An Amazing Scene We Were Forbidden to Record: An Indigenous Easter Celebration in Chiapas

Easter Day at San Juan Chamula - Chiapas, Mexico
The last photo we were allowed to take.

Have you ever experienced something exceptional you’d hoped to capture and share, but you were forbidden to photograph or record it? That was the Easter celebration in the village of San Juan Chamula in the Chiapas region of Mexico.

This was no ordinary Catholic church, nor was this an Easter celebration like any we’d ever seen.

Unfortunately, photos and video were strictly forbidden inside the church and during the procession, so you’ll have to take our words for it.

Inside San Juan Chamula Church

Inside the church, the air was thick with incense — as in enough incense to power Christianity for the coming year. The floor was strewn with long-needled pine branches, adding to both the aroma and the heightened sense of a connection with nature. Clearly, we were in the territory of Catholicism merged with indigenous Mayan traditions that predate “the new world.”

Along the walls, statues of various saints — some doll-like, others the three-dimensional equivalent of icons in ancient cave paintings — were ensconced in decorative wooden crates and draped in local herbs and flowers as if to suggest that they were torn between heaven and earth. Others wore mirrors around their necks, some say to deflect evil spirits, others say to protect them from cameras that sap their powers.

The church in San Juan Chamula was established in 1522, only 30 years after Columbus had set sail for the new world. The unique blend of practice suggested that the members had adopted European-style Catholicism rather begrudgingly. We were awestruck by the result: animistic, indigenous, spiritual, and religious all roiled into one.

The only lurking hints of modernity: bottles of soda clutched by a few churchgoers and an LED blinking star that looked as if it belonged in a cheap casino, somewhere off-off strip. The folks running this church took a page out of the “let’s embrace ancient traditions and throw in a touch of flash while we’re at it” in selective effect in temples throughout the world.

There were no pews. Instead, a flow of squat locals plodded through the center of the church, bumping through a few far-too-tall gringos as smoke plumes curled to the ceiling. At the foot of each of the saints, a group of indigenous women and children communed with friends and relatives in prayer. They lit candles and shared bottles of Coca-Cola, their apparent elixir of choice.

Deep inside, the altar was mobbed. As far as we could tell, there was no priest, just more crowds of villagers, including women with black stone chalices stuffed with giant incense embers smoldering away. One woman waved her smoking cup in large sweeping motions. Thankfully the church was constructed mainly of stone, for her moves otherwise would surely have burned us all to the ground. In this place, the air was so thick and the oxygen so thin, divine apparitions came easy.

Heavy and ethereal, earthbound and cosmic. We stood amidst it all for several minutes, absorbing the scene with all our senses, wishing at times we’d had some sort of “blink camera” just to capture it.

But in all the activity we felt like interlopers, as if we were intruding.

The Procession

Emerging into the open air and church square carried with it freedom – the freedom of oxygen and freedom to the wider world where we stood out as gringos just a little bit less. We retreated to the far end where we sat on a curb platform that traced the edge of the church courtyard.

We absorbed the early morning visual: indigenous Tzotzi men in furry woolen white capes, others in black, clusters of Tzotzi women with market day purchases bundled in tow, babies slung to their backs, and little kids chasing one another like they might just about anywhere else, bugging their mothers for ice cream money.

As the church clock approached noon, the sun cooked us and the surrounding air to baking hot. A weak honk from the ice cream cart punctuated a stillness descending. People were set to hang out on the church square for the day, it seemed.

We figured it was time to go. So we got up.

Then something stirred.

Local boys began a frantic sweeping of the sidewalk behind us. More men and boys followed behind them, laying down a blessed carpet of sorts, scattering pine needles and branches across the cleaned squares of ground at the courtyard edge.

San Juan Chamula Easter Day - Chiapas, Mexico
San Juan Chamula Easter Day – Chiapas, Mexico

A group of men dressed in white capes marched into the gazebo nearby. Men in black woolen capes and colorful headwear followed. They stood at attention, the sheaths of their ceremonial swords pointing out.

In a matter of minutes, more guardsmen gathered, sealing off the courtyard archway entrance. Those who were in the courtyard were in, us included. Those outside had to watch over the walls.

Audrey took out the video camera and began a slow pan. A group of men in wool coats descended. “No photos! No video!” I’m surprised they didn’t take the camera. This was serious. She put it away and apologized.

It turns out that the men in white were local law enforcement, a citizen police force.

Then crowds, saints and clouds of incense billowed forth from the church.

Seconds later, another stir. A couple of men yelled to one another, “Photo, photo!” and pointed outside the walls. A young blond woman, not exceptionally tall, but taller than anyone around, was besieged, swamped by angry men in white capes. They inspected her camera, buttons were pressed. Footage was certainly deleted.

The men in white, confident they had put an end to it all, returned to their post on the gazebo.

