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Zinacantán & Chamula - Day Nine

Group of vendors at the Zinacantán market, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico. November 2013. Original size 5760x3378px. (Gerald FitzGerald)

Off at 9 this morning. Cold and early-morning fog lingering; we all wrapped well but still a brisk chill in the air.

Inspecting merchandise at the Zinacantán market, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico. November 2013. Original size 3211x3558px. (G.FitzGerald)

First stop Zinacantán. Clothing and design so different here as compared to yesterday that it's hard to imagine that the groups have ever met each other, and unlike yesterday's market, which straggled along the side of an unpaved road, this one is purpose-built, a very large, open square covered in concrete. There are no formal stalls as such, but vendors unroll a plastic sheet on which wares are piled for sale and everyone sitting on the cold, cold, cold concrete. Somewhere in their past the members of this community discovered the compelling, at least for them, attractiveness of the colour purple. Shawls and blouses covered with exuberant floral designs with vibrant purples the predominant hue, supported by some shyer and less socially aggresive colours. V and Chip once more in their element. This community speaks a different dialect than that of the previous day and one in which Chip is fluent, so lots of chatter with vendors and some interesting information on the textiles being gained.

Mayan mother and child at the Zinacantán market, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico. November 2013. Original size 3767x3840px. (Gerald FitzGerald)
Belts and bag at weavers house near the Zinacantán market, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico. November 2013. Original size 5387x3840px. (Gerald FitzGerald)

Again, a local market for locals so no other outsiders in evidence and once again very many of the vendors very shy around the camera. Was careful about pictures, but still managed to get some good shots of locals in their native costume. Market square abuts the large community church, and this being Sunday, mass being celebrated as well as a wedding and a number of christenings. Now here's the surprising thing, there were a couple of bus loads of tourists come to see the church but even though the market square was clearly visible next to the church, not a soul was curious enough to go and see, prejudices revealed, what was equally if not more, interesting than a church. At the end of the service, and as the congregation was leaving the church, I saw one of the most truly obnoxious behaviours that I have seen perpetrated by tourists in a long while, even including my photography. I said that there were a number of christenings being performed, and each newly-christened family in turn came out of the church, one by one, and stopped on the steps so that their family could take pictures of the infants in their ornate christening gowns and proud parents and other family, in their exuberant purple costumes. As each family stood on the church steps, 3 or 4 or 5 of the tourists, in all other respects respectable middle-aged people, thrust their way into the family groups and posed and laughed for their friends who were taking their pictures. As each family took their turn on the church steps, while the other families waited in the church for their turn, in each and every case a number of tourists would inject themselves into the group and mug for their friends' cameras. So those newly-christened families will someday will be able to look back at their family albums and wonder who on earth those strange aliens were. I don't want to tar a whole nation with one brush, but if you're wondering who they were, let's just say that if a mariachi band had started playing Deutschland Über Alles there wouldn't have been a dry eye on the bus.

Making tortillas at weaver's house next to Zinacantán market, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico. November 2013. Original size 5544x3696px. (Gerald FitzGerald)

Across the street to a weaver's home/store where once again met with a wildly-coloured array of clothing and fabrics. V and Chip in major buying mode and once again new acquisitions for the Textile Museum. As an act of hospitality for visiting their home, the matriarch, or in Mayan, the "Lord of the Home", made fresh tortillas for us on a large metal plate over an open fire. We have had tortillas at virtually every meal in Mexico, but never ones that were freshly pressed from dough, dropped immediately on a hot griddle and eaten while still too hot to handle. They could be filled with freshly made Chiapas cheese, quite like a crumbly chevre, as well as roasted and crushed pumpkin seeds and freshly made roasted tomato salsa. We sat

in the dark little box about 3 metres square and barely 2 metres high which is their kitchen, lit only by the light of the cooking fire and ate impolite quantities of tortillas as fast as they came off the griddle. They were one of the best things that I have eaten for months and a reminder that while you can buy a world of dishes infinitely more complex or refined, nothing compares to a simple dish, native to the location and made with fresh, local ingredients. I will dream of those tortillas on all the cold nights in Toronto after another bad restaurant meal.

Next, on to the second market of the day at Chamula in a colectivo. This one is very different again from the other two and its local community's fabrics and textiles are once again, vastly different. In this area both the men and women use a fabric that they make from felted black wool, the men as coats and the women as skirts. Not simple felt however, as after the felted material is made they then take lengths of black wool and, with a needle, pull the thread though the felt in overlapping clumps resembling long fur. To an observer the material looks like the pelt of a yak or a long haired sheep, which is what V and I believed them to be when we first saw them. It goes without saying that it is extremely heavy and very warm. However, its resemblance to an animal pelt is not accidental as it is meant to imitate the fur of the howler monkey and not a long haired sheep as we first thought. There's an interesting story here, but too long for this blog. Chamula is higher in altitude than San Cristobal and quite cold so this is ideal for the climate but inordinately heavy to wear, and I would imagine, a relief to shed. One of the symbols that the fabric has become freighted with is as an indicator of wealth and economic well-being since the amount of work required to make the material is significant and the cost of the fabric is directly related to the thickness of the wool fur and the length of the threads that make up the nap.

Once again a paved open square next to the church is the site of the market and it is very much larger than Zinacantán. If anything, the locals here are even more actively phobic about photographs, a point which was brought home to me when I was taking a picture of the whole market to get a sense of it and when I had the camera's viewer to my eye, I was hit by something and looking down saw an onion rolling away at my feet. Chip had earlier said that pictures are usually ok but there is periodically some resistance and at that point he came over to me and said, "They don't want you taking pictures.". Needless to say, I stopped.

Young girl at Zinacantán market, Chiapas, Mexico. November 2013. Original size 4418x3127px. (Gerald FitzGerald)

The church itself and the flavour of Mayan Catholicism in Chamula is fascinating and unusual. Cameras cannot be visible in the church and must be packed away in a bag. The floor of the church is covered with a thick layer of fresh pine needles that is changed twice a day and there are no pews but just the very large open area covered in pine needles and surrounded on all sides by large and glass-cased statues of various saints, each of which has a table in front of it, with quantities of lit candles from each one's supplicants. On the floor of the church are knots of worshipers, individually and in family groups, who sweeping aside pine needle on the marble floor to clear a space, then fill the space with as many candles as they can afford and then light them while they pray. It's more than a little hair-raising since there doesn't appear to be a priest in charge of the congregation and the rituals are carried out by the people, and the threat of a fire is, I imagine, ever-present. There is a curious mixture of passionate sanctity and wordly pragmatism at work; a family elder in the midst of prayers and a private liturgy in front of their group of candles will suddenly stop to exchange a greeting and a joke with someone else who is wandering around, take a shot of pox, the local home-brew, and seamlessly move back into chant. Fascinating and would make an interesting documentary about the mixture of Catholicism and the pre-Columbian religions if it could ever be filmed.

Lox Chowder

Lox Chowder

San Cristobal & Cancuc - Day Eight