Below the Surface, Religious Tug-of-War Marks Chiapas Conflict

SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico—The Acteal tragedy, in which 45 Tzotzil-speaking Indios were massacred late last year by indigenous paramilitary thugs in the Chiapas highlands, has attracted world attention to the historic problems of the indigenous peoples in this southernmost and poorest of Mexico's states.

Much standard reporting on the killings has focused, understandably, on the scourge of armed gangs attached to the state's longdominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that continue to terrorize the villages and refugee camps of the Altos, and on the shock waves that still echo, months later, in the volatile and changing landscape of Mexican politics.

What has not figured very prominently in Acteal coverage, however, is the struggle for religious identity that, along with economic and agricultural issues, lies at the root of many of Chiapas's ongoing problems.

To get a glimpse of the depth, indeed the mystery of that struggle, one has only to spend a morning in the highland town of Chamula. Some seven miles from the state's second city, San Cristobal de las Casas, San Juan Chamula, the largest of the highland's 25 indigenous municipalities, is situated in the center of a long narrow wooded valley that, according to Tzotzil tradition, was chosen centuries ago as a ceremonial center by St. John the Baptist himself.

It's a land marked by visions, messages, and dreams.

The Chamulans, who call themselves “traditional Catholics,” are, like other Altos natives, the descendants of the great Mayan civilization that flourished in this part of the world more than a millennium ago. Even today, most of the highland indigenous speak little more than rudimentary Spanish, preferring to conduct themselves in one of the area's five ancient Mayan languages. (Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolobal, Chol, and Soke.)


Like other indigenous people, their culture preserves ancient forms of Mayan religious practice mixed with the Catholicism brought by the early Spanish missionaries. But in Chamula, a kind of Mayan holy city, that syncretism is practiced with a particular devotion, even defiance.

My traveling companions and I arrived in Chamula on a Sunday morning in January, led by a Tzotzil-speaking driver and translator, a mestizo lawyer from the neighboring municipal center of Chenalho. The plaza was already filled with townspeople, most dressed in indigenous garb, buying produce at the open-air mercado and ambling toward the town's religious center, the blue and white 18th-century Church of San Juan Bautista.

Having paid the requisite fee at the town's tourist center, we were free to enter what looked from the outside like a typical rural Catholic church in this part of the world.

But once inside the vestibule, it was hard not to think, as a colleague remarked, that we had been transported, by some magical means, to “the dawn of religion.” The air was thick with the smoke of incense rising from dozens of small beast-shaped thurifers set before the effigies of Catholic saints. Pine needles carpeted the floor of the nave where worshipers sat in clusters before neat rows of burning candles.

“White candles are for blessing,” our guide whispered. “The black ones to ward off curses.”

Against the bare church walls stood tall cut pine trees flanked by sheer banners that spanned the nave, giving the place the aura, not of a church, but of an improvised sacred grove.

Nearly every seated group was equipped with plastic bottles of pox (pronounced “posh"), the powerful sugar cane alcohol, drunk as an aid to revelation, that forms an essential part of traditional Mayan worship. Pepsi laced with the leaves of a particularly strong form of tobacco could also be seen, a more recent addition.

No organized service appeared to be going on, just small groups praying for individual and group needs, making their way through a host of devotional acts, disposing themselves to the visions and communications with the saints that lay at the heart of indigenous piety.

(Just how important is the visionary element in Mayan culture is suggested by the fact that a sustained indigenous Altos rebellion against Spanish rule in 1712 was sparked when colonial authorities rejected Tzeltal Indian claims that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them and sought to destroy a shrine they had built to honor her.)


Significantly, the church's altar was bare, its reredo or altar screen, devoid of religious art, sidelined by the quiet but intense hum of activity that filled the church's nave.

While no Catholic priest was present, stationed around the nave were Chamula's lay religious leaders, shamans wearing white sheep wool vests who moved among the chanting worshipers, sometimes pausing to place their hands on the sick, and keeping a wary eye on the movements of tourists.

On both walls of the narrow nave, glass enclosed statues of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints lined up in a random review: St. Peter the Apostle; St. Sebastian, martyr; the Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowful Mother); the humiliated Christ; “The Virgin of St. Lucy”—a few graced with traditional huipiles, the Indian shawls on which local women weave ancient Mayan mythological designs.

Food was being offered before a few of the effigies, to be eaten later by the supplicants as a form of communion—much as the ancient Maya did in relation to their gods. On great feasts, white and black chickens are routinely sacrificed, and the saints borne in procession around the church to the accompaniment of drums and fireworks.

On leaving the church, a young indigenous woman near us began to lift her hands in prayer. We asked our guide for a discreet translation. If we had been expecting to hear some exotic invocation, we were soon disappointed.

“Send us rain for the corn,” she chanted slowly, “healing for our sick. May our children be preserved from all harm.”

They were the universal hopes of all who pray.