As three bell men atop the church began stroking the bells, men carrying brightly colored flags adorned with more saints and apostles emerged from the church. As if to animate the spirits in those flags, they bounced their staffs ever-so-slightly as they made their way to the blessed arch, right in front of us.

Colors abounded. The saints, now outside, were brighter than before. They were further draped with greens, fronds, and herbs. The colors were vibrant, anything but somber — a little like Christmas meets Mardi Gras.

The sounds, a cacophony. One part celebration, another part lamentation, it sounded like the beginning of the war. Some blew bugles, others rang bells. Others still stroked boxy wooden indigenous instruments, bits and chunks dangling. Some lit fireworks in the courtyard, while others set off what could best be described as “a cannon in a can,” noisemakers that literally shook the earth as they went off. Some observers made as much noise as possible while others remained perfectly silent. Taking our cue from the indigenous girls around us –-they were old pros at this — we plugged our ears to protect our eardrums from the deafening sounds.

As the saints approached the arch, something occurred to us: We were among the very few – if not the only – foreigners in the courtyard crowd near the blessed arch. We were certainly privileged to witness this, completely by chance, with a virtual front row seat.

We had also realized that once the procession began, we were back to being ordinary human beings once again. There was no longer any attention paid to us, all eyes were on the event, in all its mayhem.

Young men sat atop the arch and tossed bunches of flower petals on the saints, bringing the crowd to a climax. When it was all over, women and children frantically collected the blessed petals and scooped them into burlap sacks and wooden buckets. Good luck at home for a few more days at least.

Some might say, “No photo? Then it didn’t happen.

Not from where we were standing.

—–

Getting to San Juan Chamula: Collectivos (minivans) run frequently from near the main market in San Cristobal de las Casas to San Juan for 10 pesos ($0.80). Sunday is a particularly good today to visit because it is the day of the weekly market and we’ve heard that processions are a regular event, even when it’s not Easter. Our advice: find a place on the church square to sit on the curb, try to blend in and then wait for everything to happen around you.

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Comments

  1. says

    Definitely one of the most amazing scenes I been unable to photograph. I even spent an hour at the local government office pleading my case to be allowed to make photographs inside. I was told I could take photos if all the elders of the community would gather together (more than 300) and unanimously vote yes to give me permission. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

    Very nice description of the church and ceremony. It is an odd, repressive, strict community.

  2. says

    Was there shortly after Christmas a bit over a year ago now. Your description of the inside of the church reminded me much of my memories of it.

    Our guide told us before we got there than in general they didn’t like cameras in the village – although we were told it was more a financial issue – they didn’t like that some people took their photos and profited off of them, etc. I got a few surreptitious photos of the village but didn’t even think to try inside the church. I’ll never forget the nativity scene complete with electronic musical Christmas lights – combine with the straw everywhere, very surreal!

  3. Rob says

    Fortunately, technology is advancing quickly enough that soon the primitives won’t be able to tell you’re taking photos. It’s almost there now with small light-field cameras. Mount one on your shoulder, camouflaged, and walk around recording.

  4. Martha says

    Hi Dan and Audrey,
    Let me start by saying I have been reading your wonderful blogs and looking at your great pictures for over a year. Having said that, I must criticize your posting and actions above. It was clear to you that photos were not welcome, so why did you persist in photographing the ceremony, albeit outdoors? Second, your comment about the “flow of squat locals” represents very poor word choice that I find offensive. There are few places in the world that indigenous people can continue living their culture unimpeded by the dominant society. I would hate to think that my actions or attitudes had been to disrespect or even to impede the celebrations of these cultures.

  5. says

    Thanks everyone. Great comment, lively thread. My responses are below.

    @Michael W: Thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment. When you can’t lean on a camera to capture it, you must trust your own mind to do it for you.

    @Pete: Thank you!

    @Michael: Wow, so you really went the extra mile. At least they outlined a path, albeit a slim possibility, for you to be allowed to photograph.

    It was clear to us that photos weren’t held in high regard. After the fact, we did a little more research and it seems that the photographing the saints is believed to reduce their powers.

    “Odd, repressive, strict community.” — You and we obviously visited the same place. When our paths cross one of these days, we share a drink on this one.

    I love your telling of this story. Thanks for sharing!

    @Mark: Am glad my description could bring back memories and even faintly do it justice. Very difficult to describe. I wrote another 500 words and thought that was a little overboard and started hacking back.

    It’s *very* interesting that your guide mentioned the resistance to cameras being the result of profiting from their sale. I got the feeling (and we almost included another 500 more words about the cultural backdrop to the photo resistance) that this community has been treated very poorly by a lot of heavy-handed tourists.

    Surreal indeed. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    @Rob: You know, this thought crossed my mind as well, and I have very mixed feelings. There was something very unusual about the ceremony and goings-on inside that church (it reminded me of watching santeria in Cuba in a way). And something tells me, in a superstitious sort of way, that if cameras — even hidden ones — were to get away with images, the overall experience might be much less than it is.

