Wednesday, 14 January 2009
There in front of the altar stood a collection of candles and Coca Cola bottles. In a country that consumes more soft drinks than any other in the world (aside from the United States), where Pepsi is running a childhood obesity programme and the former president was chief executive of Coca Cola, perhaps it isn’t any wonder that Coca Cola has become a religion in parts of Mexico.
Or so is the case in San Juan de Chamula. This small, muddy Tzotzil village near San Cristobal de las Casas, has taken the politicians gifts from the 1970s and turned them into part of their religious ceremonies.
Escaping gaggles of girls in sandals and pom-pom shawls selling friendship bracelets, the door of the church opened onto a sea of pine needles and a lake of candles. Candles stuck on the floor and covering every conceivable surface in front of the many gaudy painted models of saints lined up against the walls in glass cases. White candles to give thanks, red candles to safeguard health, black candles to prevent jealousy and debt and green candles for life. The colours correspond to the different colours of maize that they farm locally, images of which adorn the ceiling of the church. Although this is a Catholic church, and the church goers consider themselves traditional Catholics, what goes on inside the church is bewitching and bewildering and far from the Catholicism that I witnessed during my convent primary school days.
Families knelt in devotion, decked out in their best hairy woollen clothes (black skirts for women, white tunics for men) and colourful scarves, with cowboy hats respectfully laid to one side. In front of them the candles, a chicken, a bottle of homebrewed spirit and several litres of Coca Cola. In this church there are no services, apart from the blessing of baptism, as the locals choose to worship in their own way.
The Chamulans come to church for healing. We witnessed a healer rubbing eggs over the body of a baby and another chanting and rocking with a live chicken in his lap. If we’d stuck around longer we would have then seen the healer wave the chicken over the body of the ill person, wring its neck and bury it under a green cross, burying with it the evil causing the illness. At the end of the healing service, the family would then have uncapped the Coca Cola to drink together and give thanks. Cheers to tooth decay!
We walked away in wonder. However, others were clearly not so amused. As we were walking back from the church an enraged Spaniard approached us and loudly condemned the Chamulan practice as fetishism and blasphemy. Indeed to any devout Catholic it must look just like that. But in the Chamulan church anything goes, and usually does. You can spit, drink, eat, dance and wander freely as a tourist. People repent and petition loudly, like the man kneeling at the back of the church, arms spread wide, tears rolling down his cheeks as he wailed and conversed loudly with God. Then there are the eggs, the chickens and the Coca Cola. Yes, it is a little odd. But then, some would say, so is imposing your religion on others, as the conquistadors did so many years ago. I think a little compromise is only to be expected.
Quirky as the Chamulan worshipping and divine healing practices sound, maybe there’s something in it, as life expectancy is the same as in other areas of Mexico. I was almost tempted to give it a go myself, to transfer my troubling stomach amoebas to an unsuspecting chicken. But then I remembered the stern words and wagging finger of my headmistress Sister Celestine - “Wo betide you” - and decided to stick to the drugs instead. Although I hear that Coca Cola is good for a sore stomach…