You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the San Juan Bautista temple. So, while walking toward it, I hurry to put my camera inside my bag. I am in the middle of doing just that — and thinking about what it will be like to step into that legendary church for the first time — when I realize that I am already in a place unlike anywhere else in Mexico. I suddenly want to take my camera out again to capture the moment, but I think better of it.

The square outside the church is packed with people, and it feels like everyone is staring at me. The women are dressed in fuzzy, traditional Chamula black wool skirts that give them raven-like appearances. There are a few men — some of them wearing a white vest, or chuj — talking amongst themselves. I feel like such an intruder among these people and this place that I barely pay attention to our guide as he briefs us one last time on the proper etiquette before opening the door of the temple.

The Tzotzil world of Chiapas

I thought I understood a little bit about Mexican syncretism — then I came to San Juan Chamula. The Tzotzil people of Mayan origin from Los Altos de Chiapas (the Chiapas Highlands) have kept their identity and traditions intact despite the influence of other cultures. This identity took shape over centuries, from the moment the first Mayan communities arrived in the Simojovel Valley more than two thousand years ago to the time of the war against the Spanish army, when Chamulas and other Tzotzil people fought fiercely against the conquistadores.

The Chamulas (the local Tzotzil people) were eventually subjugated by the Spanish in the 1500s, but the spiritual conquest didn’t get across entirely. Here, Catholicism couldn’t beat the Mayan religion and its deities. The worship of the forces of nature, the animals of the jungle, and the planets in the sky prevailed. It might seem difficult to find common ground between the exacerbated Mayan polytheism and Catholicism’s one and only god, but it’s definitely not impossible. You just have to visit the San Juan Bautista temple to witness it.

A visit to San Juan Chamula and the old Mexico

In my years of travels, I have visited a lot of churches and temples, and I have been exposed to practices and rituals about which I knew nothing, but I have never experienced a feeling of estrangement as strong as the one I experienced upon walking into the San Juan Bautista temple. I get goosebumps all over my body.

It is difficult to pay any attention to our guide, who is talking about the saint figures inside the church and about offerings and sacrifices. The smoke of thousands of candles and other strange smells fill the church’s interior. The floor, devoid of furniture, is covered with fresh pine branches. Here and there are groups of people sitting on the ground, all surrounded by candles. It is noon, but the sunlight barely comes through the windows, and the little light that manages to get in is quickly diffused by huge pieces of fabric hanging from the center of the building and tied to each side, giving it the appearance of a giant tent. It’s Wednesday, and the temple is almost empty, but what I see is enough to give me an idea of what it might look like when busy… or not.

The guide insists on the importance of “stewards” — those who care for the temple’s saints. People wait up to 30 years for this highly coveted position, and when they get there, they spend thousands of pesos keeping the figures of the saints in good shape, cleaning their altars, organizing parties, and helping with general duties inside the church. The guide also mentions the role of the local medicine men and how reluctant Chamulas are to seeing doctors: they only see them in the case of accidents — never sickness.

True syncretism

The San Juan Bautista temple doesn’t have a Catholic priest. One comes from San Cristóbal de las Casas every weekend to officiate mass; however, the church remains open 24/7. It also lacks a confession box. Chamulas practice confession in front of the image they favor. Each image has mirrors hanging in front of it so that sins are confessed to the only person you can’t lie to: yourself.

Among the church’s attendees, there’s a group of women that catches my eye. They’re joined by a medicine woman, whom I can hear praying in Tzotzil, a language I don’t understand. The words sound odd and repetitive. The women who are not praying are busy setting candles all around the floor. The youngest of the group is talking through her mobile phone and checking Facebook. Another one takes a sip from a nondescript bottle — I assume it’s posh, the local moonshine — and sprays it over the candles, turning her breath into a huge ephemeral flame. There are several empty Pepsi cans scattered around the group. The medicine woman continues with her chanting.

Some men are scattered around the church. They’re the stewards, and they pay a lot of attention to every visitor, but they never abandon their chit-chat. I arrive near the altar containing the most important images of the temple and find a new group of people setting up candles. The guide had mentioned how some Catholic saints are represented by animals and explained the role of the stars and planets in certain rituals. A man comes out of a door repeating his own Tzotzil mantra and starts picking up the burnt candles left behind by others. There is a small puddle of dried blood beside the candles, probably from a recent offering.

The old gods

As a Mexican, visiting Chamula is an experience that feels familiar and strangely alien at the same time. At first, I can’t understand why everything feels supernatural. Maybe this is the magic that captivates foreign visitors when they first arrive in this country — the magic of Mexican syncretism.

It’s here, surrounded by dozens of Catholic images and chants, that everything starts making sense. We’re normally not confronted by foreign cultural elements disguised as our own version of normal. Traditions are usually perceived as familiar or completely strange but not both. In the San Juan Bautista temple, the imagery isn’t anything out of the ordinary — the images have faces and features I recognize — but its essence is new. Here’s an unknown universe hidden among recognizable symbols.

Behind the collection of saints and virgins in the San Juan Bautista church are Ah Puch, Chaac, Ixchel, Kukulkán, and the whole pantheon of ancient Mayan gods. They have adapted to their new names and now celebrate new festivities, but their true essences remain. They survive under the light of a thousand candles that never go off; they survive thanks to the ritual sacrifices of animals that Chamulas regularly offer them; they survive thanks to the impenetrability of one of Mexico’s oldest communities and thanks to a church that, after giving it some thought, has an old-pyramid feel to it.