Mayans, Marriage, Coca-Cola, and Chickens in Mexico 7

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Today, I took a tour of a couple local Tzotzil Mayan towns near San Cristobal, which is the city in southern Mexico that I’ve been staying in for the last couple of days.

Our guide for the five-hour tour was Julio, a local Mayan (from a different group than the people we were visiting) who spoke excellent English. I seriously need to make an effort to learn a foreign language – everyone speaks my own language better than I do, and for most of them it is there 3rd or 4th language. It was Julio’s 3rd language. His native language was one of the versions of Mayan (his parents still won’t let him speak anything else in their home), his second language was Spanish, and his third was English. I think he spoke some French also.

Pictures of the people are prohibited in both of the Mayan towns we were going to visit, because they feel that pictures steal part of their soul. The guidebooks mentioned that you had to ask anyone in this area to take their picture before you did, and that there were accounts of people getting beaten up for taking unauthorized pictures.

In the first small village we went to, we went into one of the three room concrete homes to watch one of the local women weave and for Julio to give us a run-down on Mayan culture. The tour group obviously had some sort of deal with this family, so we were permitted to take some pictures inside the house.

The floor of the house was a well-poured and level concrete slab. The main room, where the woman was weaving, must have been the main sleeping room of the house. At night, cots or whatever were pulled out and the family slept there. In the front of the house, there was a small room that was dedicated to a Catholic shrine of various statutes of saints, lit candles and such. There was a sink and a bathroom, so the house did have indoor plumbing.

In the back of the house was the kitchen – a room with a dirt floor, some benches, a couple tables and two open fires. When we first entered the room, we could see one of the fires in the kitchen, but we became much more aware of it about twenty minutes later, when the wind shifted, began blowing into the kitchen from the one doorway leading out to the back, and filled the house with smoke.

Julio ran down some of the high points of current Mayan culture, with emphasis on marriage rites. Apparently polygamy is alive and well in this region. If a wife could not produce a male heir after the first three or so children, the husband was free to go and purchase another wife, in order to get a son.

And purchase seemed the right term. The family sizes were large. Julio came from a family of twelve and he said that was about average. When a boy reached the age of sixteen to eighteen, his family would pick out a bride. Apparently, it’s not a total arraigned marriage, the prospective bride, and especially the groom, had a say in whom was going to marry whom. The going rate — I like to think of it more of a dowry than a straight purchase — was about $25,000 pesos ($2,000 dollars or so) and a cow. Or as Julio shrugged and said, “40,000 for a pretty girl. Go ahead and just take the ugly one for free.”

And I thought we overemphasized looks back in the States.

The lecture was good and fairly informative, but then there was a demonstration. Julio asked a married couple on the tour from Italy to play the bride and groom, me to be the godfather (in my case, think more classic Brando than Catholic please) and another woman to be the godmother. We then all put on traditional garb for the occasion of the wedding.

From San Cristobal

That is me on the right above. The Godfather.

mayan marriage ceremony
From San Cristobal

There was a bunch of symbolism in everything we wore. I don’t remember too much of it. The groom’s hat represented the universe and the colored bits of cloth on the back of the hat were all good luck colors. The bride wears virginal white – and I think they actually mean that in this culture. Julio mentioned something about the girls being “protected” until they were married. Methinks the fathers might be a little rough on anyone prematurely deflowering one of their daughters.

The ruffles at the bottom of her dress represent one of the Mayan gods protecting her in her marriage. My headdress is a sign of intelligence – to keep my brainpower in there, I suppose. I guess I’ll have to start wearing hats more.

A very nice older gentleman took my camera from me as they put on the custom and took a few pictures of me in my garb. I so wish the other picture would have been in focus, because after Julio explained the basics of the wedding ceremony – which lasts for three full days – the Mayan family handed each of us a plastic shot glass of the local liquor, posch, which came in three colors. I chose red. We all toasted the ‘bride and groom’ and down the hatch it went. It wasn’t too bad, actually. Sort of a grain alcohol with a slightly fruity flavor.

I checked my watch. It was 10:45 a.m. A bit early for shots, but if in Maya. . .

A quick tour of the inside, open-fired kitchen. Some homemade tortillas. Much coughing from all the smoke and then we were off.

mayan smokey indoor kitchen
From San Cristobal

We then went to the much larger town of San Juan Chamula. I don’t have any pictures from this town, because Julio said we not only didn’t have permission, but that today and tomorrow were special days and that “there were many authorities around.” Apparently, they really take the no-picture policy seriously. You could tell from Julio’s facial expression that he was quite serious about it also. I wasn’t up for getting punched our or arrested, so you shall have to settle for my verbal descriptions.

