San Juan Chamula is an autonomous Indian village inhabited by Tzotzil Mayan Indians. It is located in the highlands of Chiapas, a state with a historic reputation for political rebellion. The church of San Juan’s patron saint is St. John the Revelator. It is marked by examples of religious and cultural syncretism. While it is a Catholic institution, the local practices are a blend of pre-Hispanic Tzotzil customs and traditional Catholic procedures. For example, copal and pine needles both fill the interior of the building, along with Catholic statues, traditional Catholic candles and paintings of saints. The copal incense was used commonly in indigenous religious ceremonies and the pine needles were representative of a link between the heavens and earth in pre-colonial customs. Syncretism is present in other aspects of Chamula life. The Tzotzil people still carry out business using the same methods as they have for hundreds of years, in the form of an open, public market. As one walks toward the church of San Juan, he is overcome by sights and smells of everyday items for sale. This market constitutes a grocer, a clothing store, and supplies household items to the residents of the village, all the while they compete in a modern capitalist society just as the rest of Mexico. The area is mostly agrarian and there is a prevalence of traditional Tzotzil garments, all existing alongside banks, vehicles, pharmacies, and other modern entities.
The city itself has literary significance as well. It is the subject of Rosario Castellanos’s 1962 novel, The Book of Lamentations, which fictionalizes indigenous rebellions which occurred in Chiapas in colonial New Spain. The story is set in 1930s San Juan Chamula and San Cristobal and epitomizes the struggle between the Tzotzil people and their Spanish counterparts. This legacy of uprisings continued into the later part of the century when an indigenous group which called itself the Zapatistas rose up on December 31, 1994, taking San Cristobal and demanding expansion of indigenous rights.
In his article entitled, “From Olmecs to Zapatistas: A Once and Future History of Souls”, published in American Anthropologist, Gary H. Gossen examines the ever evolving indigenous identity and how it fits into a modern and globalized society. Rather than letting outside influence threaten their pure Indian identity, the Tzotzil people coopt these forces and form their identity on their own terms. What appears to be syncretism by the simple bleeding together of adjacent cultures is actually much more complex. Gossen argues that by taking on European cultural aspects, the Tzotzil people were able to maintain their own traditions while thriving in a modernized world. He uses the specific example of the Zapatista Rebellion in 1994. Why did the Tzotzil people use Emiliano Zapata as their namesake when there are dozens of Indian revolutionary heroes from which to choose? Despite his Ladino ethnicity, Zapata is a national hero, not just an indigenous one. He stood for agrarian reform and land rights. By taking his name, the Zapatistas gave themselves national legitimacy. By incorporating their specific local cause into a formerly national movement, they were able to gain more success than if they would have chosen someone of Tzotzil ethnicity, (Gossen, 553-570). This concept is clear in the religious syncretism as well. The indigenous uses of copal and reverence toward the pine tree are clear in their practice of Catholicism although they are purely Tzotzil and not Catholic in origin. Rather than try to maintain their ancient religious practices in their totality and face repression, they incorporate them into the fully accepted religion.
Overall, San Juan Chamula is an example of the ways in which indigenous life and globalized modernism coexist. In many ways, this coexistence is harmonious, such as in the religious and cultural syncretism. However, this interaction has also been the source of violent conflict.