Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • Shoshana, the woman I fell in love with a couple of days ago It Still Happens, told me that she came to San Cristobal in 1985. With a tourist group she went to visit the unique and wild Chamula Church.

    Today Chamula is unrecognizable from the village I first visited in 1977 or Shoshana in 1985. Now there are concrete houses and photocopy shops, but thirty years ago, it was still a village of adobe huts with thatched roofs. It looked exactly as I had imagined an Indian village. At its center was a huge market place in front of a small, white church. This church has remained much as it was then. It was, and still is, decorated around the entrance and windows in every possible Mexican color. In the bright morning sun it glowed like a precious jewel — one I would have liked to have hidden in my pocket.
    From the bright daylight, we entered the dim nave, lit only by hundreds of flickering candles all over the floor. Imagining purgatory for the first time in my life, I thought, “If it does exist, this is what it looks like.”
    There is neither an altar nor a priest who celebrates the holy mass. The church’s last priest was chased away by the Chamulans decades ago. Since then, they have organized their rituals and fiestas the way they like them.
    There are no pews either. Instead you stand or sit on the floor. Chamulans consider it an effrontery to sit on a comfortable bench in front of God.
    Along the walls are beautifully crafted wooden boxes with glass fronts and sides. Each one protects a saint who is carefully and colorfully dressed in typical Mayan weavings and decorated with an enormous quantity of silk ribbons. I have been told that each Catholic saint is considered a parallel to an ancient Mayan god. There is a small mirror hanging from the neck of every saint. An anthropologist once explained to me that the mirror is to remind the supplicant that in reality he is talking to himself.
    From behind the rows of many different colored candles, the faithful recite prayers that sound very much like the chanting of Tibetan monks — monotonous and entrancing. Here and there within the nave, shamans perform their healing ceremonies with bunches of basil, Coca Cola, raw eggs and, sometimes, a live hen. The church smells intensely of copal (a common tree resin burnt as holy incense). Chamulans tolerate tourists because they want to sell them their folk art, but they do not exactly like them. This is especially true when the men have been drinking pox (a strong, home-brewed liquor). In fact, they can become openly hostile. Many of the men praying in church are drunk; it is a local belief one has to be inebriated in order to communicate with God. A tourist carrying a camera can trigger aggression. Once I had to rescue an elderly French tourist from the Chamula jail. Ignorant of Chamulan ways, he had committed the deadly sin of photographing the inside of the church. Fortunately, money usually quickly cleanses this kind of sin. The Frenchman paid a fine and was allowed to leave — without his camera, though.

    Shoshana told me the incredible thing that happened to her standing in the church surrounded by flickering candles and men and women praying in Tzotzil in their characteristic sing - song, a chant that resembles a lot the one of Tibetan monks. She says suddenly she found herself joining into the chant, pronouncing words of a language she had never before even heard of.

    When finally her guide grabbed her, because they had to leave, a Chamula woman came towards her and embraced her.

    She says, she imagined magic like this would happen, when she travelled to Nepal, where it did not.

    During my first visit in the church in 1977, I did not drink any pox; the heady copal scent alone transported me to a different reality. I had seen the Chamulan women in their blue blouses and thick woolen skirts walking San Cristobal’s streets. I already knew of their extreme shyness around kashlanes (non–Mayans). The women avoided eye contact when I bought their produce in the market. But at that moment, inside their remarkable church, everything seemed to change. I found myself surrounded by five Chamulan women looking straight into my eyes with playful smiles. They pointed to my orange trousers and again and again to my henna red hair, a color so very different to the bluish black of theirs. Unused to tourists then, they were unaware of the many colors a person’s hair can be. They giggled. I smiled back. Suddenly one of them took her thick woolen head cover and placed it on my head. I held my breath. Then I exploded into ecstasy! Was this a ceremony especially for me? Was this an initiation? Did they want to welcome me into this new, fascinating Chiapanecan world?

    Today I understand that they probably had just enjoyed a little too much pox, which made them courageous, even mischievous with an outsider. I imagine that in their own church they felt much more secure than in San Cristobal, a non-Indian town. Within their own walls, they could play a little with the turista who was as mysterious to them as they seemed to me. But back then, my heart full of Castaneda’s shaman’s insight, I interpreted their behavior as my initiation.

    Just a few months later I married and soon was pregnant with my first son.

    Since that first visit, I have been countless times to Chamula. It seems to me it seems that no religious fiestas are celebrated as wonderfully as the way they are celebrated there. The church keeps calling me. But I have never experienced again an interaction as I did with those five women.

    Shoshana did not stay in Chiapas after her dramatic experience in the Chamula church, but she says she always knew she would be back one day. She returned with her husband 25 years later and they now run a coffee plantation four hours drive from San Cristobal.

    Photography by Marcey Jacobson, who still could photograph inside the Chamula church during the fifties and sixties of last century.
    If you want to see more of her photography of the Highlands Of Chiapas 50 years ago, please, click here: The Highland Of Chiapas 50 Years Ago

    More Paintings
    My Blog
    Mi blog
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.