This article is from the May 2004 and June 2004 issues of The Mexico File newsletter.
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Once Upon a Time in San Cristobal, Part I

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a frequent contributor to Mexico File. She lives in Maine and travels to Mexico frequently in search of folk art. She contributed a two-part article, Something’s Afoot in Mexico, for the March and April 2004 issues of Mexico File. Her recent visit to San Cristobal, which she describes in this article, will conclude with Part II in the June 2004 issue. Lynne will be writing a series of articles on little-known gems of Mexico called “Las Joyas de Mexico,” which will debut in the July 2004 issue.  

Well. In return for whining about the whittling away of traditional Mexico, God sent me to Chiapas – not a bad thing by any means, but one certainly cannot say that 21st century technology and modern mores are taking over this beautiful southern state. 

My husband and I had wanted to see Palenque ever since we began exploring the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan years ago. With the tantalizing photographs of the towers of Palenque peeking through the jungle foliage, it has always seemed somehow more mysterious than the wide-open spaces of Chichen Itza and somehow more grandiose than its more symmetrical siblings in the Mayan world. So we began planning this trip into the wilds of Chiapas state a year or so ago, adding to our itinerary as we went along reading and talking to fellow travelers. While Palenque is everything we thought it would be and more, it is with great gratitude that I thank the Powers That Be that we did not confine our explorations only to that jungle site, for the process of getting there was perhaps more of an adventure than actually being there.  

We began in Oaxaca, as we usually do, this time celebrating the 50th birthday of my dear friend Marina Flores, now owner of perhaps one of the niftiest little hotels in the city, Casa Cazomalli. This new little property in Barrio de Jalatlaco (about nine blocks east of Santo Domingo), built by Marina’s architect husband Francisco Perez Perez, has fourteen pristine rooms surrounding a flower-filled courtyard and offers a rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of the Oaxaca Valley and surrounding mountains, which in turn offers some of the most magnificent views of Oaxacan sunrises and sunsets possible. Marina runs a tight and spotless ship. The rooms rent for $55 single or double, and she and her three breathtakingly gorgeous daughters are well worth a stop at Cazomalli your next time through. 

From Oaxaca, we flew to Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of the state of Chiapas and the nearest point we could get to San Cristobal de las Casas, which in the planning stages, seemed the most efficient way to approach Palenque. (Now I’m not so sure....) Our plane was one of only a couple of flights a day originating in Mexico City and stopping everywhere, ending eventually in Havana. San Cristobal does have a small new private airport, but we are far too cheap for a private flight, and besides – acting on the excellent advice of some friends – we decided to try for a glimpse of the great Cañon del Sumidero area of the Rio Grijalva. This river is one of the longest in Mexico, reaching from its delta on the Gulf in Campeche all the way through the mountains and valleys of Chiapas to its source near the Guatemalan border. Along its path there are numerous breathtaking waterfalls, lagoons, and several dams built to control mountain flooding and augment energy in the area, but most heart-stopping are the various canyon walls that rise almost straight up from the river banks, the most striking of which is Sumidero.  Instead of just being able to see the canyon, we were told by a local gentleman traveling on our plane that about twenty minutes southwest by car from the Tuxtla airport, just over the Highway 190 bridge that crosses the river, there is a boat landing from which you can hire a small flat-bottomed boat to travel upriver to the canyon.  

This boat ride is simply something not to be missed by anyone traveling anywhere near this area. For about $7US each, we were taken by a shy Mexican teenager up the river and through the canyon to view some of Mexico’s most spectacular scenery. The state of Chiapas has the highest annual rainfall in the country and contains 41% of Mexico’s plant species, 80% of its butterflies, and 60% of its birds, and most of them hang out somewhere along this river. We saw hundreds of Mexican vultures (smaller than those found in the US), innumerable varieties of herons and egrets, more butterflies than we could count, and more plants than it was possible to identify, although perhaps most interesting were the cacti hanging from the rocks of the canyon walls. We also saw a baby crocodile sunning itself on a rock, and a mammoth full-grown croc swimming alongside our boat. I cannot even begin to describe the majesty and mystery of the canyon itself (see photos!) or the views that appeared as we followed the twisting river. Just don’t pass this up if you are within 100 miles of it.   