Not surprisingly, Chamulan relations with local Catholic authorities in the San Cristobal diocese have long been tense. Indeed, historically, Mayans have often rebelled as much against the Church as against foreign or nonindigenous political rule, often with the goal of ordaining their own clergy and restoring aspects of the “old religion.” At least since the 1917 Mexican Revolution, which disestablished the Church, traditional syncretism has gained the upper hand in Chamula. The controversial indigenous strategies adopted by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, San Cristobal's leader since 1959, further alienated the traditional political establishment, resulting in an open split between the municipality and the diocese.

For one thing, Chamula has been a PRI stronghold in the Altos since the 1930s, a fact that places its tribal leaders at odds with Bishop Ruiz and his diocesan-led movement for indigenous autonomy and democratic reform. Should Bishop Ruiz's aims be realized, their hold on economic and political power would be threatened.


In the mid-1960s, Bishop Ruiz sent a priest, Father Leopoldo Hernandez, to live in Chamula. But every initiative he launched met with opposition on the part of the city's traditional caciques (bosses), and by 1973 he had been driven out. For more than a quarter century, the town has had no regular Catholic priest, leaving the cargos, or religious associations, under the rule of municipal authorities.

But Chamula has been the scene of an even more landmark conflict than the one with the diocese—one that has, since the late 1960s, served to destabilize much of the Altos and help create the climate of violence that characterizes the region today: the expulsion of the evangelicos.

The decades-old struggle that has resulted in the displacement of as many as 25,000 highland indigenous began in the early 1950s when Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Chiapas, ostensibly to translate the Bible into Indian languages. Their few indigenous converts soon voiced criticism of religious “superstitions”—both Catholic and traditional—and withdrew from the observances and the fiestas, which are at the heart of Mayan religious life.

In part, the dissenters, particularly by abstaining from alcohol, posed a challenge to the tribal leaders who control the distribution of pox and the apparatus of traditional religion. But, beyond that, they presented an equal challenge to the indigenous communities themselves since their beliefs were at variance with the customs that have sustained Mayan culture through the centuries.

As most Mayan scholars point out, indigenous religion in the Altos is committed to stasis—that is, preserving, through magic and ritual, the balance of forces in a changeless universe. For the Maya, even minor violations of customary practices invite cosmic disaster and harm the delicate balance of spiritual forces upon which the survival of the people is thought to depend.

Such beliefs have made these Mayan descendants highly resistant to the forces of assimilation that have assailed them for five centuries since the Spanish conquerors arrived on the scene. But this religion of stasis also makes them highly resistant to the notions of pluralism and individualism that are part and parcel of the modern world, which has come with such speed and force to the highlands.

Under the circumstances, an explosion was inevitable.

By the 1960s, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses had joined the Presbyterians in converting Indians within the municipal boundaries of Chamula. In 1968, Chamulans began to expel Protestants, forcing them to settle in squatter camps on the outskirts of San Cristobal. The city was not a particularly hospitable place for Indios, largely run, then and now, by coletos, San Cristobal-born mestizos.

By the late 1970s, nearly 20,000 Protestants, along with political dissidents, had been driven out of the Chamula area.

According to many commentators, the expulsions were a major factor in driving the Altos to the brink of civil war. For one thing, the displacement forced many Indios off the land and into either urban poverty or the squalid labor camps run by the owners of the state's large plantations, or fincas. The religious expulsions also created a more-or-less permanent “squatter” class in the highlands that, inevitably, generated conflict as it competed with established power structures for scarce arable land.


Zinancatan is a Tzotzil town a few miles outside San Cristobal de las Casas at the far end of the dreamy valley over which Chamula reigns.

It was nearly dusk by the time we pulled up in front of the Church of San Lorenzo, tired and drained from a journey to Acteal that had begun in Chamula and had finished here in a village at the edge of a lagoon famous for its roses.

The colonial period church was open. Though the spiritual center of a Mayan community, San Lorenzo, unlike Chamula, boasts an altar that is anything but bare. Festooned about the tabernacle were brilliant Mayan banners and the statues of saints clothed in huipiles. At side altars we spied the now-familiar incense burners and brass candle racks—signs that, though a traditional Catholic church, indigenous rituals had their place here, too.

To the right of the main church stood the small chapels of Esquipulas and San Sebastian where the village priest sat with tribal leaders to plan the traditional fiestas.

Even the ritual use of pox had been retained, but without the customary drunkenness that was a requisite feature of indigenous festivals in Chamula and other towns.

In Zinacatan, Chamula's spooky grandeur seemed to have given way to something far more hopeful: a patient attempt to integrate Mayan sensibilities into the real life of the Church.

It was perhaps inevitable that tensions, too, had flared here in recent years between Mayan Catholics and new Protestant converts. But, in contrast to the situation in nearby Chamula, where beatings, arson, and even murder had accompanied the Protestant exodus, Zinacatanecos had managed to negotiate a peaceful separation of the two communities.

Fragile triumphs of dialogue, to be sure, in a region where the cultural, religious, and political complexities have proved nothing if not durable. But, with the Acteal massacre symbolizing just how bad the alternatives might be, gratitude for small triumphs seemed in order.

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.