Teaching “the world to sing in perfect harmony” might be great in many markets, even in Mexico.
But some niche markets are tougher to crack than others.
Take the residents of San Juan Chamula. Chamulans are so fiercely independent, they virtually are independent. Outsiders pay a toll to even enter the town.
Residents’ primary language is Tzotzil Mayan, and San Juan Chamula has its own laws (think legalized polygamy), syncretic religion (converts to Protestantism banished), police force and system of justice. Beribboned-hatted male judges solemnly gather on Sundays, perched prominently on a public plaza overlooking the market in front of the church. Disputes can be brought forward throughout the morning. At noon, court is adjourned with much pomp and ceremony, which, to an outsider, resembles one long game of musical chairs.
The Catholic Church seemingly has ceded the church to the shamans, or curanderos. Outsiders are, again, charged a fee to enter and are informed there is a strict ban on photography inside. Or, perhaps, you would like to go face those judges convened above the plaza?
San Juan, San Pedro and San Sebastian are among the most revered saints, but some of the statues of saints lining the walls have fared better than others under the stewardship of the leaders of the town’s unorthodox religious practices. Some, perhaps including even San Sebastian, were in the doghouse for a long time.
San Sebastian’s church on the outskirts of town burned a century or so ago, and the faithful logically questioned how much faith should be put in saints who fail to prevent the church that houses them from burning. So in punishment, the hands of the surviving statues were chopped off. The handless saints were brought into the church, but sentenced to spend years shamefully facing the wall. Their time in limbo has ended. They don’t get many tributes, but the saints whose potency was questioned are allowed to face the center of the church again and have robes with flowing sleeves disguising the earlier maiming and necklaces with mirrors to deflect evil spirits.
This church has no pews. The floor is blanketed with fresh pine needles, slippery on the marble floor underfoot. Fresh is key because worshippers line and light up rows of slender candles on the floor (Perhaps dry pine needles sparked the earlier fire?). The scent from the crushed needles mingles with smoking copal incense filling the interior. A primitive-sounding band plays somewhere deep inside, where a priest traditionally would preside.
Chanting shamans are performing cleansing ceremonies for groups of families perched in front of the appropriate saints. When not chanting or passing a live chicken over the subject, the shamans might be spitting on the floor, spitting around the subject to physically expel potential evil lurking within. In cases of severe need, the chicken is sacrificed by snapped neck. The shamans must be powerful because the hen I witnessed did not utter one clucked objection to the ceremony. Perhaps in part due to this cooperation, she was allowed to live.
Drinking posh, a strong cane liquor, is encouraged to loosen up one’s inhibitions that might prohibit communication of your soul with the saints (I know some of my friends might suddenly be thinking this is their kind of church.). Some of the townspeople seemed to take this particular practice to heart, appearing to have gotten an early morning start on their personal supplies of moonshine.
And then, there’s Coca-Cola.
One would think a people who have rejected so many standards held by outsiders would not consider taking even one sip of a Coca-Cola. But expelling evil spirits from the body is key. Spitting helps, but burping is best. And what is better at inducing burping than a few shots of rapidly consumed Coke. Posh alone cannot produce such splendid resonating results as Coke.
But, what marketing genius convinced the Chamulans a half-century ago to incorporate Coke into not only their Sunday church going regimen, but everyday life? I mean, Chamulans need to continually maintain their guard against those invasive evil spirits, burping them out on a regular basis.
And, whoever the lucky holder of the local bottling franchise is, really struck a home run with this. The market is larger than just the living. On Dia de los Muertos, even the dead are served Cokes to quench their parched throats from so much time spent underground and to burp away any evil spirits hanging around the cemetery.
Just think how large Coca-Cola’s market share would soar if this practice spread to the dead everywhere.
Coke should just forget trying to teach the world to sing. Teach the world to burp.
Coke is for everyone. Dead or alive. Para todos.
Note about the traditional hats worn by Chamulan men: While I have no photographs of the men holding court in San Juan Chamula, I am including a photo of an antique Chamulan hat we purchased in San Cristobal de las Casas more than 30 years ago. The contemporary hats men sport now appear unnaturally bright white. How can they keep them so clean? While the distinctive sombreros are still woven in a similar style, they are, surprisingly, woven from spools of white plastic instead of natural materials.
3 thoughts on “Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Coke is for Everyone, Dead or Alive”
I loved this column! And you were able to get some good photos of the offerings!
Where were the altars? So different, simple, and beautiful! I remember walking around in the church; it was filled with people (sitting, walking, standing), pine needles, and those candles standing on the floor, held in place by melted candle wax. I was terrified I’d get too close and my pants would catch fire. 😉
Susan and Spixl – I must confess that those simple grave offerings with the Coke were inserted to illustrate the Coke theme. Although representative of graves we saw but were too timid to photograph amidst the crowds everywhere, they actually were part of a Dia de los Muertos exhibit in San Cristobal de las Casas of typical decorations from several surrounding Chamulan towns, including San Juan Chamula. In the Romerillo post, there is a photo of an actual grave offering with a Coke awaiting the late loved one’s arrival….