It is interesting to note that on the Rio Grijalva, we were comfortable in short sleeves and feeling the sun, because at about 5:30pm, with much reluctance, we left the river and boarded a bus for the two-hour ride over the Sierra Madre Sur to San Cristobal de las Casas, and when we arrived, it was downright cold. We were concerned that we had left the bus ride too late, but as it happened, we traversed the mountains just as the sun was setting, giving us the opportunity to view more of the glorious scenery of Chiapas. The forest covering the mountains is lush beyond belief and the road, although seriously washed out by spring rain in several places, twists and turns all the way, affording one spectacle of jungle and sky after another. As are most of Mexico’s mountain roads, this one was harrowing in the extreme, but the vistas are simply not comparable to anything else I can think of (see more photos....) 

We were totally unprepared for the temperature in San Cristobal – in the 30’s! – just what we left home to escape. It seems that the temperatures are always on the colder side here, as our hotel – instead of ceiling fans and/or air conditioners – came equipped with portable heaters and heavy wool blankets.  We chose the very pretty Hotel Flamboyant Español in downtown San Cristobal primarily because it is a colonial structure and only two long blocks along the pedestrian-only tourist walkway from the center of town, but I honestly hesitate to recommend it. While the gardens are quite lovely, and the rooms comfortable enough, the warmth and good humor we are accustomed to finding in rural Mexico is almost totally missing from the hotel staff. The dining room staff was slow and inefficient and the people at the desk, while able enough, were unsmiling and abrupt. On the day that we left, although we were not involved in it, the staff was unable to open most of the safety deposit boxes behind the desk and several guests, because of prior scheduling, were forced to leave without passports and money with the promise that they would be forwarded – not a promise I would take lightly in Mexico. Dirty linen was left in our rooms from day to day, and while we had a plethora of lamps throughout, none was equipped with more than a 25-watt bulb. We had deliberately picked a hotel away from the zocalo, thinking it might be quieter, but this was not the case. We did have an outside room, which may have added to the problem, but other guests we spoke to with inside rooms also experienced the joys of car horns, music and conversation far into the night. 

San Cristobal itself, though, can only be described as a cultural experience beyond compare. In a lush valley 7,000 feet above sea level, with a population of 90,000, modern San Cristobal is a fascinating amalgam of indigenous Indians clothed in their native dress, boisterous teenagers in jeans and windbreakers and professional people in suits and ties. There is a Mexican military presence (young men with guns riding around town in trucks – reason undisclosed), and the streets were crowded and busy at most times during our visit. Interestingly, we did not see many tourists and we were told that most of the tourists that visited this area were European rather than American.  

Founded in 1528 by Diego Mazariegos as the original capital of the state of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas was originally called Villa Real. At the time, Chiapas was considered part of Guatemala because it was so far from Mexico City. In 1535, it was renamed Ciudad Real (royal city) and became a point of convergence for Mexican and Central American cultural expression, notably Guatemalan, eventually becoming home to all the religious orders in Chiapas. Eventually, in 1824, the capital of Chiapas was moved to Tuxtla Gutierrez, more centrally located and easier to travel in and out of than this remote city in the mountains, and the state became part of Mexico. At this time, the city was renamed again in honor of Dominican Bishop Bartoleme de las Casas, a colonial-era Spanish priest who arrived in the city in 1545 and worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. San Cristobal today is an interesting combination of colonial architecture, modern high-end jewelry and clothing stores and fantastic cathedrals, peppered with strip-mall-style drug stores and internet cafes tucked in here and there. It is a relatively clean town and most of the dogs appear healthy and well-fed, always a barometer for me.  

Although I thought I was more interested in the surrounding Indian villages, San Cristobal itself does have some interesting things to see, one being the Sergio Castro Museum, a noted repository of Indian crafts, costumes and artifacts. Sergio Castro is not a native of the region – he migrated there from Monterrey to teach school – but over the years, he has taken an interest in the indigenous peoples of the area and has initiated many projects in his efforts to provide them with health care. One of the ways he raises money for his various projects is by opening his home to tours by visitors and explaining the textiles and art objects displayed there.  

The state of Chiapas’ contribution to Mexico’s indigenous arts is primarily in their textiles, and Señor Castro’s home in downtown San Cristobal has evolved into a museum exhibiting the many examples of native dress of the many tribes inhabiting the state. He is a funny, gallant and dedicated man and hearing him discuss the various cultures of the region is definitely an experience. For instance, as he circles the room displaying his collection of costumes, he attempts to explain the Lacondon Indians, a tribe of some 500 people from 10 families living in the lowland rain forest and trying to preserve its native traditions. The group seeks to accomplish this by insisting that its members not marry outside of the tribe. Señor Castro brings a certain hilarity to the topic of the problems resulting from the tribe’s inherent incest, if you can imagine such a thing. Upon arrival at the room housing all his various awards and certificates from the Mexican government, he announced the name of the room as the Tuti-Fruity Room. 

