Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chiapas Part 5: A stroll along Andador 20 de Noviembre to Templo de la Caridad

A friendly jaguar greets passersby along Andador 20 de Noviembre. The doorway is part of a converted colonial mansion now serves as an artisan's shop. Andador 20 de Noviembre heads north from the northwest corner of the Zócalo. The walking part of it stretches for 3 long blocks. Andador refers to the pedestrian-only aspect of the street. The 20th of November is Dia de la Revolution, the day Francisco Madero launched the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Carole and I loved the walking streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They extend out from the Zócalo to the north, south, and east. The absence of motor vehicles means less noise and exhaust fumes and an overall slower pace. As to jaguars, they are the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world, after African lions and Asian tigers. The ancient people revered the jaguar, not only because of its size and hunting abilities but because it is a creature of the night. The pre-hispanic people believed that jaguar spirits connected the world of ordinary reality with that of the underworld of darkness and death.

You run into all types of people along Andador 20 de Noviembre. They range from tall Europeans toting backpacks, to tiny Maya dressed in traditional clothing, to Ladinos (non-Maya Mexicans) wearing ordinary street clothes. The shops, cafés, and restaurants lining either side of the street are colonial-era structures that rarely exceed two stories.

Burger King stands on one of the corners of the Andador. My guess is that you have never seen one that looked quite like this. We really appreciate how Mexican cities like San Cristóbal have required businesses to closely follow the original appearance of the structure. Inside, of course, it looks like any other Burger King.

The Magic Oven French Bakery announced its presence with this small sign. A Maya dressed in pre-hispanic garb prepares to thrust a croissant into a traditional beehive-shaped oven. The shape of the wood-fired oven provides an even heat. Although current bakers don't dress this way (at least none I have met), bread products have been baked using this ancient style of oven ever since the Spanish brought wheat over from Europe. I occasionally buy bread in from a neighborhood baker in my pueblo of Ajijic. He uses just such an oven. Previous to the introduction of the bee-hive oven, the indigenous people used a circular, flat griddle called a comal. On the comal they cooked the thin flat cakes called tortillas. Like the beehive oven, the ancient comal is still widely used in Mexico.

A fierce Maya warrior stands at the entrance of a theatre along the Andador. This guy was one of the actors in a spectacular performance we attended a few days later. When we encountered him here, he was functioning as kind of a human billboard for the event. The play, called Palenque Rojo was about the ancient conflict between two Maya kingdoms named Toniná and Palenque which--according to legend--resulted in the conquest of Palenque and the death and rebirth of its king. The costumes, as you can see, were extraordinary. Although all the dialogue was in Maya, it was easy to follow the action because the theatre provided a brochure in English. During the performance, some of the actors were costumed as monkeys, large birds, crocodiles, and horrific insects. They had the animals' body movements down perfectly. Palenque Rojo was gripping and enchanting, a must-see if you visit San Cristóbal.

View along the Andador, looking back toward the Zócalo. As the day wore on, the streets filled with people. When we visited San Cristóbal in August, the weather was nice, but very changeable. One moment it might be bright and sunny, like the scene above and, in the next, dark clouds might sweep in to produce a short downpour. Accordingly, we had to prepare for all eventualities. I wore the kind of hiking trousers with zippers at knee level enabling their conversion into shorts if the weather warmed up. In my daypack, I carried rain gear in case of a sudden storm, but also sunblock if the sun came out.

A group a Maya men, some wearing elements of traditional clothing, waits at a health center. Many Maya, men and women, carry the traditional embroidered shoulder bag. Two of the men above also wear the traditional white tunic, extending to knee length, with bare legs. The chest areas of the tunics are also decorated with embroidery. Interestingly, the two in tunics wore t-shirts under them, and also imported running shoes. That's progress, I guess.

Day or night, there is a lot of activity on the various andadores. Here you are looking north along Andador 20 de Noviembre at its intersection with Calle 5 de Febrero. There is a vibrant night scene in San Cristóbal, and the cafés, restaurants, and bars fill up with a mix of Mexicans and European tourists.

