Postcard from Antequera, Spain: Where women are not depicted as the weaker sex

Romans. Visigoths. Moors. Then Christians. As in Ronda, evidence of the waves of occupiers choosing to fortify a natural citadel in Andalucia remains in Antequera. Real Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, an early (early 1500s) Renaissance church, dominates the hilltop with its Alacazaba fortress.

A replica of a 1760 float from the Corpus Christi processions parked near the front of the church is what stands out. Tarasca depicts a powerful woman, representing faith, conquering the seven deadly sins, symbolized by a snarling seven-headed dragon.

Then there are the faded murals on the church’s walls. Look closely. The Virgin Mary is not the only role model for young women here. The featured saints are all women. Women at war, leading Christian forces to victory.

And in the church of San Sebastian, there is a statue of a young woman gazing toward heaven. In her right hand, she bears a sword pointing downward to the head of a slain Moor at her feet.

Growing up with these images, are the women of Antequera particularly strident?

We lunched in a small restaurant patronized by locals that balanced things out by presenting the male side of the equation – the walls were covered with photos of matadors.

Postcard from Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico: Roosters Rule the Roost

Densely clustered deep plum and royal blue embroidered flowers blanket the huipiles of women running errands in San Cristobal de las Casas from the nearby Tzotzil town of Zinacantan. They were my favorites spotted on the streets.

As with San Juan Chamula, male leaders operate the small town of Zinacantan somewhat autonomously, charging a toll to outside visitors. But here the women are not subjected to polygamous marriages.

The feathers young women spend months weaving into their bridal outfits do symbolically spell out their standing in the marriage. The feathers aren’t brilliant parrot or peacock feathers but are those of the humble hen. Unable to fly, hens don’t flee the coop. Chickens stay close to home, subject to the rooster’s whims.

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Several churches abut plazas at the heart of Zinacantan. The church of San Lorenzo dates to 1546. We are not sure why Saint Lawrence was popular, but he is the patron saint of chefs.

As punishment for having distributed the church’s wealth to the poor instead of Roman authorities in the year 258, Lawrence was slowly grilled upon an iron grate. He is alleged to have quipped to his tormenters, “Turn me over; I’m done on that side.” Perhaps Nana (Katherine Ann Conway Brennan, 1887-1972) was prescient in naming my father Lawrence (Lawrence Conway Brennan, 1918-1988), for no one enjoyed grilling a thick sirloin steak, fork in one hand and Bourbon in the other, more than Dad.

San Sebastian has a more obvious connection to a second church built about 200 years later. Some believe the saint who was martyred about the same time as Saint Lawrence miraculously appeared to construct this church in Zinacantan with his own hands, a feat he accomplished in only three days.

Others claim he reappeared in Mexico only to be pierced by arrows shot by Spanish soldiers, as he originally had been in Rome. He died, once again, on the site of the church and was buried there. Saint Sebastian is a patron of athletes and soldiers and a protector against the plague, particularly beneficial when Spanish soldiers are spreading European diseases among the native population with no immunity to them.

Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Coke is for Everyone, Dead or Alive

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.

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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.