At the end of the year, the local Mayan population elects new mayordomos, who apparently are the local elected honchos for political and religious purposes. We were there on one of the party days, where the exiting mayordomos were throwing a big public party for the town. There were a few hundred people out in front of the main church in the public square, some singing, fireworks – mostly very loud firecrackers, and religious chanting my the mayordomos to the observing crowd.

Julio led us inside the church, which was called the Templo San Juan. It was a fascinating combination of Catholic and Mayan inside and Julio filled us in on some of the local religious practices.

The one practice that San Juan Chamula is famous for, as written in the guidebooks, is that the residents drink Coca-Cola in order to burp, because burping helped evict bad spirits. As Julio explained more fully, the local shamans (I don’t think there were any Catholic priests) would take the pulse of someone and determine what illness or ailment they had. The most frequent remedy was that the parishioner was told to mix a combination of Coca-Cola and posch, the lovely local liquor I got a sample of earlier, and drink up. The resulting burps did indeed help rid of the body of what ailed you.

O yea – and you were usually also to bring a live chicken into the church and ritualistically sacrifice it by breaking its neck. In the church. Breaking its neck was to symbolize the breaking of the illness that you had.

One of my favorite aspects of this was why they were to use Coca-Cola. For this purpose it is referred to as the ‘black water of hell.’

Not sure that’s the same for Diet Coke though, so most of you are safe.

The inside of the church was white. White tiles on the floor. White washed walls. And white candles everywhere. Around the walls of the church were wooden display cases, encased in glass, with two to three foot tall, full-body dolls representing various saints. All of the cases were labeled, so you knew to whom you were praying – Virgen de Magdalena, Santo Thomas, Santo Marta, and so on. There were probably thirty of them or so. In front of most were tables that were filled with lit candles contained in glasses, most of which had some religious writing on the outside celebrating Mary. Most tables appeared to have about fifty or sixty candles on them – each table was entirely covered.

Pine needles were strewn about the floor of the church and there were about a dozen people on their knees on the tile praying in front of more candles that they had lined up on the floor and lit. Some were praying towards one of the display cases containing a saint and others were just out in the middle, praying towards the alter in the front of the church. Most had about 20-40 candles lit in front of them. Most also had bottles of Coca-Cola and some had eggs in plastic bags. I think Julio said something about the eggs, but I frankly don’t remember.

I was walking around the church with Elvira and Maaike (I hope I got those spellings correct), two beautiful women from the Netherlands that I’d been talking to on the tour. Taking it all in was a job for multiple people and multiple eyes. At one point I heard a cell phone ring, but didn’t think anything of it.

Maaike tapped me on the shoulder and pointed towards a Mayan guy who appeared to be in his mid-50s. I had noticed him earlier, because he had a most impressive display of candles lit in front of him on the floor – about 80 or so. He had been chanting some sort of prayer in the local language as I’d passed by him. When Maaike tapped my shoulder, I turned around and noticed he was the one whose cell phone had rang, and he was sitting there on the floor having a loud conversation with someone on the phone. It was apparent that it was just a normal, non-religious conversation. After three or four minutes of that, he got back on his knees and then started chanting or praying again – this time with the cell phone still open and up to his ear.

I’m guessing that someone couldn’t make it to church, so they called their prayer in. An idea for the rest of us?

As the three of us approached the alter in the front, we saw two woman down on their knees. One woman was chanting non-stop. I couldn’t understand whether it was one prayer over and over and over again or different content, but we watched her for over fifteen minutes and she never stopped. Why did we watch her that long?

Because the other woman was holding a small chicken by its hind-legs next to the praying woman.

The chicken was still alive. Every once in a while you could see its head move this way and that, but it mostly just laid there completely docile, as if it knew what was coming. Interestingly, there was one empty soda bottle next to the chanting woman and also one that was still full – but it was Pepsi, not Coke. In the Cola Wars for your soul, both sides are apparently equal combatants.

We waited for about fifteen or twenty minutes to see the climatic moment, but it never came. The bus was due to leave and so, alas, I did not get to see my first animal sacrifice.

Although the whole experience was quite interesting and a unique glimpse into a completely different culture, I felt like such a religious voyeur. It was odd seeing people performing their worship, obviously diligent and sincere and not an act for tourist consumption, while walking around their church watching them and wearing a fanny pack.

Or maybe it’s just that I always feel odd wearing a fanny pack.

From San Cristobal

Julio, our guide.

From San Cristobal

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

7 thoughts on “Mayans, Marriage, Coca-Cola, and Chickens in Mexico

    • Karla

      The security is not that bad, you just don’t have to be in the wrong places in the wrong time, and in some parts of the cities you don’t have to go when it’s dark, but it’s all.

  • SoloTraveler

    Food has been fine. Haven’t even managed the 72 hour stomach bug yet — which means you just jinxed me and I’m sure to get it this week. 😉

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