Templo de Caridad

The origins of Templo de la Caridad (the Temple of Charity) go back to the 16th Century. Notice the thick walls, wood ceiling, and great retablo behind the altar. The whole place exudes antiquity.The church sits on the east side of Andador 20 de Noviembre, near where the pedestrian-only part ends. Just north of the Templo is the much more famous Templo y Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo church which we will visit in a future posting. La Caridad was originally the chapel for a hospital run by the religious Order of San Juan de Dios, and is the only part of the original hospital and convent that still stands. The first hospital in San Cristóbal was established between 1577 and 1594 in the southern part of the city by two churches, Templos de San Diego y Santa Lucia. However, that hospital project did not prosper and, by the early 1600s, the facility in the south of the city was in ruins. In 1635, members of the Order of San Juan de Dios, led by Juan de San Martin, began planning for a new hospital. The chapel for their hospital complex would become Templo de La Caridad, In Mexico, however, few things happen quickly.

La Caridad is undergoing restoration work as you can see on this pillar. The bottom of the pillar has been restored, while the area above the capital (the top of the column) needs considerable work. Maintaining a centuries-old structure like this is a constant work-in-progress. The 17th Century planning and fundraising process appears to have been glacial, because it was not until 1653 that the Order of San Juan de Dios finally took possession of the land around the Templos San Domingo y Santa Lucia where the ruins of the unsuccessful hospital stood. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Order decided not to build there, and the project slumbered for a few more decades.

The graceful old dome shows the wear of the ages. The four round windows in the dome allow enough light to dispel what would otherwise be a gloomy atmosphere. With the turn of the 18th Century, the pace finally picked up. In 1710, Bishop Juan Bautista Álvarez de Toledo arrived from Spain. In order to obtain funds for construction of the hospital, the Bishop demanded  money and labor from the local Tzeltzal Maya. The Tzeltzal revolt that erupted in 1712 had been brewing for a while but the Bishop's demands helped trigger it. After the suppression of the revolt the Maya were forced to provide the funds used to procure the land where La Caridad now stands. It was purchased from Sergeant Major D. Pedro De Zaveleta and his wife. The Sergeant Major may well have had a part in defeating the Maya and, if so, he profited nicely from his military exertions. His property included a hermitage, a sacristy and a cemetery.

A massive, three-tiered Baroque-style retablo stands behind the altar. The Retablo del Altar Mayor (Main Altar Retablo) contains four religious paintings, and three niches--one on each level--for statues of the Virgin and two saints. The incredibly ornate decoration of the retablo is an expression of the Baroque sensibilities of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. After the suppression of the Tzeltzal uprising in 1712, Bishop Álvarez de Toledo put the Order of San Juan de Dios in charge of the development the new hospital complex. It would be the first hospital in San Cristóbal dedicated to treating the indigenous population. I suspect that this was at least in part a response to the revolt. At the urging of the bishop, some additional land, construction materials, and 1800 pesos were donated by the Dominicans whose Santo Domingo church and convent stood next door. La Caridad was built on the site of the old hermitage. The style of the church was influenced by the styles prevalent in 18th Century Peru and Guatemala. The Order of San Juan de Dios continued to operate the hospital complex until the War of Independence (1810-1821) when a group of San Cristóbal's prominent civilians took it over. Following the Independence War, the complex passed into the hands of the federal government.

Nuestra Señora de la Caridad is the main focus of the rebablo. It seems appropriate that Our Lady of Charity (also known as the Virgin of Charity) was the patroness of a charity hospital operated for Maya, the poorest members of the community. However, she was believed to have helped in the defeat of the 1712 Maya revolt, so she was given the title Patroness of the Army and of the Province of Chiapas and Special Protector of the City and the Diocese. I found this a bit ironic. The first sighting of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad was in Cuba in 1604 by three fishermen.  They were threatened by high waves during a storm at sea and prayed to the Virgin for their salvation. After the storm cleared, they found a statue of the Virgin floating on the water with a board attached saying "I am the Virgin of Charity." The clothing of the statue was miraculously dry. Adoration of the statue spread in Cuba, and from there to the mainland and finally to Chiapas. I find it interesting how the widely separated Spanish New World colonial possessions interacted with one another and influenced each other's cultural development.

The second level of the retablo is centered on an unidentified saint. He may be San Juan de Dios (Saint John of God) or perhaps San Jose, father of Jesus. Either way, he carries the Baby Jesus with his left arm. He is bracketed by the richly decorated Solomonic columns typical of Baroque retablos. San Juan de Dios was born João Duarte Cidade in 1495. He was either kidnapped or ran away from his home in Portugal at an early age, ending up in Spain. After living a hand-to-mouth existence as a street child, Cidade took a job as a shepherd for a number of years. His farmer-boss tried to persuade him to marry his daughter, but instead he ran away again at age 22 to become a soldier. He managed to survive in that profession for about 20 years, fighting all over Europe, including in Hungary against the Turks. After the Turkish campaign, he left the military behind and again wandered, ending up in Africa. There, he befriended an impoverished knight and his family and nursed them through an extended illness. This apparently was his introduction to a lifelong mission of tending to the ill. Returning to Spain, he worked for a while disseminating books printed by the newly invented Gutenberg printing press.

