Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Colonial City: Spanish Urban Planning

Main Plaza, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

When visiting Mexican cities and towns, it seems that all are built according to the same plan- the central square (the zocalo) with the main church on one side and streets branching off the square, perpendicular to it.  This is not an accident, because the cities of Colonial Mexico were all built according to an ordinance written by the Spanish King Phillip II in the late 16th century.  It was his opinion that many cities in Spain had become serpentine mazes of streets and he did not want the cities of the new world to fall into this disarray; they were to be built according to a plan and orderly and to reflect the power of the Spanish empire.

At a city's center was to be the Plaza Mayor (zocalo), a rectangular main plaza of a width-length ratio of 1:1.5.  Surrounding the square were to be the government buildings, the cathedral and main churches and shops.  The main plaza was not residential, but the homes of the wealthy were built closest to it.  Away from the center various neighborhoods, barrios in Spanish, were built to accommodate the working class and indigenous populations that worked in various occupations.  San Cristóbal is no exception to these rules.

The Center:

The centers of colonial cities were meant to be the seat of religious and political power.  At the heart of each is the cathedral, the most important church in the city because it is the church of the area's bishop.  In San Cristóbal the cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation, has roots that go back to a parish church in the mid-sixteenth century.  The present building dates to the late 16th century and is built in the massive heavy "earthquake baroque" style (see April 16, 2013 post for more on this topic), using the Antigua Cathedral in Guatamala as a model.  Following an earthquake in 1902 it was further remodeled.

Cathedral, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Across from the Cathedral is the Palace of the Governors that, in colonial times, was the seat of political power in the city.

Palace of the Governors, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

San Nicolas Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

In one corner of the Cathedral squares is a little church, San Nicolas, that was originally built to serve a congregation of blacks and mixed-race people.  It is said that its architecture influenced the small mission churches built throughout the Chiapas highlands and this will be explored in future posts.

Santo Domingo Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
Santo Domingo was the major church built by a monastic order, the Dominicans.
Although the city had initially been hostile to this order, in 1546 the city offered the friars land to build a monastery as well as promising them Indian labor to build it..  The first church, which was small and made of wood and adobe, was damaged in a lighting strike in 1563 and was rebuilt, being completed by the 1580's.  The present ornate building dates from the 17th century.

La Caridad, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
La Caridad is located next-door to Santo Domingo and its origins  belong to a legend.
In 1712 the miraculous image of an Indian Virgin Mary appeared in the village of Cancuc..
The leaders of the Catholic church did not recognize the cult that grew up around this figure and persecuted its leaders, which led to an Indian uprising and the slaughter of many Spanish.  Within six months the Spanish forces had put down the revolt and the citizens gave credit to the Lady of Charity (La Caridad) for saving them.  The bishop vowed to built a church in her honor.

Main Market, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
This market, mercado in Spanish, is the primary one for foods- fruits, vegetables, meats and the other basic items used in daily life. This market is sprawling and covers blocks and blocks of the area with vendors' stalls. In front of Santo Domingo and La Caridad churches, which are a few blocks away there is a huge crafts market, some of which can be seen in the above photos of the two churches.


The term barrio basically means neighborhood, the areas that developed around the city's center, the zona central.   Each barrio reproduced the structure of the center with a plaza, church and often some sort of market.  Very often a barrio is named after the church that is at its center.

In general, colonial cities grew from the center out, but Barrio de La Merced, which is not in the central zone was one of the first inhabited areas of what was to become San Cristóbal. The La Merced monastery was the first monastery in San Cristóbal and was founded by friars of the Mercedarian order from Guatamala in 1537; it later served as a fortress and barracks for soldiers.  

La Merced Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
La Merced, in my opinion, is perhaps the most interesting church in San Cristóbal because of the two unique chapels located within it.  The first is the chapel of Justo Juez, Christ the Just Judge and the other is an outdoor chapel where Mayan healers can be seen at work.  My video of this church is available at: .

Guadalupe Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Guadalupe church is located at the top of a hill that bears the same name.  Constructed in 1854 and dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, its image of the Virgin was crowned in 1931.
Pilgrims from all over Chiapas come here on her feast day which is December 12.

