Zinacantán, the Land of the Bats, Chiapas, Mexico, festival de San Sebastian January 22, 2012.

The sun was shining that day, which is an exception to the norm in this mountainous terrain where it is often raining, or overcast. We took a combi, a collective van, from San Cristobal de las Casas. Within a half an hour we pulled up into a crowded parking area, paid our 13 pesos for our ride, and entered the festival de San Sebastian, the patron saint of Zinacantán. Stands were set up selling snacks and drinks and two main stages on either side of the church anticipated the evening performances. Everyone from the community, men, women, children, were wearing tunics or shawls entirely embroidered with ornate purple flowers. One of our classmates is from Zinacantán. She dresses in this traditional traje every day, which is quite elegant, but to see hundreds, if not thousands of people crowded into this festival area dressed in this way was quite impressive.

Not everybody was dressed in purple flowers though. There were a few participants who were dressed up like jaguars. They climbed up a tree where squirrels (fake) were being thrown at them from below. I didn’t try to make sense of it, but did appreciate it as I reflected on the pole climb at Taos Pueblo’s San Geronimo day. Others wore white, furry tunics and ribbon hats and were riding horses and playing some sort of game where they had to knock a stick hanging from a cross beam. This didn’t seem to be such a difficult task, although, if you put me on a horse and asked me to do the same, it may appear to be a challenge. Most guys were pretty good at it, and when they knocked the stick it would spin over the beam and everybody would cheer. Some were not as dexterous, which could have something to do with the ritual intake of posh, a kind of local moonshine, prevalent at most, if not all local festivals. Meanwhile, there was a brass band playing in a gazebo as a popular salsa style band rocked on one of the main stages. Crazy, fun chaos! The one place of tranquility was inside the church.

I often get kind of spooked inside churches, like I might be in danger of being burnt at the stake or something. This church though, had a very peaceful feeling. It may be one of the most beautiful churches I have ever been in. As expected, it is a big hall with high ceilings, but lit with only the few windows and thousands of tiny candles placed on the altars and on the floor near the altars, by the reverent devotees. Much of the tile floor was covered in pine needles and there were huge bouquets of flowers hanging in ball formations from the ceiling. Flowers also adorned the altars where the various saints were represented. As in most of Latin America, there is a blending of Catholicism and Indigenous pantheistic spirituality. The early Christianization would have liked to wipe out the belief system they dominated, though it suffered greatly, it is so strong that it still persists through the guise of Catholicism. I am not sure that could be said of the wave of evangelism that has passed through in the recent century, but that is a whole other topic that could take me way off course here. All I know is that the devotion I felt in the hearts of the people as they offered their candles and humble prayers was something special.

It was an honor to be a visitor there on that special day. I hope to return one day, maybe with Juanita, my classmate, to get an embroidery lesson.

festival rituals

white tunic



star flower

Whispering flowers

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