Another fascinating stop is the center city Casa de la Marimba directed by Zeferino Nandayapa. This organization sponsors children who could not otherwise afford the lessons in learning the marimba and, ranging in age from about 10 to early adulthood, these kids are terrific. We happened to time our afternoon visit just right and were treated to a concert that was absolutely amazing. The group started with American-style songs such as “My Way” and “New York New York” (which were oddly effective on marimba) but gradually turned to music of the region as well as some very good bossa nova. Regional refreshments were served after the concert as the children mingled with guests and CD’s done by the group, known as Amigos del Sol, were offered for sale at $5 each. Some enthusiastic audience member passed his umbrella into which everyone threw money.  If you can manage it, this is an experience well worth the time and effort, and watching the pure joy of the kids as they played, I’m convinced that any money contributed is definitely going to a worthy cause.  

Dodging the raindrops one afternoon, we took a walk to try and find the artisans market of San Cristobal. Close to the food market, this group of mostly Indian artisans can be found in the churchyard of the 16th- Century Cathedral de Santa Domingo. Considered to be one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in Mexico, this church is massively impressive. Inside we were surprised to find a no-less imposing interior, with an elaborate baroque pulpit, a majestic painting by Juan Corres, and the outstanding example of colonial-era Guatemalan sculpture called the Holy Trinity of Santo Domingo. The artisans market itself is a series of stalls and tents selling primarily hand-woven textiles from surrounding villages, along with various wood and leather objects and one stall selling guitars. Interestingly, the prices in the market were far more reasonable than in the villages themselves. Much to my surprise, I purchased a colorful child’s outfit for $3.50 that someone later attempted to sell me for $20 in San Juan Chamula.  

Other sites worth visiting in San Cristobal include the majestic Catedral just off the zocalo – another interesting baroque structure dating to the era when San Cristobal was the colonial capital of the state, as evidenced by the imperial eagle on the church’s façade. Painted a sunny pumpkin color with lacy white designs adorning the façade, this is a beautiful building where local vendors gather on the steps and wait for the tour buses to come through.  Around the corner is the Neo-Classical municipal palace. Originally designed to surround the entire zocalo when it was conceived, once the city lost its capital status, the building was reduced to one side of the square. A brilliant white, its stately arches, courtyard and balconies are worth a look. Also of interest is the Casa de las Sirenas, the last remaining example of colonial domestic architecture in the city. Said to have been the home of Conquistador Andres de la Tovilla, this structure is believed to date from the 16th century and reflects the Plateresque style in its frontal décor of columns, plaster eagles, lions and simple tracery. It takes its name from a stone statue of a mermaid sitting in front of it.  

Additionally, the downtown churches of El Carmen, San Francisco and La Compañia should be seen, if only to observe their contrasting styles. The Franciscans reached Ciudad Real in 1577, and while never able to achieve the influence of the Dominicans, they nevertheless built a lovely imposing church, very simply styled on the exterior with an essentially baroque interior with high-quality religious images on canvas. The El Carmen church is characterized by its L-shaped layout facing a delightful square. Nothing remains of the convent originally attached, but the church, built in the 1600’s, and its chapel added early in the next century, are in the Mudejar style. Its best feature is its large portal arch, while its single central bell tower makes it unique in Mexican construction. Also known as San Agustin, the Jesuit church of La Compañia was built in 1680. After the Jesuits were expelled form the region, the church was remodeled to serve as an auditorium, although the exterior retains its plaster plaques on what were once the towers.  

Also worthy of the walk is the La Merced convent, the first founded in San Cristobal in 1537 and occupied by the Mercedarian order. Remodeled in the Porfirian period in the Neo-Classic style, the convent has served alternately as a prison, but was able to retain the original structure of its sacristy and some of the original paintings and reliefs found there. The structure now houses the Amber Museum, an interesting place to visit if only for the information provided on how to distinguish true amber, created from fossilized tree resin, from the glass often passed off to tourists as the real deal. Of particular interest are the examples of the rare red amber found in the mountains of Chiapas and the gold and red ambers containing the fossilized remains of scorpions, flies, bees and other insects caught in the substance as it hardened over the millenniums. I’m still not entirely clear on the method of distinguishing real from man-made amber, but it has something to do with burning it – I believe it is the real that melts upon contact with a match, which is perhaps a self-defeating exercise...?