Santa Lucia Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
The barrio of Santa Lucia was founded in the mid-19th century to accommodate the population of the growing city.  The church was built during the same time period and was damaged by earthquake in the early 20th century; the date on the façade of the building is 1909.  The interior of the church, which will be covered in more depth in a future post,  is the same blue and white as the exterior.

There are other churches in San Cristóbal, but it is not possible to cover them all in this
 post. Each, in some way, reflects the unique characteristics of the neighborhood in which it is located and has a personality of its own.  In a way, the barrio churches  are more personal and intimate than the main churches in the cities center which were built to reflect the power of the religious orders to which they belong, as in Santo Domingo with its gold-leafed walls or the stately Cathedral, the seat of religious authority for the city. 

Just as each church evolves a personality of its own based on the inhabitants of its congregation, each city evokes its own personality despite the fact that the basic city plans are similar.  In the city explored in this post, San Cristóbal de las Casas, what creates its uniqueness is the presence of a large Mayan population with their unique styles of dress and customs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Video: The Unique Mayan/Christian Mixture in Chiapas,MX

Mayan Medicine Museum, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Throughout Chiapas the Mayan peoples have maintained a strong sense of their ethnic heritage.  Traditional healing practices are still in use, often in preference to those offered by Western medicine.   These Mayan healing rituals are  often performed using Christian symbols, such as crosses and saints and traditional practices and beliefs are combined with those of  Christianity.  The photo above shows a room where there is a healer working.  His client is seated in the chair as he prays over the candles in a room filled with Catholic saints dressed in the manner they often are in areas with a strong Mayan influence.

The link below is to a video where you will see another Mayan healer working in a chapel of the church of La Merced in San Cristóbal.  It is not unusual to see these healers (also referred to as shamans) performing their rituals,  including sacrificing chickens,  within the confines of a Catholic church in San Cristóbal and the region.  The Roman Catholic church in Chiapas has tolerated indigenous beliefs and practices resulting in a religious world that is unique and fascinating to experience.  All of this comes out clearly in the video.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Videos of Dia de los Muertos in Chiapas: Romerillo, San Juan Chamula, San Cristóbal de las Casas

Ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos, Tenejapa, Chiapas

Dia de los Muertos in Chiapas was the topic of my last post (Nov. 12, 2013) and now you can see this celebration come to life in three different places.  The photos of the holiday are exotic and colorful, but the videos capture the essence of the celebration.  Here are clickable links to the videos I have posted on Youtube:

The first two are of Dia de los Muertos in small Mayan towns outside of the city of San Cristóbal and have the flavor of these places:

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas:

Romerillo, Chiapas:

This third video is of the holiday in an urban setting, that of the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas:

I hope you enjoy them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dia de los Muertos: Chiapas

The Day of the Dead, in Spanish Dia de los Muertos, may be the best-known Mexican holiday.  It is characterized by skeletons and death-themed sweets such as those seen 
on the special altars or ofrendas. In contrast to the U.S. and Western Europe, in Mexican culture death is treated openly even to the point of joking about it. 

Typical altar or ofrenda for the Day of the Dead, Cozumel, MX

Ofrenda, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

The Day of the Day is actually the Days of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos), since the celebration includes October 31, All Hallows' Eve (Halloween), November 1 and November 2.  All three days are a part of triduum (three day celebration) in the Roman Catholic Church calendar and are celebrated in various forms throughout the world.  In Mexico, they have a special twist that comes from the inclusion of many pre-Hispanic elements in the observances.  The original Aztec celebration was dedicated to a goddess known as "The Lady of the Dead", but was not held on the same days as the Christian celebration.  After the Conquest, the Aztec celebration was moved and the two were merged into one celebration. In modern times, this goddess of the dead has been transformed into a figure known as "La Catrina" a woman who is a skeleton. The Halloween costume on the woman in the photo below is that of "La Catrina".

Woman dressed as "La Catrina", San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
Halloween Night and the next night, November 1, people masquerade in costumes
and in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, where I was for the Day of the Dead this year, the whole city had a party-like atmosphere.  Many costumes were more conventional and typical of those seen in the U.S. 

Children in costume, Halloween Night, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

However many of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the indigenous towns Chiapas are much more exotic and unlike anything else in Mexico. Chiapas is in southwest Mexico and is the southernmost state of Mexico as well as having one of the largest indigenous populations in the country.   In Chiapas, as all over Mexico, the main idea of the Day of the Dead is that the souls of the deceased return to earth for the day to visit the living: November 1 is the day of return for the souls of children and November 2 is the day for return of adult souls.

