula in general. I share a few images from my travels with my students, but mostly talk about my experience. I have them read this article for more details about the town and its inhabitants’ beliefs.

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“We Are Not Myths…”

Mayan women at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Mayan women at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and a woman I deeply admire for her courage, said of the indigenous people she represented, “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected.” Her statement affirms one of the main goals of my teaching when it comes to indigenous religions: to make it clear that these are living religions, parts of existing and present cultures.

A friend of mine recently posted this clip from the Daily Show interviewing Washington NFL fans about their team name. The fans have trouble identifying the name with little more than a piece of ancient history–one asks, somewhat disbelievingly, “Do you know any Native Americans?”–seemingly oblivious to the many Native Americans that live and work in our country today.

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I tried to make that title into a pun. It didn’t work so well.

This week I’ve been teaching about Mayan religious beliefs as an example of an indigenous religion. I found this wonderful website from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian to use.

Three reasons why it is fantastic:

1) It has several 3-5 minute video clips that are perfect for breaking up a lecture.

2) Each video has a PDF transcript–we used the creation story one as a reading in class, but also great for students with IEPs.

3) It has connections to a lot of great visual resources that you can use as well.

I definitely recommend checking it out!

Creation Story of the Maya | Living Maya Time.