The third, or top, level of the retablo brings the Baroque decorations to a climax. The figure of a saint holding the infant Jesus to his chest is again bracketed by Solomonic columns. Above and below the statue are the the heads of other figures with symbolic meanings that I could not decipher. It is easy to get sucked into the complexities of Baroque architecture. The fascinating little details are almost endless. In 1537, Cidade experienced a religious awakening in which he behaved so oddly that he was locked up as a lunatic. His spiritual advisor John of Avila got him released and Cidade began to devote himself to helping the poor and the sick. His obvious piety and dedication to the poor attracted a group of followers whom he organized into the Order of Hospitaliers. Cidade died in 1550, but his group continued and became the Brothers Hospitaliers, a religous order that was approved by the Pope in 1572 with a mission to care for the sick in countries around the world. Cidade was canonized as San Juan de Dios by Pope Alexander VIII in 1590.  This was the origin of the group that organized and ran the hospital that included Templo de la Caridad. Although no longer connected to the Templo, the Brothers Hospitaliers of St. John of God currently run 300 hospitals in 53 countries around the globe.

A curandero and his client perform a healing ritual in front of another large retablo. The curandero is the man with the white shirt. His client is the woman standing behind him wearing the dark rebozo (shawl) and pink skirt. I had to take the photo with my zoom lens from some distance away because I didn't want to disturb their concentration. They stand in a large side-chapel off the left side of the main nave. Curanderos (healers or medicine men) are found throughout Mexico, but are especially active in those areas with large indigenous populations, like Chiapas with its Maya. They work with their patients to diagnose medical, psychological, and spiritual afflictions. Their remedies include burning of candles of various colors and sizes, depending on the affliction. They also use feathers, flower petals, and copal incense. In difficult cases, they may sacrifice a live chicken. Such ceremonies are sometimes performed in Catholic churches like La Caridad, or the famous church in the nearby village of Chamula. Mexican Catholicism rests upon a deep foundation of traditional indigenous beliefs stretching back to pre-hipanic times.

The side-chapel retablo is in the Churrigueresque style. This is the same style as the main retablo of the San Cristóbal Cathedral. I believe they were probably created at about the same time, in the middle of the 18th Century, and possibly by the same artists. The figure in the glass case is the crucified Jesus, while the three paintings on either side and above the case show other religious figures or scenes. The retablo is at least 5 m (15 ft) tall, judging by the height of the curandero in the previous photo.

The altar at the far end of the side chapel is quite simple, compared to the main altar. This may be a newer addition, because it seems to be more in the Neo-classical style, popular in the late 18th and the 19th Centuries. 

Several stone burial plaques are set into the side wall of the main nave. For centuries, prominent people were buried in the walls of churches like this one. According to the marker, "The day 30 of September of 1889 died Doña (undecipherable) Eritasia Utrilla. Her spouse with profound pain dedicated this stone as a sign of eternal memory." A touching sentiment from a brutal man. Avenida General Utrilla is the street that runs beside La Caridad. Miguel Utrilla Trujillo was the Governor of Chiapas from 1888-1891. This was at the height of the Porfiriato, the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz that finally ended with the 1910 Revolution. It was a period when abuse of the Maya was rife. According to one study "highland elites, led by Miguel Utrilla, fabricated the threat of an Indian insurgency in order to establish a para-military presence and undermine the efforts of the state government to take administrative control of the region." The elites wanted to ensure their continued ability to enslave the Maya and force them to work on their coffee fincas. I'll have more on those coffee fincas in a future post.

