After a week of hard study in San Cristóbal, Chiapas last December, we took a road trip to the popular villages north of San Cristóbal. San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán are both small towns primarily populated by indigenous people who speak Tzotzil. Each village has a unique, traditional way of dressing, their markets are busy on Sundays, and both places are firmly on the tourist map.
No matter, both are worth a visit. Markets are markets. If you’ve been to any town in the world that values the Sunday market as a place to meet, buy, sell and eat, you know what I mean. The products reflect the community, but little else is different. The vendors are there to sell and they don’t have time for or interest in tourists. Still, we go.
The highlight of the trip to Chamula is the Catholic church in the plaza. A large, imposing whitewashed structure with blue and green trim, it was receiving a fresh coat of paint when we visited. But, the magic is inside. You pay 20 pesos at the door to the boletero, who gives you a receipt with the admonition, “No tomar los fotos! (Don’t take photos)” Forbidden!
Simply, the interior scene was marvelous. Large in height and length, with swags of cloth hanging from the beams, hundreds of candles burning on tables lining the sides, mannequin saints in glass cases above the tables, hundreds of candles lit and being lit on the floor by dozens of locals on their knees on the pine needle covered floor. The tall, narrow windows on the east side cast distinct beams of light through the smoke rising from the candles. The pine aroma, the quiet murmuring of prayers and the scene made it one of the most spiritual places I have ever visited. We tried, in vain, to secure permission for photography at the Tourism Office. We were told that we would need the approval of all of the council members – more than 300 people.
Jennifer had some some beautiful weavings in a San Cristóbal shop and wanted to visit the village where it originates. The weaving created by the indigenous people in Chiapas is beautiful, so we went looking for Santa Magdalena, which wasn’t on the map, nor on the Mexican GPS. On the road north of Chamula, we asked two men and got differing opinions. There were no signs on the roads, so we came to an intersection and asked two young men who didn’t know, but a Tzotzil woman with her bag said it was near her village and was up the road to the left.
I looked at Jen and said, “She’s going that way, let’s give her a ride.” She seemed surprised, but hopped in with her big bag from the market and we continued to get to know each other in Spanish. She asked if we wanted her to go with us and we said “Why not.?” We drove quite a ways on winding mountain roads, past her village of San Andres Larrainzar and finally arrived at Santa Magdalena.
She took us to three of her friends houses, simple adobe huts with mud floors, lots of kids running around and a loom out front. Long story short, two gringos were responsible for two family’s monthly income on that day – maybe more than a month. It really pays to do a little research on how much things cost in the stores in the city. But, we saw some wonderful smiles and bought some beautiful, intricate pieces. Most of them are table coverings that are woven on a hand loom, then hand embroidered in the style of that community.
We returned to San Andres with Señora Rosa and went to her house. Seems she had some pieces that she wanted to sell, too. She wasn’t as accomplished as some of the other weavers, nor did she have much to sell. She brought out a dress, a couple of scarves, and a couple of tunics that had been worn and needed to be laundered. It was only modesty that kept her from pulling off her own top and offering it. She and her daughter, Margarita, helped Jennifer on with the skirt and showed her how to tie it with a hand made belt. Toss in a black scarf and we were done. Unfortunately, I had no small bills left. So we had to put together a package worth our 500 peso note. They started out high, but we could only pay so much and they finally agreed to our price. Their smiles said there were quite happy with their big payday.
Everyone went away happy. We know we paid too much, because they all wanted to know how to get in touch with us during our last week in San Cristóbal. And I don’t think they want to take us out for coffee.