The white colectivo van left from a small yard just west of the municipal market in San Cristobal. On a chilly morning there was no standing on ceremony, no queuing: when the next colectivo spun around the corner and into the yard, everyone pushed to the front to be sure of a seat. Taken unawares, we stood back and waited for the next one.
Half an hour later we emerged into a bustling marketplace. I didn’t remember San Juan Chamula being such a metropolis. Then we heard the explosions, one after the other from the main square. Had we stumbled on a festival?
We snaked our way down through the market, where village women in embroidered blouses and wrapped woollen skirts sold fruit, vegetables, crucifixes, hardware, jewellery. Men in white or black shaggy-dog woollen ponchos strode along in their good jeans and best cowboy hats. Foreigners like us tried not to stare.
We could not have prepared ourselves for the town square. The church of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) was festooned with garlands. The church square was thronged with worshippers. I checked the date on my phone, to research later: is the 24th of June the feast of St. John the Baptist? Turns out it is. How fortunate for us.
Around the edges of the walled church square thousands more congregated, chatting and drinking at plastic garden chairs and tables, calling to wandering mariachi singers for a five-song serenade, and watching the spectacle unfold.
Men in white or black ponchos (serapes) lit rudimentary fireworks with no warning, sending others scattering. One man carefully spilled a thin line of gunpowder in a large L-shape, whilst others followed behind embedding a homemade firework into the gunpowder at brief intervals. No matter what country you are in, the look of childlike glee on men’s faces is the same everywhere when they know something is about to explode.
A proper Catholic-looking procession marched around the square, led by a gang of men carrying aloft flags of various saints, followed by others. Some were in the white or black ponchos again, whilst others were dressed in ornate, slightly-medieval-looking black, red and white costumes. Those on the flank carried rudimentary torches of frankincense, the scent of which immediately took me back to the benediction processions of my childhood. A large mariachi band took up the rear.
There was no sign of a priest amongst any of this except for a brief period when I saw three tall white men in some sort of vestments receiving the procession outside the church. They disappeared just as quickly as they arrived. San Juan Chamula is not known for its orthodox Catholic rituals.
I wandered closer to the church entrance. By now individual groups were congregating one by one outside the entrance, grouped according to their devotion to a particular saint. Some saints seem to receive less worship than others. These turned out to be the saints of another local church, which was destroyed by fire almost a century ago. The statues were saved by the villagers, but it was never forgotten that the saints had not saved the church. For many years, they were positioned in the church of San Juan Chamula with their faces towards the wall. Their hands were chopped off to show that they had not “worked” to save the church. For some time, they did not receive glass cases, but when new cases were made for the more popular resident saints, the old cases were eventually given to the bad saints. Only in recent years were they allowed to face the congregation and their bodies clothed. After all these years, the number of their worshippers remains small. Why bother devoting your prayers to a saint who doesn’t deliver?
Each group of devotees undertook their prayers in a similar way. The men stood in line at the front, then the women, all in the colours of their village: purple, blue, green. They swayed slightly in a stylised dance as musicians played the same eight or so melancholy chords on guitars and ancient-looking harps. Then, group by group they proceeded into the church to worship in front of their chosen saint.
The inside of the church of San Juan Chamula is not like any other. No seats, no tabernacle, just glass box after glass box of statues ornately dressed in satins and silks. Santiago, the Virgin of Guadalupe (who had a naturally large following), San Pedro Mejor, San Pedro Menor, Santa Rosa de Lima: the litany continued. Where was Jesus in all of this? Relegated to the status of saint himself, he was represented too. Before Christianity, the Mayans worshipped the Sun God: to change allegiance to the Son of God was not a hardship. Unlike the upright saints, Jesus got to lie supine in his glass case, much like the corpses of dead popes in the Vatican. His glass “coffin” was open at the front, and a young woman stood praying aloud at his head. At his feet were dozens of children’s shoes, presumably offerings following the return to health of a sick child who had been prayed for through the intercession of Jesus.
A man knelt at a row of five candles stuck to a clearing in the fresh pine needles covering the church floor. Twenty or so devotees knelt behind him in rows. The first – and tallest – candles were lit. He lit each row candles in succession whilst prayers were recited. Being different sizes, the trick was to let all of the candles burn down and extinguish at the same time.
Other devotees offered Coca-Cola, cigarettes or local hooch (pox, pronounced posh) as tributes to their saints. The burping is thought to help expel the evil spirits that reside inside our bodies. Once the worship was deemed complete, the flag-bearer for that saint went to where the altar would be in any other church, as the other devotees packed up and left. One by one, each saint’s flag was being lowered and folded slowly away in wait until the next feast day. The flag bearers then stood to attention with the empty flagpole aloft until all the flags were folded away.
Back outside the fireworks were still going strong. Without warning, a large pile of gunpowder detonated on the ground not two metres from where we stood. Orlando and I both leapt a couple of feet in the air and yelped in alarm. A local woman, probably about my own age, in the highly-embroidered purple of her village laughed delightedly at our reaction, her pleasant round face lit up in amusement by her gold-toothed smile. I laughed back at her, our eyes meeting briefly in friendship although we could not speak each other’s language. She probably wondered as much about my life as I did about hers.
The celebrations ended as quickly as they had started. We sat at the back of the market, drinking lemonade and watching as the market stalls packed up, leaving just littered concrete behind. Group by group the church and square emptied of worshippers and the gunpowder explosions died away.
Between the plastic tables and chairs, quite a few men were sleeping soundly, passed out from the morning’s festivities. The mariachi musicians stood around chatting, their work done for the day, their brass instruments clashing with the rows of silver buttons on their suits in the glint of the afternoon sun.
We strolled back up to the bus stop and headed back to San Cristobal, our ears still ringing from the homemade fireworks. We could not have chosen a better day to visit.