This completes Part 5 of my series on Chiapas and San Cristóbal de las Casas. I hope you have enjoyed it so far. I encourage feedback, questions, and corrections. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Chiapas Part 1: San Cristóbal de las Casas and its Zocalo

San Cristóbal's 18th Century Catedral occupies one side of the city's Zocalo. The Zocalo, also known as Plaza Mayor or Plaza 31 de Marzo, is filled with activity from the early morning to late in the evening. At night, flood lights bathe the Catedral and other buildings around the Zocalo with a lovely glow. Above, Maya vendors have spread out their wares in the broad flagstone expanse in front of the church, anticipating the evening crowd of tourists. Carole and I had long ago put the State of Chiapas, and its former capital San Cristóbal de las Casas, on our list of proposed adventures. However, given the length of that list, we didn't get around to this visit until August of 2012. Given my backlog of un-posted adventures, I didn't start work on this Chiapas series until the spring of 2013. Since the Chiapas trip was one of Carole's all-time favorites, she kept after me until I finally got around to it. Chiapas is the southern-most state in Mexico, and shares a long border with Guatemala. Around most of its perimeter, Chiapas is surrounded by hot, humid lowlands. However, the center of the state is very mountainous, with high, lush valleys. San Cristóbal, at 2200 m (7200 ft), lies in one of these valleys, near the very center of the state. The altitude gives the town a mild to cool climate, ranging from an average high of 22.4 C (73.6 F) in June to a low of  4.2 C (39.6 F) in January. Keeping a sweater or jacket handy is a good idea for most of the year. For a Google map of Chiapas, click here. For a map of San Cristobal de las Casas and its Zocalo, click here.

Overview of the Centro Historico

View of San Cristobal from the hilltop Templo del Cerrito. Across the bowl-shaped city you can see the dome of another hilltop church, Templo de Guadalupe. In the background, heavily wooded mountains rise, as they do on all sides of the city. There are almost no tall buildings in San Cristobal. Other than churches and public buildings, most of the colonial structures have only one or two stories, roofed with red tiles. This gives the town a feel that is very human-scale. When the Spanish under Diego de Mazariegos arrived in 1528, they built a fort and founded a town they called Villa Real de Chiapa. The valley that the town occupies was named Hueyzacatlán, which means "pasture" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Spanish could never have conquered Mexico without the thousands of Aztec, Tarascan, Otomi, and other native troops who formed the overwhelming majority of their armies. Consequently, Nahuatl names sometimes appear in predominantly Maya areas like Chiapas. The colonial city had several additional name changes, Villa Viciosa in 1529, Villa de San Cristóbal de los Llanos in 1531, Ciudad Real in 1536, and finally Ciudad de San Cristóbal in 1829. The final change came when "de las Casas" was added in 1848 to honor 16th Century Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas who defended Chiapas' indigenous people against abuses by the Spanish. In the Maya's Tzotzil language, the name of the town is Jovel ("the place of the clouds"). San Cristóbal de las Casas and its differently-named earlier incarnations formed the capital of Chiapas off and on until 1892, when the seat of government was removed to Tuxtla de Gutierrez, an hour by automobile to the west.

A torrent of rain pelts the zocalo in one of the periodic downpours during our visit. San Cristóbal gets an amazing 1085 mm (43 in) of rain each year. May through October is the wet season, but even in the dry season there is a respectable level of precipitation. Anyone visiting San Cristóbal should remember to pack some rain gear, even during the so-called "dry" season. Still, during our August visit we had plenty of clear, brilliantly-sunny days, along with the occasional downpour. Actually, we didn't mind the rain, because it left everything beautifully green and moist, and the air fresh. When I took the photo above, Carole and I were caught out in the middle of a torrent that went on and on for more than an hour. The rain was so outrageously abundant that people were left trapped in whatever handy shelters they could find. Carole ended up in a doorway and the humor of it led her to share a laugh with a Maya woman similarly trapped across the street. Neither spoke the other's language, but in some cases comical situations can be universally appreciated.

A family of Maya vendors crowded under the arched portales to escape the rain. The east side of the Zocalo is made up of a long covered walkway lined with shops and coffee houses and restaurants. The arches that separate the pillars are called portales. The European tourists shown above were enjoying some of the excellent local coffee while they waited out the storm. The Maya family sitting on the floor next to them had similarly fled the downpour. They decided to attempt a sale to their captive audience of tourists. In our experience, the Maya are some of the most enterprising people in Mexico. During our visit, we were puzzled by the absence of tourists from the US, or even Canada. Except for us, all the other tourists we encountered seemed to be either Europeans or Mexicans from other areas. The majority of Europeans we saw were young people who appeared to be in their late teens to early twenties. Toting backpacks, they looked vibrantly healthy and towered over the Maya, who tend to be quite small. At 5'10", I am used to being taller than many Mexicans, but even I felt dwarfed by these blonde European giants. Good food and universal health care are having their effect, I guess.

