Friday, August 16, 2013

Tihosuco, Quintana Roo: Church-Ruin of the Divine Child (with video)

Contemporary Mayan religion is poorly understood by most outsiders.  This was the case in a recent article in the NY Times about a new Mayan-language soap opera being filmed in the Quintana Roo town of Tihosuco.   In it the writer referred to the town's colonial era church as the ruins of a temple.  Although it is easy to see how the writer could have made this assumption, more research on his part would have been helpful.

Church of the Divine Child,  Tihosuco

The building he referenced is a ruin and in a way a Mayan ruin but not that of a temple. It is  the seeming ruin of the Church of the Divine Child and its former convent.  Completed in 1839, it had been the Franciscan center of the conversion effort in the region.  Less than ten years after its completion, it was destroyed at the start of the Caste War of the Yucatan (1847-1901) the long-lasting conflict between the Mayan insurgents and the government, those of Spanish descent.

However, walk into this building and you will soon see that it is not really a ruin; its interior catches you off guard.   Much of it  has been unexpectedly well-restored and the birds flying around the interior add a unique effect.  The video I shot in the church  shows this and shares the experience.  Here is the link to this video:

At the main altar, above the large crucifix, there is a small statue of the Divine Child whose church this is.  The statue on the altar's right is Mary and the other is of San Jose (St. Joseph) Jesus' father holding the Divine Child.  The interior restoration of the building is amazing, resulting, in my opinion, in one of the most striking churches in Mexico.  

Church of the Divine Child, Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, MX

Tihosuco, view from interior

This church has magnificent murals  covering the walls of two sizable side chapels which are vibrant being recently painted by local Mayan artists; they are unmistakbly "folk art".  The signature on the murals indicates that they were painted by local artists named Max and Alberto in 2009.

Tihosuco, mural artists' signatures

The paintings are vibrant and can hold their own with the best art of their kind any where in Mexico. The Church is dedicated to the Divine Child, Jesus, and one of the mural-filled side chapels is dedicated to him, but there is an  equally significant chapel dedicated to  his mother Mary, in her advocation (form) of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  

These murals from the chapel of the Divine Child show scenes from the life of Jesus from the time of his birth up to his resurrection.  

Tihosuco, shepherds and angels at birth of Divine Child

Tihosuco, statue of the Divine Child

Tihosuco, Jesus resurrected

Here are the murals in the chapel of Guadalupe/Mary.  

Tihosuco, chapel of Guadalupe
Tihosuco mural detail showing Assumption of Mary (into Heaven)

Tihosuco, Altar of Guadalupe

Tihosuco, detail of Guadalupe mural

The sides of the church which were not seriously damaged in fighting show features of 
Mexico's "fortress monasteries", in the crenellations visible on the top.

Tihosuco, exterior wall detail

Tihosuco, profile of Church of the Divine Child

It is important to realize that the Church of the Divine Child in Tihosuco is a Mayan church attended by Mayan parishioners and that they were the ones who gave life to this ruin through the beautiful murals on its walls.  It is important for the reading public to have a fuller and more realistic appraisal of modern Mayan life as it is lived in the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and elsewhere.  Understanding that the religion there is not all about ancient Mayan ruins and temples is part of this.   Despite the colonial history of forced conversion the people there have developed a  attachment to Christianity, on their own terms with their own twists and understandings, as is the case throughout Mexico and the Latin American world.  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ruta de las Iglesias, Quintana Roo, MX

Felipe Carillo Puerto/ Chan Santa Cruz,1858
The church in the Quintana Roo town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, formerly Chan Santa 
Cruzhas the distinction of being the only church in Mexico built by white slave labor. What is unknown to most tourists is that a good part of the area of what is now Quintana Roo,  during the Caste War (1847-1901), was a purely Mayan state. The history is vibrant, exciting and visibly alive here and in the other towns of the Ruta de las Iglesias. Today part of Quintana Roo is called the Zona Maya, an area dedicated to the protection and preservation of Mayan language and customs,  and it is within this area that the Ruta de las Iglesias is found. It is located around what is now Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in Caste War days called Chan Santa Cruz.

Zona Maya in light green 

The Ruta de las Iglesias, the Church Route,of Quintana Roo is cousin to the better known Convent Route (Ruta de los Conventos) in nearby Yucatan.  The churches of Quintana Roo's "Ruta"  are easily accessed from popular tourist destinations like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, and seeing most of them is a day trip from these places.  What binds the churches of the Ruta de las Iglesias is their involvement in the 19th century Caste War, the long-enduring battle between the Mayans and the Mexicans of Spanish descent. 

