The nearest highland town to here is San Juan Chamula, six miles away, over the lip of the volcanic crater in which San Cristobal sits. Chamula is famous around here for various things, though the main tourist attraction is its church which mixes Christianity with Mayan religious customs. We got bored one afternoon and drove over to have a look.The road to Chamula is an experience in itself, and one of the stranger development projects I’ve seen. The route out of San Cristobal is scarred with potholes and bumps, but as you reach the boundary of the Chamula municipality a pristine dual carriageway appears. This continues for a few miles until the outskirts on the other side of town, where once again the road returns to single lane highway in poor condition.
The town of Chamula is poor and rubbish strewn and not very attractive. Driving in, we had to weave round a couple of drunks staggering up the main street.
The church itself sits in the central plaza. Being larger than any other building in the town it’s imposing and a contrast to the surrounding mess.
On the inside it’s unlike any other church I’ve visited. There’s little natural light; instead hundreds, maybe thousands of candles sit on the floor, which is also strewn with pine needles. There’s little decoration though each wall is lined with painted mannequins of saints each holding a mirror, apparently to deflect evil.
The altar is largely obscured by decorations and flashing Christmas lights, but behind it hangs an effigy of Saint John the Baptist. Jesus himself only gets a modest location off to one side, though this isn’t uncommon in Mexican churches where the Virgin of Guadalupe often gets pride of place.
There are no pews or chairs, and the strangest thing in the church is the way people make their devotions – parting the pine needles and placing more candles and bottles of coke or other soft drinks on the floor before kneeling to pray. Photos of the interior are forbidden and the church wardens apparently go nuts if you even try; I found a couple of pictures on the internet which give some idea of what it’s like.
Chamula is a stronghold of the Mexico’s former ruling party, the PRI. Apart from the church, it’s also famous for the rigid grip that the municipality’s political leaders hold over the population. While formally elected, in practice the leaders’ rule is underpinned by violence.
The local political system is a direct inheritance from the colonial period. Historically Chiapas had little in the way of natural resources; the reason the Spanish conquistadors founded San Cristobal in the otherwise remote Chiapas highlands was to make use of the labour of the indigenous Mayan population.
While the Spanish colonists themselves (and their mestizo descendents, locally known as coletos) lived in San Cristobal, the indians lived in the surrounding villages and townships like Chamula. Then, as now, local economic and political arrangements were designed to transfer as much wealth as possible to San Cristobal’s coletos, with some modest benefits for the local indigenous chiefs, or caciques. On a day to day basis, the extraction of tribute and forced labour was managed by the caciques.
The caciques still run Chamula, though these days the main lines of power go via the local PRI up to its patrons in the state and federal governments. Chamula’s extraordinary road makes more sense in the context of this political system. Having a dual carriageway running through their town provides scant benefit for the local people, of whom only a tiny proportion have a car. It makes more sense however as a prestige project dreamed up by the town’s leaders, and a lucrative construction contract awarded by the government to the local leaders as a reward for their support.
In passing, the distinct political system in Chiapas’ Zapatista communities can be understood as a direct inversion of the caciquismo practiced in Chamula and other PRI strongholds. The Zapatista municipalities are run by councils whose members rotate regularly (so no-one becomes the chief) and which have equal numbers of men and women. Alcohol is banned, development projects are decided democratically by the community, and any support (and therefore interference) from the government is emphatically rejected.
Given the dire poverty in Chiapas it’s not surprising that there has been strong resistance to the rule of the caciques. Although Chamula’s population contains Zapatista sympathisers, in recent decades dissent has been publicly manifested by a large section of the population converting to one of several evangelical Protestant sects, originally brought to Chiapas in the 1950s by missionaries from the US. Although on the surface an issue of religious affiliation, the fact that central Chamula’s leaders double as elders of the church makes the phenomenon of Protestant conversions a distinctly political one.
The conversions brought a violent reaction from Chamula’s elites, and since the 1970s, tens of thousands of evangelicals have been expelled at gunpoint from the Chamula municipality and their lands confiscated. On some estimates 50,000, or roughly a quarter of San Cristobal’s current inhabitants, are expelled Chamulans.
As Chamula and San Cristobal are only a few miles apart there are considerable tensions. Things are currently quiet compared to the early 1990s, when the two sides fought gun battles in the so-called misery belt of informal settlements which surround San Cristobal, where the expelled Protestants made their homes.
In public, Chamula’s leaders say they are the fierce protectors of the town’s customs and autonomy; R’s friend simply calls them Chamooligans.