The Zocalo's kiosco and garden area

Sant Cristóbal's kiosco is one of the more unusual that I have found in Mexico. Virtually every Mexican town has a plaza and almost every plaza contains a kiosco (bandstand), usually located in the center. Originally the Zocalo was an open area, used by merchants and those who came to collect water from its fountain. In the early 20th Century, this kiosco was added. Walkways radiate out from the kiosco like the spokes on a wheel. Gardens with shade trees and flowerbeds separate the spokes. All of this is very typical of a Mexican zocalo or plaza. What makes this kiosco unusual is that it contains a bar and restaurant on the first level, and a marimba band regularly entertains the restaurant patrons and pedestrians in the general area by performing on the second level.

A Maya woman in traditional dress carries her goods in both arms, looking for a buyer. She wears her long black hair in a braid that extends well below her waist. Her blouse is a satiny material much favored by Maya women. Her skirt is typical of her village, Chamula. It is made from shaggy black sheep's wool and extends to mid-calf. It is held up by a broad belt that is almost a sash. On her feet she wears sandals, even in cold, wet weather. On her left arm, she has draped an assortment of hand-woven belts. From her right forearm dangle several embroidered purses. She no doubt spent hours working at home to create these wares. Behind her passes another Maya, with a nearly identical skirt and similar satiny blouse, but of a different color. The Maya women tend to cluster together in groups, like flocks of colorful birds.

One of the "spokes" extending from the kiosco leads to the plaza's east side portales. The gardens are protected by wrought iron fences like the one on the right. On the left is a single-seat shoe shine stand, with a blue canopy. The shoe shiner is on a break. On the right is a small stand with a red conical roof where you can buy newspapers and magazines. Both of these are very typical of Mexican plazas. Nothing in a typical US city compares with a Mexican plaza. It is a source of relaxation, socialization, free entertainment, and an endlessly changing mixture of people. It is literally the heart of the community. The typical American shopping mall is plastic and sterile and, in my opinion, can't hold a candle to a zocalo like this one.

A family of Maya vendors takes a break on one of the many benches in the zocalo. The two on the left wear rough linen skirts, while the partially obscured woman on the right is dress in the more typical black sheep's wool version. One of the hardest things to find in a Mexican plaza is an unoccupied bench in a shady spot, but if you wait a bit, one will eventually open up.

Not far from the Zocalo's kiosco stands a statue honoring Dr. Manuel Velasco-Suarez. Dr. Velasco-Suarez (1914-2001) seems to have been a rather amazing person, a sort of Mexican Renaissance Man. He was not only a gifted neurosurgeon, but served on the Faculty of Medicine of UNAM (Mexico's National University) for 50 years. He founded the National Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery, the National Bioethics Commission, the Autonomous University of Chiapas, and the State Ecological Research Center of the Southeast. Dr. Velasco-Suarez was also active in the international movement of physicians against nuclear war. On top of all that, he was Governor of Chiapas from 1970-76. He received many honors, including awards from Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and Italy. A quote from Dr. Velasco-Suarez is attached to the statue: "A man's  value is found in how he serves, not in what he knows, and even less in what he has." 

A Maya family pauses while the father speaks on his cell phone. The mother, on the left, provides a clear view of the traditional clothes the Tzotzil people of Chamula wear. While the young girl passing in the background wears traditonal clothing, the two little girls between the adults do not, an the man wears modern clothing. Women are the keepers of the traditional customs in many indigenous communities I have visited. Sometimes men will wear traditional clothes, but it is more usual to see them in city clothes like the man above, or blue jeans and cowboy hats if it is in the back country.

A view of the Zocalo's east side portales under which I sheltered from the rain. The general layout of Mexican plazas follows a pattern originally set by King Phillip II, the same man who ordered the Spanish Armada to invade the England of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588. The San Cristóbal Zocalo follows this pattern. King Phillip ordered that each plaza should have covered walkways so that merchants could conduct business under them and people could shelter from the sun and rain. He ordered that other sides of the plaza should be filled by a church such as San Cristóbal's Catedral and public buildings such as its Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). 