    A long-winded way to say that I’m conflicted about it all.

    Regarding the word “squat”, you’ve read it as I intended. Thanks.

    @Martha: Thank you for your comment. Am glad that you’ve been reading all this time and that you felt comfortable writing what you wrote.

    First, let me clarify what photos we took and when we took them. There’s a little confusion, due wholly to poor out-of-sequence storytelling on my part. Here’s how it went;
    1) We walked around the market. We took a few photo or two, but it was clear that no one was interested in engaging.
    2) We went into the church where it was clearly marked “no photos or video.” We didn’t take any.
    3) We exited the church and noticed a professional photographer (probably someone local) taking photos of families in front of the church. We asked him if it was OK to photograph. He said “OK out here, but not inside the church.”
    4) We walked around the grounds outside of the church and took a few photos, including the ones you see in this piece. Keep in mind that at this point, we didn’t even know that a procession was going to happen.
    6) Audrey begins to take some video and is told “no.” But nothing more, meaning that no footage was deleted. We put our cameras away.
    7) Very shortly thereafter, the saints begin to emerge from the church. This, we suppose is the dividing line (keep in mind that locals especially do not want the saints photographed) of “the procession” and thus when photos and video are strictly forbidden.
    8) The woman outside the walls that we refer to in the piece is mobbed by locals because she is photographing the procession of the saints. Now that I think about it, I suspect that she too was unaware of what was happening until she was reprimanded. It was a little confusing, after all.

    I hope that clarifies a bit what we did and did not do and when we did it.

    Regarding “squat locals,” I use that phrase as Rob suggests, in the dictionary definition of the word squat “(of a person, animal, the body, etc.) short and thickset.” I reluctantly (because I knew that it might rub some the wrong way) but deliberately chose the word because it seemed to be truer to the context and to fit the feel of the crowd I had hoped to describe in the church. Of course there were some taller locals, just like there might be some “shorter” gringos outside, but I chose not to pursue it further.

    In any event, it wasn’t my intent to offend. My apologies if it did.

    @Sutapa: Thank you! It was a lovely and fascinating ceremony for sure. Next time, we’ll find a way to take you with us.

  6. says

    Sometimes it’s got to be good enough just to BE there.

    As much as I love to have pics of virtually every experience so that they can be used in future assignments, sometimes it’s just not possible, so enjoy the moments while you can!

    Thanks for referring me to your blog.

  7. says

    @Doreen: Although the voice of reason within me agrees with you, I sometimes have challenges coming to terms with that. This piece more than any other also proved to me that it’s much easier and quicker to relate an experience — especially one as heavy as this — when you happen to have a few images on hand.

    Enjoy the moment, indeed. Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

  8. Martha says

    Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’ll continue to read your blog for my “travel fix” as I usually enjoy your contributions! My family generally feels unusually tall among Latin Americans as well, but there we feel that we, not they, are unusual! Unfortunately, this is caused by poor nutrition, as we see heights shoot up in a single generation among immigrants to US.

  9. says

    A really interesting post and I think you were lucky to be able to take even a few photos!. When I was there, one of my companions got whacked on the head by a local just for carrying a camera. Someone nearby had taken a photo with a flash and no-one knew who it was so everyone nearby got blamed. It is a place of worship and should be respected.

  10. Rob says

    If some native whacked me on the head for no reason they’d seriously wish they hadn’t. Unprovoked physical contact pretty much demands a response.

    The way to deal with primitives and their silly superstitions is just use technology they can’t understand. Video, or take still photos of the whole thing with a hidden camera and don’t let on that you’re doing so. They won’t know any better and you’ll have your photos. Light field cameras don’t require focusing or flash and are pretty small (and getting smaller).

  11. says

    @Martha: Unusual is most certainly in the eye of the beholder. As for body shapes, et. al. it’s all nurture and nature.

    @Michele: We were fortunate in all aspects of our visit to San Juan Chamula. We’d also read so many warnings about cameras that we were as discreet as possible and also tuned to what was going on around us.

    If someone whacked me over the head unprovoked, I’d be hard pressed not to respond.

    @Rob: For us, we don’t really derive a lot of joy taking photos when we know that people don’t want us to. So even if the technology is there to surreptitiously record, we’d still be missing the interaction that we usually seek in our photo-taking process.

  12. Jess says

    Having grown up in SanCristobal among the Chamula people, the bottles of Coca-Cola almost certainly held “posh” the local moonshine liquor.

    For those interested in the Chamulas and learning more about them, consider the books “They Dared to be Different” by Hugh Steven

  13. says

    @Jess: That is a terrific description and line, your comparison of the local drinks of choice in Chamula.

    Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ve added to my personal list. I can only imagine that it’s a fascinating read.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  14. says

    Is this a pretty safe part of Mexico? I went to Ensenada south of Tijuana, but my relatives feared for my safety. I want to have a good travel plan before I visit Mexico again.

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