Romerillo, Chiapas, MX- Cemetery

In the Mayan community of Romerillo, which is about  fifteen minutes from the center of San Cristobal, the celebration of the Day of the Dead takes on a completely different tone.  The green and blue crosses, which are typical of the Mayan villages in Chiapas, are very tall in this town. (The crosses, themselves, will be the topic of a separate blog post.)  In the photo you can see that they are covered with yellow flowers- marigolds. The Aztecs called this flower cempasuchil and it was used to commemorate the dead and it continues to have this meaning throughout Mexico.  The belief is that the earthy colors of the marigold help guide the dead home.

In the Romerillo cemetery, there are planks of wood placed on the graves to make sure the souls stay within.  On the Day of the Dead, the planks are removed so that the souls can leave the graves and visit with family members.  These photos were taken on October 31, so the wooden planks were still in place. They would be removed the next day so the souls of the departed could visit with their families.

Cemetery,  Romerillo Chiapas

Cemetery,  Romerillo Chiapas

Shortly before the Day of the Dead, families gather in the cemeteries to clean and prepare the graves. These photos of Romerillo were taken on Halloween Day 2013 and at that time the cemetery already had a festive feeling.  Traditional dances (Dance of the Jaguar and the Serpent)  by men dressed in ceremonial clothing, were being performed and people were selling various sorts of food there in the cemetery.  

Romerillo, Chiapas Cemetery

Food for the dead is put on the graves and on the ofrendas to provide nourishment for them on their visit home.  Very often you will see bottles of coke or other beverages on the graves as well as tamales and other foods.  It is said that the dead eat the essence of the food and that it does not taste the same to living humans after the departed have "eaten" it.

Food offered to dead, Romerillo Chiapas
On the same day in Tenejapa, a Mayan town, about 35 minutes outside of San Cristóbal known for its weaving, the local school had constructed ofrendas.  All throughout Mexico, it is traditional for schools build ofrendas for the Dia de los Muertos.  

Ofrenda built by school, Tenejapa, Chiapas

Ofrenda built by students, Tenejapa, Chiapas

Normally indigenous people in Chiapas are reluctant to have photos taken and in many places, photos are forbidden.  But here, in Tenejapa, the principal of the school, whom we encountered, invited us to take as many photos as we wanted.  Some of the students were in the traditional dress of the area.

Students in traditional clothing , Tenejapa Chiapas

Students in traditional clothing, Tenejapa Chiapas

The next group of photos were taken on November 2 in San Juan Chamula, a very traditional Mayan community about 20 minutes outside of San Cristóba and they clearly show what is central to Dia de los Muertos: festivity and family.  Dia de los Muertos, is the time when families "visit" with their deceased members through remembering them- putting out their favorite foods, telling stories about them, mourning them and in other ways.

On November 2, the cemetery in San Juan Chamula, which is located next to the old church ruin of St. Sebastian (it was destroyed in a fire), was a lively place. Family groups gathered round laughing, singing and in some cases, mourning profoundly.  The overall atmosphere, though, was one of joy and not sadness; Dia de los Muertos is a time for joyful reunion with lost loved ones.

Cemetery, San Juan Chamula Chiapas

As can be seen in this photo, the people in Chamula were all wearing traditional dress.
The wool shirt the man wears is for special occasions and is woven by the women, as are the black skirts that they themselves wear,  from the wool of sheep that are raised in the community.

San Juan Chamula, Cemetery

Here the graves are decorated with a combination of pine boughs and marigolds.  In the church in Chamula during the Dia de los Muertos, the entire floor was covered with pine needles, which are said to represent eternal life.

Cemetery, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

Grave covered with pine needles and marigolds, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

In the next photo cans of beer can be seen on the grave and it is not unusual to see various forms of alcoholic beverages on graves, along with Coca Cola and foods. In Chamula the celebrators were drinking pox, the traditional alcohol of Chiapas that is made from sugar cane and is something like rum.  Drinking pox is a part of the traditional religious culture and is a part of all celebrations.  Our guide was a friend of the local people and he was obliged to drink a graveside toast with them.  Let's say that everyone was very happily feeling the effects of the pox.  