Three Mexican girls, dressed in modern clothes, are out for a morning stroll. None of these young women appear to be Maya, so they may well be tourists from other areas of Mexico. There has been tension between the Maya people of Chiapas and Ladinos (non-Maya Mexicans) for centuries. It flared up again in 1994 with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A movement known as the Zapatistas, named after Revolutionary hero and martyr Emiliano Zapata, rejected the treaty as unfair to Mexico's poor and indigenous people. On New Years Day of 1994, the day the treaty went into effect, the Zapatistas seized San Cristóbal and held it until driven out by Mexican Army troops. Eventually an uneasy truce was arranged which holds to this day. The leader of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, became a hero in Chiapas and in some other areas of Mexico. We saw evidence of strong support for the Zapatistas everywhere we went in Chiapas. Many Maya vendors sell small doll figures of the Subcomandante along with their beads, embroidered purses, and belts. 

Palacio de Gobierno 

The sparkling white Palacio de Gobierno is a late 19th Century construction.  The Palacio de Gobierno (City Hall) occupies the whole west side of the Zocalo. At the time this photo was taken, officials had erected a stage with a rectangular backdrop in front of the building. Later, a local troupe used the stage to perform colorful traditional dances. In my next posting, I'll show the dancers. The Palacio de Gobierno was built by architect Carlo Z. Flores in the Neoclassical style popular at the time. The long series of ground-floor arches are supported by Tuscan columns

View of the Palacio, looking south from the Catedral plaza. When the Palacio was planned, San Cristobal de las Casas was still the Capital of Chiapas State. The building was originally intended to function as the headquarters of the state government. However, when the seat of government was shifted to Tuxtla de Gutierrrez in 1892, the Palacio was only about 1/4 finished. The other 3/4 of the building was never completed. It was planned for the area behind the part you see above,  Instead the space was enclosed with more Tuscan columns and arches and made into a large garden and courtyard

View of the Catedral, looking east through the arches at the back of the garden.  Mexicans love parks and plazas and other open spaces in the Centro areas of their cities. The colonial authorities built these areas of their communities for commercial activity by street vendors, social interaction and the enjoyment of public events. Later generations maintained this tradition. What a refreshing change from the huge, sterile, glass and steel monstrosities that dominate so many city centers north of the border!

Looking out over the Zocalo from the front of the Palacio. An old cannon points out toward the kiosco. It is a relic of one of Mexico's many 19th Century internal conflicts, A group of tourists strolls across the cannon's one-time line of fire. One of them has raised her umbrella to ward off the light rain that had begun to fall. In the upper part of the photo you can see the line of hotels and restaurants that makes up the south side of the Zocalo.

A soldiers guards the front of the Palacio de Gobierno. This one wears body armor and is strapped with an assault rifle and other weapons. Such sights were startling, even a bit unnerving, when we first arrived in Mexico. We have grown used to such heavily armed soldiers and police, and they are invariably polite to us and even friendly at times. In Chiapas, there are problems with the drug cartels, as there are in many other parts of Mexico. In addition, the Zapatistas seized San Cristobal in 1994 to protest NAFTA, and they maintain strong support in the community. Although we felt an undercurrent of tension during our visit, actual violence has been fairly rare since the early days of the Zapatista revolt.

Catedral de la Virgen de la Asunción

The Catedral faces its own broad plaza rather than facing onto the Zocalo. The Catedral de la Asunción's plaza intersects with the Zocalo (see the trees at the right center of this photo). The southeast corner of the Catedral Plaza meets the northwest corner of the Zocalo, so you have two great, interlocking public areas. This makes for an extremely varied scene. The Catedral Plaza attracts many vendors who lay out their goods on the flagstones, as well as various street performers and people running games and rides for children. The Zocalo is centered around the kiosco and is filled with gardens and shady places to people-watch. However, it also has space in front of the Palacio for public performances and political demonstrations. Sometimes, all these things are going on at once, creating a 3-ring-circus atmosphere. Nothing entertains like a Mexican plaza.

The Catedral Plaza's space is broken only with a cross and a few planters. This photo, taken from the front steps of the Catedral, give a sense of the broad, open expanse of the plaza. The base of the cross forms a congenial place to sit and chat with friends. Overhead low clouds threaten more rain, but later the sky cleared. As you can see from the structures in the background, most buildings in San Cristóbal's Centro Historico are low, being one or two stories tall. Sometimes when we strolled by, the plaza was virtually empty. A few hours later, it might be crowded.

