Chiapas and the Tzotzil People

By far one of the most fascinating tours I went on was to the villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, where I found indigenous tribes practicing traditions and speaking the language of the Mayans.

Out of 150 million people living in Mexico, only 15 million are considered native people. The Tzotzil natives in particular are Mayan descendants living in the highlands of Chiapas, speaking the language Tzotzil, and earning a living by selling their handcrafted textiles and agricultural bounty.

They have a long history of oppression by the Spaniards and Mexican government, which has caused them to revolt numerous times, as well as, strongly support revolutionary groups like the Zapatistas. While visiting the towns, I saw many Tzotzil people selling hand-sewn Zapatista dolls in support of their cause.Currently the Tzotzil enjoy autonomous status within Mexico, governing themselves, without the intervention of outside police or military officials.

I chose a tour, since I saw no benefit in just visiting the towns. The tour was incredible and our guide provided us with so much information, I could barely write fast enough to keep up!

What I’ll share with you is just a brief overview of the main differences between the two communities and what I found most interesting. Both the communities are Tzotzil people, but lead vastly different lifestyles.

San Juan Chamula 

The Tzotzil people of San Juan Chamula are distinguishable by their wool clothing and the town earns most of its income selling vegetables.
IMG_1428The women must shear the sheep, wash the wool, brush the fibers, hand-spin the wool, and finally weave the yarn.
IMG_1474IMG_1457Here a woman is surrounded by freshly sheared wool that must be sorted, washed, and brushed.
IMG_1134Here is a girl carding wool, which is the process of brushing the debris and knots out prior to spinning.
IMG_1455The finished products are just marvelous! IMG_1452The wool skirts can take up to one month to produce and cost around 600 USD.
IMG_1473Here are traditional wool shirts worn by men. White is for summer and black is for winter.
IMG_1448IMG_1450As I mentioned earlier, the people here have their own political system.

They have their own elected mayor, who is responsible for disputes and discussions with the Mexican government.

They also have over 120 spiritual leaders, who are responsible for caring for a particular saint.IMG_1462During political elections, men gather in the main square shouting “yes” to their favored elected official and throwing stones at the candidate they dislike. For this reason, they usually board up the windows in town during elections in order to prevent broken glass.

The people here believe in polygamy and also the death penalty.

For example, a few years back they found that three men had raped and murdered a woman. They subsequently beat the men, tied them to a tree, and lit them on fire.

That being said, crime in Chamula is virtually non-existent and they only have two jail cells, which weren’t occupied when I was visiting.
IMG_1460As well, although they practice polygamy, woman can choose their husband and get divorced if necessary.

There is a church in San Juan Chamula, but it is not registered with the Vatican, so people are free to do as they please inside.
IMG_1465The Tzotzil consider themselves Catholic Traditionalists, since they are baptized by a Catholic priest. They maintain traditional Mayan rituals, but have adapted several Catholic customs as well. They do not hold ceremonies for marriages or funerals.
IMG_1432Admittance to the church costs visitors around $2 and no pictures are allowed, but not everyone follows the rules, and I found a few pictures of the inside on Google images.6b85a-san2bjuan3The men holding the roosters and hens are called Shamans who perform spiritual healing of the Tzotzil people. The Tzotzil believe they have two souls: one human and one animal. They believe anything that happens to their animal counterpart, happens to them as well. If the Tzotzil have a spiritual problem, feel depressed, or go through a traumatic event, a Shaman is called upon to revive their lost soul.

He will first read their energy by feeling their pulse, then decide what items are necessary for the spiritual revival.

Inside the church I saw many things for their rituals, such as colored candles, pine needles scattered along the floor, saints with mirrors on their chests, live chickens, eggsalcohol, Coca-Cola, and lots of heavy chanting.

As I walked through the church, I saw the Shaman rubbing the live chicken on their ill patient before killing the chicken with their bare hands.

I learned that once they kill the animal, the family goes home to cook it, then the ill person consumes only the head. They must then rest in bed for a week before going to the site of their traumatic event to bury the chicken bones as an offering to the underworld. This will hopefully revive their lost spirit.

Honestly, I assumed they were crazy until I thought about it a bit more. Now-a-days, nearly 75% of medications do contain some animal by-products and the use of animals in healing can be traced back for centuries. From insulin to heparin, and vaccinations to hormones, animal by-products are commonly found in most pharmaceuticals. This method just may be a little bit more old fashioned.

That being said, what I did find laughable was their excessive consumption of Coca-Cola. 😛
IMG_1476IMG_1478Traditionally, the Tzotzil people used to drink dark atole during these ceremonies. Atole is  a corn drink flavored sometimes with cacao and the dark color represents the witchcraft they are trying to fend off. Recently the Tzotzil have adapted to drinking Coca-Cola for reasons of taste and convenience.

I found it ironic, since this society is so keen on preserving their unique traditions, but seems to be seriously conforming by buying from this beverage franchise. Hah. Oh well! Have a coke and a smile, I guess. 😀

Anyway, after shopping around their produce market for a bit, we headed over to the town of Zinacantán.IMG_1481


In contrast to San Juan Chamula, the Tzotzil people in this town are known for their cloth fabrics and earn an income by selling flowers.

They have converted more to Catholicism and take part in mass each Sunday.
IMG_1483 IMG_1484IMG_1488They can partake in Shaman ceremonies, but must do so at this chapel high in the mountains.
IMG_1489While visiting, we stopped by a families home to look at a few of their fabrics.

This is a traditional outfit worn by Tzotzil men. Obviously the women picked out the colors. Hah. 😛
IMG_1498Here is a traditional wedding dress worn by Tzotzil women, since they are monogamous in this town and hold marriage processions in the church.
IMG_1500This is a backstrap loom used to create their woven fabrics.IMG_1504

They didn’t mind pictures, since we planned on buying some of their gorgeous creations. 😀IMG_1525IMG_1508We even stepped inside to watch one of the women make tortillas, which she filled with ground pumpkin seeds. Yum!
IMG_1515 IMG_1516IMG_1521We ended the tour with a cheers and a sip of posh, which is a liquor in Chiapas. It tasted like ouzo flavored with cinnamon. Bluck!IMG_1524It was such a wonderful day learning about people with such pride in their heritage and Mayan roots.

At the end of the fantastic week, I left Chiapas and headed back to Querétaro.IMG_1571Please enjoy this short video of trip highlights filmed on my new GoPro. Have a great time jamming out to the music as well! 😉 Enjoy your week and until next time. 😀

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