Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Coke is for Everyone, Dead or Alive

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Teaching “the world to sing in perfect harmony” might be great in many markets, even in Mexico.

But some niche markets are tougher to crack than others.

Take the residents of San Juan Chamula. Chamulans are so fiercely independent, they virtually are independent. Outsiders pay a toll to even enter the town.

Residents’ primary language is Tzotzil Mayan, and San Juan Chamula has its own laws (think legalized polygamy), syncretic religion (converts to Protestantism banished), police force and system of justice. Beribboned-hatted male judges solemnly gather on Sundays, perched prominently on a public plaza overlooking the market in front of the church. Disputes can be brought forward throughout the morning. At noon, court is adjourned with much pomp and ceremony, which, to an outsider, resembles one long game of musical chairs.

The Catholic Church seemingly has ceded the church to the shamans, or curanderos. Outsiders are, again, charged a fee to enter and are informed there is a strict ban on photography inside. Or, perhaps, you would like to go face those judges convened above the plaza?

San Juan, San Pedro and San Sebastian are among the most revered saints, but some of the statues of saints lining the walls have fared better than others under the stewardship of the leaders of the town’s unorthodox religious practices. Some, perhaps including even San Sebastian, were in the doghouse for a long time.

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San Sebastian’s church on the outskirts of town burned a century or so ago, and the faithful logically questioned how much faith should be put in saints who fail to prevent the church that houses them from burning. So in punishment, the hands of the surviving statues were chopped off. The handless saints were brought into the church, but sentenced to spend years shamefully facing the wall. Their time in limbo has ended. They don’t get many tributes, but the saints whose potency was questioned are allowed to face the center of the church again and have robes with flowing sleeves disguising the earlier maiming and necklaces with mirrors to deflect evil spirits.

This church has no pews. The floor is blanketed with fresh pine needles, slippery on the marble floor underfoot. Fresh is key because worshippers line and light up rows of slender candles on the floor (Perhaps dry pine needles sparked the earlier fire?). The scent from the crushed needles mingles with smoking copal incense filling the interior. A primitive-sounding band plays somewhere deep inside, where a priest traditionally would preside.

Chanting shamans are performing cleansing ceremonies for groups of families perched in front of the appropriate saints. When not chanting or passing a live chicken over the subject, the shamans might be spitting on the floor, spitting around the subject to physically expel potential evil lurking within. In cases of severe need, the chicken is sacrificed by snapped neck. The shamans must be powerful because the hen I witnessed did not utter one clucked objection to the ceremony. Perhaps in part due to this cooperation, she was allowed to live.

Drinking posh, a strong cane liquor, is encouraged to loosen up one’s inhibitions that might prohibit communication of your soul with the saints (I know some of my friends might suddenly be thinking this is their kind of church.). Some of the townspeople seemed to take this particular practice to heart, appearing to have gotten an early morning start on their personal supplies of moonshine.

And then, there’s Coca-Cola.

One would think a people who have rejected so many standards held by outsiders would not consider taking even one sip of a Coca-Cola. But expelling evil spirits from the body is key. Spitting helps, but burping is best. And what is better at inducing burping than a few shots of rapidly consumed Coke. Posh alone cannot produce such splendid resonating results as Coke.

But, what marketing genius convinced the Chamulans a half-century ago to incorporate Coke into not only their Sunday church going regimen, but everyday life? I mean, Chamulans need to continually maintain their guard against those invasive evil spirits, burping them out on a regular basis.

And, whoever the lucky holder of the local bottling franchise is, really struck a home run with this. The market is larger than just the living. On Dia de los Muertos, even the dead are served Cokes to quench their parched throats from so much time spent underground and to burp away any evil spirits hanging around the cemetery.

Just think how large Coca-Cola’s market share would soar if this practice spread to the dead everywhere.

Coke should just forget trying to teach the world to sing. Teach the world to burp.

Coke is for everyone. Dead or alive. Para todos.

Note about the traditional hats worn by Chamulan men: While I have no photographs of the men holding court in San Juan Chamula, I am including a photo of an antique Chamulan hat we purchased in San Cristobal de las Casas more than 30 years ago. The contemporary hats men sport now appear unnaturally bright white. How can they keep them so clean? While the distinctive sombreros are still woven in a similar style, they are, surprisingly, woven from spools of white plastic instead of natural materials.

 

 

Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: An Intimate Colonial City

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1528. That is the year Spaniards founded San Cristobal de las Casas on a site nestled in the mountains of Chiapas.

The vestiges of their low-slung buildings lend this colonial city a distinctive intimacy.

These snapshots, postmarked after our return, provide a glimpse of the architecture in the heart of the city that has grown to about 150,000 people.

Thick stucco walls. Wood-framed windows. Clay tile roofs. No fear of color. Whimsical details. And… wait… even a Burger King?

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Sampling Luminaria San Antonio 2014

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If you didn’t meander through the streets from the Central Library to the Tobin Center last night, this evening brings another opportunity to experience the art, lights and sounds of Luminaria San Antonio 2014. Los Angeles-based La Santa Cecilia plays the main stage tonight. Had the opportunity to enjoy this group performing at the International Accordion Festival a couple of years ago. For a preview, watch the Tiny Desk Concert provided by National  Public Radio.

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Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: Dia de los Muertos Part of Urban Fabric

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Mistaken assumption corrected. Authentic Day of the Dead celebrations are something only found in small towns populated predominately by indigenous Mexicans. Wrong.

November 2, the Day of the Dead, is a godsend for cab drivers in San Cristobal de las Casas. This city’s main cemetery is a surprisingly long hike from the center of town, so it’s the busiest day of the year for taxistas.

The pantheon resembles a miniature city of mausoleums of all colors, shapes and sizes crammed closely together, each fully covering their allotted real estate. Sunday, the few through “streets” of this cemetery city were one chaotic traffic jam of pedestrians bearing food and flowers. Scampering children played hide-and-seek amongst the tombs.

The food preparations of some families were elaborate, resembling Thanksgiving feasts. Tables and chairs had been carted in. Some squeezed into mausoleums not much bigger than telephone booths. Some hired musicians, one poor drummer forced into a two-foot-wide space between the walls of two casitas for the dead. The sounds of guitars, marimbas and accordions were heard everywhere.

For those unable to prepare in advance, there were long rows of tented pop-up restaurants set up outside both entrances to the pantheon. Beer was flowing freely; caguamas (large family-size bottles) topped many a table. A major fiesta.

Even though many of the celebrants were taking photos of their families and selfies, we still felt taking photographs too intrusive. But here are a few….

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