It is not our purpose to become each other;
it is to recognize each other,
to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.
~Hermann Hesse, 1877 – 1962
We slowly rolled through the cobblestoned streets of San Cristobal, congested with morning traffic, and headed to the outskirts of town, where we began climbing higher into the mountains. As the van chugged up steep, winding roads, I looked out across a verdant valley of patchwork farm plots speckled with clusters of white-washed buildings and encircled by high hills blanketed in pine forests.
Ten kilometers outside the city, we pulled off the main road unto a bumpy byway that led down into a valley. At its rim, we heaved to a halt at the cusp of the cemetery that sprawled out around the ruins of Iglesia de San Sebastian. Only the bare bones of the church remain, the mottled shell of its white stone façade set against the backdrop of green hills and a brilliant azure sky. At its feet, the bare red earth of the graveyard was dappled with white, teal, and black crosses, draped in faded pine boughs and garlands of brightly-colored faux flowers.
Our guide Caesar explained to me and my husband Tom that about 60,000 inhabitants of Mexico’s Chiapas Highlands consider themselves Chamulans, practicing a faith that mixes Mayan mythology with Catholic tradition. He said the colors of the crosses signify the age of the deceased—white stands for a child, the blue for an adult, and black for an elder. The shape of the cross had spiritual significance for the Maya long before Christianity arrived with the Spanish, but Caesar pointed out a difference—here, the arms of the cross end in a circular shape.
We made our way down into the dell where the town of San Juan Chamula is nestled, the commercial and spiritual center of the Chamula. We walked along a rutted road past cement block houses, some white-washed, others painted in vibrant shades of lemon, tangerine and lime, turning unto a street lined with stalls selling colorful handicrafts. Caesar explained that the many of the Mayan groups native to Chiapas are known for the quality of their textiles, with each groups having a particular specialty. Here in Chamula, the artisans work primarily with lamb’s wool, whereas in neighboring Zinacantan, cotton is the main medium. For the Chamula, the lamb is a scared animal, never to be eaten.
Caesar led us to an old woman who sat kneeling alongside the market square, her thick black woolen skirt forming a heavy blanket under her. Her brown face was lined with deep wrinkles and her black hair hung in braids to her waist, with only wisps of gray despite her age. In front of her was a modest display of her wares, a dozen intricately braided belts and several big square felt bags with rich decoration in whimsical patterns.
At Caesar’s approach she leapt to her feet, beaming while giving him an enthusiastic hug, her wide smile displaying missing teeth. Sitting back down, she began to give a demonstration of her craft, stretching a strand of wool from her spindle, the gnarled appearance of her hands belying their strength.
Caesar told us our “poco Espanol” was meaningless here—the villagers speak the ancient language of their Tzotzil ancestors, one of 31 Mayan languages. And he explained no words were necessary in negotiating with the old woman to buy her handicrafts, as she is deaf.
I selected a belt and a black bag adorned with deep pink flowers and gave the woman 100 pesos for the 90 pesos purchase. She excitedly gestured that she would get change and dashed off, sprightly for her age.