At night, the Catedral was lit beautifully with floodlights. Evenings are some of the most active times in the Zocalo and the Catedral Plaza. This spot is where the two large plazas intersect. The Catedral extends down the whole north side of the Zocalo. Crowds of people mill around on the two plazas. Traffic is fairly heavy, so it pays to stay alert while crossing here.

Hopeful Maya vendors mob a prospective customer at the base of the Catedral Plaza's cross. The customer, a Mexico tourist from elsewhere, took all this in stride and with a trace of humor. She seemed to be having fun picking and choosing among all the different wares being eagerly offered. Those shopping for handicrafts and nicknacks need only come to this area and stand still. The goods need not be sought out. They will come to you.

Multi-tasking in Mexico. A young mother walks along the side of the Catedral, feeding her baby and texting at the same time. Cell phones have penetrated to the farthest corners of Mexico, something about which I have mixed feelings. I am personally not a fan of cell phones, and have avoided ever owning one. So often they seem to get in the way of actual, face-to-face human interaction. I guess I'm showing my old-fashioned side (even as I type this into my new MacIntosh laptop).

This concludes Part 1 of my San Cristóbal de las Casas series. Next week, I'll show you some of the many activities that occur in the Zocalo and the Catedral Plaza. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of San Cristóbal's Centro Historico. Please feel free to give your feedback and to leave questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, June 21, 2013

Chiapas Part 4: San Cristóbal's pedestrian-only streets - Anador Real de Guadalupe

Pedestrians enjoy a stroll along Real de Guadalupe on a brilliant August morning. San Cristóbal de las Casas has several pedestrian-only streets. They radiate out from the Zócalo, going east, north, and south. The auto-free portion of Real de Guadalupe begins at the northeast corner of the Zócalo and heads due east for three city blocks in the direction of Templo de Guadalupe, which sits on top of a tall hill overlooking the city. When we began our trek along the street, there were only a few people out and about. I have noticed that many Mexicans don't begin their workday until mid-morning or later, but continue it late into the evening. Not being an early- morning person myself, this is my kind of schedule. If you are not shopping, but only out for a stroll, early-to-mid-morning is a quiet, cool, and lovely time to do so. Like Real de Guadalupe, most of the buildings on the other streets in the Centro Historico are only one or two stories high. This creates an intimate, human-scale feel. Some cafes place small tables and chairs along the narrow sidewalks. If the street were open to autos, this would create a problem, but here it is a lovely addition to the scene.

A full-sized Catrina welcomes potential customers while the owner's pooch enjoys breakfast. Catrinas are skeletons, often dressed in elaborate 19th Century styles. The figures were the creation of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a late-19th-Century cartoonist who delighted in lampooning the stylish pretensions of the nouveau riche during the 36-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Catrinas became wildly popular in Mexico after the famous artist Diego Rivera included them in his huge murals. Today, Catrinas and their male counterparts are portrayed as golfers, motorcyclists, doctors performing operations, women making tortillas, and people involved in any number of other activities. The shop, which is itself called Los Catrines, displays two smaller Catrinas just inside the door. Mexicans have a delightfully quirky sense of humor, and I am always on the lookout for examples to photograph. I usually don't have to search for long. 

As the morning wore on, activity on Real de Guadalupe picked up. While cars are banned from the street, bicycles are apparently permitted. In the background, you can see one of the many that ring the bowl of the Valle de Hueyzacatlán, which cradles San Cristóbal. Automobile-free streets like this are wonderful. They enable a quiet, leisurely experience, without obnoxious auto noise and exhaust fumes. The freedom to wander idly in mid-street without fearing sudden death provides a sense of well-being. That is a feeling hard to appreciate by anyone who has no access to pedestrian-only walkways such as this. Cities elsewhere would do well to emulate San Cristóbal.

A couple enjoys breakfast at one of the inviting little cafes lining Real de Guadalupe. We decided to stop here for a cup of excellent Chiapas coffee. The umbrellas were welcome because, although the morning was cool, the sunlight at San Cristóbal's high altitude (2200 m or 7200 ft) is almost painfully brilliant at times. As you have probably noticed, the street is immaculately clean, another benefit of banning autos. The citizens of San Cristóbal take great pride in their beautiful little community. Its designation as one of Mexico's 83 Pueblos Magicos is obviously one that they want to protect.

Get your groceries, wines, and liquors at Lupita's Zig Zag grocery store! Anyone who came of age in the 1960s will recognize the figure in the sign, as well as its iconic name. I didn't think to ask if cigarette rolling papers were for sale. This was just another of the countless little oddities we discover on our Mexican adventures.

