Woop woop woop, do you hear that? it’s the hypocrite alarm. This alarm is often found near white middle class people travelling and commenting on local ethics. It’s particularly loud when we see a single week of tourism justifying the resolution of issues in a culture tens of thousands of years old.
Ok that preamble aside, lets commence judgement. We are in Chiapas which is the poorest state in Mexico and sadly/ not surprisingly has a relatively high proportion of indigenous Mexicans. Through Spanish conquest and subsequent rule, indigenous inhabitants were reduced to the lowest class in society and treated quite appallingly. Near to San Christóbal we are visiting a local community, Chamula. We’re interested to have a look see as there’s a few interesting things we have heard about this township, for example…
– The Chamula people are autonomous to Mexiacn law, the Mexican police will not intervene here.
– Although crime is extremely low in the township it was only 2 years ago that 3 men raped and killed a woman… they were lynched, tied to a tree, doused in petrol and burned.
– They have, over the years had 3 rebellions against roman catholic rule and have kicked out the priest, go Chamula! Currently the Vatican doesn’t have any authority over the Church in the town.
– They don’t like photos, photos of people, particularly up close is strictly forbidden. Interesting thought considering the first point
– They have a church but practice their own rituals, of which include killing chickens and drinking soft drink. It is believed burping expels bad spirits.
So we arrive in Chamula and immediately it hits us that its not a village, it’s a very sizeable town, assumption one out the window. We have a local guy explaining a few things to us as we walk around. There are something like 120 or so spiritual leaders in the town, one for each patron saint, hang on, didn’t they boot out the Catholics? These spiritual leaders are more of a community service, they volunteer for one year and quit their regular work, once finished another guy takes over for a year. This service gains great respect and status so men sometimes wait for over 20 years to be a leader. Although men can only be spiritual leaders only married men may apply and the role of the wife is very important, it’s apparently a team thing. Oh, and they can have more than one wife… of course.
There’s also these bloody fireworks everywhere, every minute or less a loud bang goes off, no colour, just a loud explosion. This is of course not grown up boys blowing things up, it’s to celebrate the Saints… hmmm. Some are fired high into the air but some are heavy metal canisters a little smaller than a soft drink can which are hand held, yes hand held. The force only comes out one end but still… crazy! This sounds alarmingly like our cracker nights as kids, but it’s spiritually important of course.
So as we walk about it seems that little in life is not about religion, and here I was hopeful of a church-less community. There’s plenty of blending older beliefs into the practices but it sees pretty much catholicism at the core. We get to the church and with a bit of a briefing we’re off to walk about. From the outside it looks like a church but inside it’s completely different. There’s no pews, nobody at the front, and people are all about the place on the ground with massive rows of candles sticks directly on the ground in front of them. With the whole place filling with humming, music and chanting, smoke from the candles and pine needles covering the floor. The atmosphere is more akin to a hippie night club chill out room than a church, except for the kids I guess but its weird.
The church is a great example of a community humming and pulsing in an organic surge rather than ordered into structure. I was fighting off a preconception of gender inequality but looking around it really doesn’t seem that way. A tourists eye sees next to nothing but having women running shops, men carrying things for their wives rather then the other way around etc gives a comforting first impression.
We make a small trip to an adjacent village which is similar but this time we go into a house. The men are working (playing with fireworks is totally working) and the women make us some tortillas for a snack. The local guy is pretty passionate about the church interference and gives us some interesting footnotes. The grandparents of this family passed away into their 90’s and life expectancy isn’t often far off this. With an influx of Western foods (Coke and Nestle hang your heads) diabetes and obesity has recently become a huge problem. We’re also shown a pamphlet released by the church basically saying that your ways are black magic, you’re being ripped off for your money and if you want to avoid hell you need Jesus… Don’t start me!
As far as this topic goes we’re a pretty easy audience but none the less, this does nothing but make you shake your head and get a bit angry. At risk of the hypocrite alarm going off the basic moral here is that although life is basic it doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad. Western ways are one thing and not on their own purely bad, but throwing them at cultures that aren’t equipped to deal with it is a disaster that repeats itself all around the world. I mean, they eat cheap snack food but they don’t bother to pop to their local fitness first in their lunch break and do a spin class, just lazy really.
Now lets sound the alarm kids… we leave with heads spinning but I’m left with an overall conflict in my mind. On one hand we see an indigenous culture keeping their language and doing their best to fight off greedy oppressive religion, massive thumbs up. On the other hand I see (and this is just a snapshot I know) a culture more heavily embedded in supplicating mystical religion than any other I’ve ever seen. With a vibrant distain of any form of irrational based belief system I’m left unsure whether to cheer or be sad.
I’ll never resolve the outcome, nor do I want to. I could delve into volumes of the human condition and behavioural instinct but I don’t want to do this either. What we have on our plate is a view into a different way of life. Taken on board with eyes wide open, I am thankful for now being that tiny bit more open minded. It’s a complicated web of an issue, where do you sit?