Once Upon a Time in San Cristobal, Part II

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a frequent contributor to Mexico File. She lives in Maine and travels to Mexico frequently in search of folk art. She contributed a two-part article, Something’s Afoot in Mexico, for the March and April 2004 issues of Mexico File. Her recent visit to San Cristobal, which she describes in this article, began with Part I, which appeared in the May 2004 issue. Lynne will be writing a series of articles on little-known gems of Mexico called “Las Joyas de Mexico,” which will debut in the July 2004 issue.  

Another day we took a bus to the outlying village of San Juan Chamula, even higher up into the mountains, expressly to visit its colonial era church, now known as the Ceremonial Center of Chamula. It was explained to us on the way that the state of Chiapas is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural, and is unique in Mexican culture in the way it peoples have blended their pre-Hispanic beliefs with colonial Catholicism. It contains nine separate socioeconomic regions, each with its own capital city. The region around San Cristobal is known as the Highlands because of its 7,000-foot altitude. The villages all have their own particular Indian cultures, each of which distinguishes itself from the others by three things – its language, its clothes, and its patron saint.  

Local tradition in Chamula holds that their patron saint, John the Baptist himself, chose the site for the village’s Tzotzil ceremonial center. Their language is Tzotzil and their dress is distinguished by the heavy black wool wraparound skits worn by the women. (Spanish is their second language and while it is taught to the children who go to school, Tzotzil is the language spoken in Chamulan homes.) The economic basis of the town is agricultural, with the growing of fruits and vegetables, and it has a traditional Mayan social structure based on the mythological concepts of sun, moon, corn and the forces of nature, combined with Catholic religious influence. This clash of ancient Mayan religion and Catholicism is referred to in social studies of the area as synchrotism (according to Sergio Castro).  The Mayans of the region were enslaved, but their religion was not forgotten – rather it was blended with the teachings of the Catholic clergy, and what has resulted is an interesting amalgam of both. The people of Chamula acknowledge only one of the seven sacraments, that of Baptism, and have rejected the other six. Once a year, on June 14th, a priest arrives at the ceremonial center to perform all baptisms of children born during the past year. There is no holy marriage, only civil; there are no priests and no holy mass is observed. Chamulans worship some traditional Catholic saints, but their manifestations often include characteristics of ancient Mayan gods and goddesses. Sheep are considered sacred and are never used as food, only for their wool. In this village, sheep are tended only by women and children, and when a sheep dies, it is buried with special ceremony.   

The single church serving hundreds of Indians from the surrounding mountains is completely non-denominational. There are no pews, and no altar or stations of the cross, but there is a large statue of Saint John decorated with red and yellow ribbons. The Virgin Mary has a place in the observances of these people, but as a saint, not as the Mother of God, as the Indians consider the concept of a virgin birth ridiculous. She is honored during the week before Easter, called Santa Semana, where festivals of varying kinds are held, although none having anything to do with Easter, as throughout the rest of Mexico. The Catholic trinity is represented by Saints Peter, John and Sebastian, and while representations of a Christian cross are found throughout the village, they do not represent the Trinity, but rather North, South, East and West, and are used for protection against evil spirits. Villagers pray three times a day, as three is considered a sacred number because of the representational Trinity. The pine tree is considered sacred and aids in protection, so crosses are often found erected in pairs or threes and adorned with pine boughs.

The colonial-era décor on the walls of the church remains, but the church is completely open. Petitioners come to consult the village shamans only, and all ceremony takes place in small groups on the floor, each headed by its own shaman who leads the group in chanting. Shamans can be male or female, are considered to be physicians as well as priests, and are consulted about all matters of health and spirit. The principle is achieving balance of body and spirit – sins and illness can break balance, and it is the job of the shaman, upon consultation with the petitioner, to determine what changes are necessary to regain balance. Instead of masses, healing rituals using candles, eggs, chickens and – interestingly – coca cola are observed, and many can be conducted simultaneously within the huge structure. Depending on the problem as determined by the shaman, candles of specific size and color are placed in precise positions and burned. In some extreme cases, a chicken can be sacrificed and its blood used to aid in achieving balance. Originally, a dark liquid derived from black corn was used to make a beverage used as a kind of holy water, but the corn was a hybrid and difficult to grow, so Coca Cola, which is also black and contains sugar, can be substituted when appropriately blessed. It is further valuable as it is believed that burping expels illness. Healings take place on every day of the year. Visitors are permitted inside to observe, but no photographs, with or without flash, are permitted (although a postcard of the interior of the church is available). 