Cemetery, San Juan Chamula Chiapas

Some of the graves had small fires burning next to them, so that the smoke could guide the souls of the dead to the place.  Another way that souls are guided back to visit is through the loud ringing of church bells in the center of the town.  In the photo below, people are lined up to ring the bells to call the souls of their deceased family members back to earth.  Each ring of the bell calls one soul back, so each person would ring the bells as many times as he had souls that needed to return.

Ringing the Church bells to call the dead- San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
In the Dia de los Muertos, all the senses-sight, smell, hearing, taste- are used to bring the dead back to earth for a day.  It is a day when the dead are invited back into the company of the living and being there for this celebration is a unique experience for people from cultures in which the dead live only in the realm of memory. At its heart, the celebration is a family reunion for the entire family- alive or not- and to see death celebrated and find this kind of joy beside a grave or tomb is an eye-opening experience.
You can watch my video about Dia de los Muertos in Romerillo Chiapas at:  (clickable link)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Saints as Teachers: Teotitlán del Vallee

The 17th century church of Teotitlán del Valle, a small town about 20 miles outside of Oaxaca City, is known as Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Precious Bloof of Christ).  As can be seen in the photos below, the church is built in the sturdy Oaxacan baroque style (see April 16, 2013 post of this blog) with flying buttresses.

Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

This church has a long barrel-vaulted nave lined with gold altars dedicated to various saints; the church has 23 different saints. Here and throughout the Latin American world the saints, santos in Spanish,  are not only objects of religious devotion, but  were central in the religious history of the area. 

Interior, Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán, Oaxaca

Think of these saints (and many others like them) as the real "teachers" of Christianity to the Indians in early colonial Mexico.  The cult of saints, the system of beliefs and rituals using saints and their images, was a core part of the evangelization of Mexico. The early friars, whose job it was to convert the indigenous to Christianity, felt that they would not understand the ideas of Christianity in the abstract. In their view, the new converts needed visual aids and festivals to become involved in the new religion and these were the saints and their feast days.

Saints lined up for procession, Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán, Oaxaca 

In the photo above, taken during the Easter season, are some of the saints of the church seen in line for a procession. The first in the line is Santo Entierro, Christ in a coffin (see 3/28/13 post of this blog for an explanation of this figure) , followed by St. Peter, Our Lady of Sorrows (Soledad), and Mary Magadalene ( yellow cape with long hair).  Each of the saints most likely has its own confraternity, cofradia in Spanish, a European institution brought to the Americas by the friars that involves the care of the saints and their festivals. 

Saints ready for procession, Preciosa Sangre, Oaxaca
Saint Peter
Our Lady of Sorrows (Soledad),

The friars viewed the confraternity as the best way of reinforcing the Christianity of the newly converted:  a way to acquaint them with the sacraments, devotions, rituals and obligations of Roman Catholicism and make sure that they followed this path.  The confraternity was responsible for maintaining the saint's image, celebrating its feast day  and offering masses in its honor. Additionally, it distributed charity and participated in the rituals of death and dying of its members, offering masses for them that cared for their souls in the afterlife.  

The activities of the confraternity were paid for by its members, with the wealthiest among them contributing the most and having the highest rank, that of mayordomo.  This occupier of this position changes from year to year and being a mayordomo is a position of respect and leadership in the community.  Confraternities are still a major part of life in Mexico and the rest of the Latin American world and it is in religious processions that they can be seen in action.  Those with the highest positions, the mayordomos and other officials lead the procession with the general membership following.  

 To view videos about Colonial Mexico, please refer to my Youtube channel  Among the videos,  
you will find one about the beautiful church in Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca which is located close to Teotitlán del Valle:



Friday, October 11, 2013

Painted Churches of Oaxaca: Santa Ana Zegache

The town of Zegache is a short distance away from Ocotlán de Morelos, which itself is about a half-hour outside of Oaxaca City.  Along with the church of Santo Domingo in Ocotlán, discussed in my September 20 post, Santa Ana Zegache is a project of the Fundación Rodolfo Morales, which was begun by this internationally-known Oaxacan artist who dedicated himself to the renovation of Colonial era Oaxacan churches.

 Santa Ana was originally built in the 17th century by friars of the Dominican order, as was Santo Domingo, Ocotlan and the majority of churches in the area of Oaxaca.  Like most churches in Oaxaca it is built in the sturdy "earthquake baroque" style typical of the region (see April 16 post of this blog), as can be seen in the photo directly below. In this style of construction, the bell-towers are a part of the building, not a separate element, which adds structural stability.