The Caste War (Guerra de las Castas), was the culmination of an on-going struggle of the Mayas against the tyranny and of the Spanish settlers and their descendants.  There had been resistance movements throughout the first 300 years of colonial occupation, but by the 19th century the resistance was better organized and armed. In 1847 a rebellion planned by Mayans was set into action when one of their leaders, Manuel Antonio Ay, was executed.  Two other main leaders, Cecilio Chi and Jacinto Pat, and troops attacked the town of Tepich which marked the beginning of the long and complex conflict that ended only in 1901.  

Tepich, Quintana Roo, burial place of Cecilio Chi 

Tepich, Church consecrated to Holy Cross and San Jose

Tepich church, as above

Tihosuco, located about 20 minutes away from Tepich, during colonial times had been the center for  the Franciscan evangelization (conversion to Christianity) of  the area.  It  was also the home of Jacinto Pat, one of the leaders of the Caste War insurrection.  The Church of the Divine Child and monastery were located there and had finally been completed in 1839, a few years before the start of this war. During the conflict the church was dynamited by the Mayans in an attack on the Spanish settlers of the town.  In the 20th century the interior has been rebuilt in a spectacular way.  

Church of the Divine Child, Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, MX

Here is a peek at part of it's interior; the church itself will have a separate post in the near future.

Church of the Divine Child, Tihosuco, Quintana Roo  MX

In prehispanic times, Sacalaca was a Mayan settlement belonging to the province of Cochuah.  During the Caste War the village was destroyed and abandoned being used only as a staging area for battles between the Mayans and the government.  The church which is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi originally had a roof which decayed over time.  

St. Francis of Assisi Church, Sacalaca, Quintana Roo MX

Sacalaca church interior, Sacalaca Quintana Roo, MX
The church interior has been restored, including the roof, and when I was there a service was in progress.  A short video of this church can be seen at

There is a second church in Sacalaca, that of the Virgin of the Assumption, that is still in ruins although it is used for worship.  A local man told me that it is now the church of the Three Kings, which would seem to be confirmed by the figures on the altar.

Virgin of the Assumption Church, Sacalaca

Virgin of the Assumption, altar
Altar Detail

During the Mayan onslaught of the Caste War the church in Saban, below,  was turned into a fortress containing a large arsenal.  In 1853 Saban was lost and abandoned, being resettled in the 1930's.  The church, St. Peter Apostle,  was in the process of being built in the years prior to the beginning of the Caste War in 1847 and was never finished.  Today the church has a functioning congregation with a covered interior chapel within the impressive outer facade.

San Pedro Church, Saban

There has not been any interior construction apart from a corrugated metal roof that has been installed over the small interior chapel.  A video of this church can be seen at . (clickable link). 


Huay Max is a small village deep in the outback of Quintana Roo. Although there is no written evidence,I have been told that it  shared a  similar history with the other churches- abandonment during the Caste War and later reconstruction as inhabitants returned to the area in the 20th century.

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Huay Max

Huay Max, Q Roo

There is a small covered chapel within the open ruins in which there is a functioning congregation.  A video of this church can be seen at:

Huay Max church interior

Xquerol is in another small village with a partly-destroyed church rebuilt in Mayan palapa-style with a thatch-roofed church within.

Xquerol, Church of the Holy Family

Altar, Xquerol

The church in Xcabil, another small village, dates from the 17th century and has an intact  roof and an interior that has been renovated during modern times. The church is dedicated to  Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose festival is celebrated in Xcabil. Interestingly, there is also a festival of the God of Rain in June. The dressed crosses in the photo below are typical of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo and are a topic in themselves.   I was told by the church sacristan that they are not "Mayan crosses" related to the cult of the Talking Cross, which will be covered in a future post, but entirely Catholic ones.  A video of this church can be viewed at

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Xcabil
Xcabil interior showing dressed crosses

The Ruta de las Iglesias also includes a few other churches that were not covered.   These include Bacalar (further to the south of Quintana Roo), as well as San Antonio Tuk, and Chunhuhub which are in the same vicinity as the churches in this post. 

What the churches of Quintana Roo's Ruta de las Iglesias lack in the glitz and visual opulence of the churches of  much-wealthier central Mexico they make up in history.  Each of these churches tells a story of destruction and resurrection through the faithfulness of their parishioners and has coped with adversity, lack of funds and the destruction of the Caste War in its own unique way.  Visually, the churches are exotic and in their own way are another sort of Mayan ruin which I have covered in more depth in my July 2 post "The Other Mayan Ruins".

Driving the roads of the church route also offers tourists an unparalleled opportunity to observe rural Mayan life.  All of the churches are located in small Mayan villages where the inhabitants still live in a traditional manner.  I will offer a look at some of them in a future post.