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.
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.