Santa Ana Zegache, front façade

Santa Ana Zegache, bell-tower

The façade of Santa Ana is typical of the churches of Oaxaca in that it is divided into sections with decorative elements in each.  This style of construction is known as a retablo façade and was a Roman Catholic Counter Reformation element meant to mirror the retablo (altarpiece) within the church and remind viewers of the authority of the Church and its orthodox doctrine.

Santa Ana Zegache, façade

In the façade of Santa Ana Zegache there is only one statue, that of the church's patron saint, Santa Ana (Saint Anne) which is located in a niche toward the top.  Santa Ana was the mother of the Virgin Mary and is shown in her typical stance of reading a book and wearing her characteristic green cloak.

Santa Ana,  patron saint of Santa Ana Zegache

The vases of flowers seen on the façade below are typical Oaxacan decorative elements found in many churches.

Façade detail, Santa Ana Zegache


Santa Ana Zegache is chock full of both altars and saints.  There are nine gilded baroque altarpieces in addition to the main altar.  As is customary, the main altar is dedicated to the patron saint, here Santa Ana, shown in the center of the second layer.  God the Father can be seen at the very top in the center. (the photos should enlarge when clicked)

Main Altar: Santa Ana Zegache church

Altar dedicated to Jesus (shown both as an adult and the Divine Child),  Santa Ana Zegache Church

Altar dedicated to St. Mary and St. Elizabeth, Santa Ana Zegache church


As in all Mexican churches, there are many statues and images of saints in Santa Ana Zegache. Some of them have a special connection to the Dominican order whose church it had been, reinforcing  Dominican significance and identity in the eyes of the indigenous worshippers.   

Santa Ana  (St. Anne), the mother of the Virgin Mary, is shown in her standard iconography, in a green cape holding a book as she was depicted in the church façade.

Santa Ana, Santa Ana Zegache

Many of the saints in the church have some specific relationship to the Dominican order.
St. Peter of Verona (St. Peter Martyr), a 14th century Dominican martyr, was killed by an assassin hired by the Cathars, a heretical Christian group, through a blow to the head with a hatchet. If you look closely, you can see the hatchet lodged in the statue's head.

St. Peter of Verona, Santa Ana Zegache church

St. Catherine of Alexandria, an early Christian martyr (4th century C.E.) was a scholar who was tortured to death on a spiked breaking wheel.

St. Catherine of Alexandria, Santa Ana Zegache church

John the Baptist is shown both as a figure and as a severed head, as was his fate in
Biblical lore.

St. John the Baptist, Santa Ana Zegache
Head of St. John the Baptist, Santa Ana Zegache

The following photos are a few close-ups of figures seen on the altars shown above. This seated "reflective Jesus" was seen in front of the altar dedicated to Jesus and the Divine Child. This pose is one of the standard ways in which the Jesus of the Passion is depicted throughout Mexico. He is dressed in the purple robe placed on him in mockery by the Romans.

"Pensive Jesus", Santa Ana Zegache

Saints Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and St. Mary, mother of Jesus, are shown standing side-by-side above in front of an altar. 

Saint Elizabeth holding infant John the Baptist, Santa Ana Zegache

 The young Virgin Mary (St. Mary) holds the infant Jesus, whose identity is indicated by the cross that he holds in his right hand.  Both of these figures are somewhat unusual representations of these saints.

St. Mary with infant Jesus, Santa Ana Zegache church

San Judas Tadeo is a beloved throughout Mexico. He is the patron saint of desperate causes and is usually shown carrying an image of Jesus close to his chest.

San Judas Tadeo, Santa Ana Zegache church 

San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers, is always shown with oxen to symbolize his work as a laborer.  He is popular in the rural agricultural areas of Oaxaca such as Zegache. 

San Isidro Labrador, Santa Ana Zegache church

The many saints in Santa Ana, Zegache are not there for ornamental purposes.  These figures played an important role in the early transmission of Christianity to the newly converted peoples of Colonial Mexico.  Over the years they became the center of the devotional and even economic lives of the people, sometimes in unexpected ways. This interesting piece of religious history will be discussed in-depth in my next post.