Clinics provide vaccinations for children and information regarding birth control, AIDS prevention and cancer are dispensed to women, although healers forbid any practice of birth control.  According to the Mexican reformation of the 1970’s, which included a plan to eradicate illiteracy throughout the country, the government provides free primary, secondary and college educations to all qualified students. At age 6, all children are required to be sent to school, where they are taught to read and write Spanish and their native language, as well as some math and science. The Mexican constitution requires this, but in these Indian villages, parents decide whether to send their children. In these societies, the age of seven is considered adult for males, and the time when they begin to farm alongside their fathers, and ten is considered adult for girls, who then learn to cook and weave. 

On the way back from Chamula, we stopped in the village of Zinacantan further down the mountain. This village also speaks the Tzotzil language, but otherwise, there are significant differences. The patron saint here is St. Lawrence, the economy is based on the growing of flowers for export, and the adult costumes are made of cotton instead of wool. (The climate is amazingly much warmer for such a short distance away.) There are no shamans here – the social origin is Aztec and Catholicism is practiced here, although there is still only civil marriage. Shamans in this village work in people’s homes and not in the church. Because of the economic base of flowers and the presence of huge flower-growing cooperatives, the clothes of the people of this village all have flowers on them, and almost all of the weaving incorporates some sort of floral design. Of particular interest is the bridal costume of this village – it is decorated with actual feathers as well as floral designs and the symbolism represents freedom – I thought an interesting concept for Indian women. 

I found these villages fascinating. We all have heard of areas in Mexico where pre-Hispanic beliefs have been incorporated into Catholicism (or vice-versa), but this was my first time seeing this in action. We were fortunate to meet on the bus a woman on her way to Chamula to work in the clinic who explained all of this to us – I’m not sure how much I would have understood without her. She further explained that the issue of language is crucial and part of the reason the Indian societies of Chiapas have been able to maintain their individual traditions. It is prohibited for Chiapanecans who speak different languages to marry. I immediately asked if this precept wasn’t ever violated and was met with a blank stare and the reply that “No, it is not necessary.”  Hard to believe, but in my view, the people of at least these two villages have sincerely managed to keep their traditions alive and are not just trotting the clothes and weavings out for the tourists. As we traveled throughout Chiapas, we saw many Chamulans in the tropical zones selling their weavings still wearing their heavy wool skirts. Of course, we also saw many Chiapanecan young people who have totally rejected their traditions wearing contemporary clothes and working at jobs in tourism far away from their villages.   

At one point, we met a young girl of nineteen called Anita who spoke to us of her efforts to educate herself while simultaneously remaining true to her Chamulan traditions. Wearing her tribal clothes, she comes into San Cristobal every day to sell her family’s weavings in the zocalo in the morning and attend school in the afternoon. Unable to be spared from her family’s work as a child, she is now attempting the equivalent of a GED with the hope of someday becoming a teacher. She also explained a program sponsored by the Mexican government to remote areas called tele-secondaria, which involves going to a specific site and attending classes broadcast on television. She does not as yet study English, but we were able to communicate in Spanish as she explained her situation to me. She has battled with her father to avoid marriage but is fortunately supported by her mother. To earn extra money, she visits the hotels of San Cristobal with a pad and pencil and takes orders for special woven monogrammed pens for tourists. She has everyone write the names they want and delivers the pens the following morning. From our hotel, she had nearly fifty orders and somehow managed to finish them all overnight. Plus she is gorgeous.  

Overall, a visit to the highlands of Chiapas is unlike anywhere else I have been in Mexico. The scenery alone makes it unique, but the cultural diversity and the history of the area is its own special treasure. For me, the art in the area is limited pretty much to textiles, but what textiles! Anyone with an interest in fabric and weaving should definitely not miss highland Chiapas. The people are generally warm, helpful and exceptionally attractive. Indian cultures are strong here, with less Spanish and mestizo influence, and this alone provides a valuable insight into Mexico’s character not as readily accessible in other places. I haven’t yet put my finger exactly on how some of the differences found here might be influenced by the distinct, cooler climate, but when I consider the culture of the southwest of my own country in contrast to New England, I know there is something disparate at work here somewhere.  

One last thought – there is a restaurant in downtown San Cristobal called El Fogon de Jovel where they serve a marvelous cream of pumpkin soup and a drink called a Tzotzil Angel made of a liquor called pox (pronounced “posh”) and eggnog – unequivocally not to be missed.