Local police get around on some hot-looking bikes. Armed and armored from head to toe, a couple of city cops get ready to peel out on their racy motorcycles. Given the narrow streets and heavy traffic, bikes such as these make a lot of sense. Also, I suspect that the cops just enjoy riding them. Like the police in many parts of Mexico, they have a para-military look about them. In spite of this, we have always been treated with politeness and courtesy from police officers, even when being stopped for a traffic violation. Local police officers have often gone far out of their way to assist us, even leading us from one end of a town to the other to ensure we don't get lost. Other travelers may have had different experiences, but these have been ours over the last six years.

Templo de Guadalupe

Templo de Guadalupe sits on a forested hilltop with a great view of the city. The dome and steeple of the Templo can be seen in the upper right of the photo. I took this shot from Templo de Cerrito de San Cristóbal, another hilltop church on the opposite side of the valley. The photo provides a sense of the bowl-like terrain of San Cristóbal. Most of the houses, stores, and other buildings are topped with red tiled roofs, a particularly charming aspect of this old colonial town. Real de Guadalupe leads right up to the steps at the base of the Templo's hill. 

Carole consults her map part way up the long, steep staircase.  There are 79 steps, so I advise other visitors to take your time. At this altitude, the effort can leave you panting. There are occasional benches conveniently placed along the way to enable people to catch their breath. The little Templo sits on a flat knob at the very top of the hill. On either side of the staircase are shady gardens and walkways, with a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe about half way up the slope.

The view looking down the staircase gives a sense of its steepness. This shot was taken about 1/2 way up. It made me feel better to discover that the young guy coming up was panting just as much as we were. Real de Guadalupe opens up to auto traffic three blocks before reaching the Templo's steps, as you can see on the street below. 

Exterior of the Templo, showing its cúpola (dome). The little church was built in 1835, but its location left it isolated from San Cristóbal's population until the city grew out and around the base of the  hill. Between 1854 and 1864, the original church was renovated by Bishop Carlos Maria Colina y Rubio. In reward for his work, the Bishop was appointed Commander of the Order of Guadalupe by then-President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, of Alamo fame. In 1866, during the campaign against the French occupation of Mexico, the Templo was the scene of fierce fighting. 

The Templo interior

After the somewhat austere exterior, I was surprised by the more ornate interior. For a relatively small church, this one is beautifully decorated. The arched ceiling was constructed from varnished pine, cut from the slopes of the heavily wooded mountains surrounding the city. The slight pink tint in the color of the walls is an optical illusion created by the reflection from the ceiling. The walls are actually cream colored.

The Neo-classical interior of the Templo is in the style popular in 19th Century Mexico. The Corinthian capitals atop the columns, along with the decorated cornices, show a definite Neo-classical influence. In the niche on the lower left, Jesus sits on the right hand of the Christian God under a sunburst. Given that these two sit at the top of the Christian hierarchical pantheon, I am always struck by the subsidiary position they tend to occupy in most Mexican churches I have visited. God himself is rarely portrayed, and Jesus is usually found in a niche like this or perhaps in a side chapel. The figure that dominates most Mexican Catholic churches is Mary, the mother of Jesus. One of her almost countless guises, is the Virgen de Guadalupe

A black Jesus hangs on the Cross in a side niche. This is a rather unusual portrayal of Jesus, in that the statue is black. Most usually, he is shown as caucasian. Below the black statue is another in a glass-sided casket. It is possible that the dark-skinned Jesus is intended to appeal to the dark-skinned Maya of the area. After all, the Virgen de Guadalupe is also portrayed as dark-skinned. This, among other things, has led to her veneration by Mexico's indigenous and poor people.

On her knees, a Maya woman crawls the length of the central aisle toward the altar. At short intervals, she stopped to pray audibly. The Virgen de Gualalupe is the patroness of Mexico, and particularly of those at the bottom of the social and economic scale. She was first seen by an indigenous man named Juan Diego, who had converted to Christianity only a few years after the Conquest. In the  century after Juan Diego's encounter, there was considerable controversy among Church authorities over whether it was a valid sighting. The Franciscan Order objected, suspecting a subterfuge by the Aztecs to continue their worship of Tonantzin, their ancient eath-goddess. The Franciscan officials were especially dubious because the Virgin was first encountered in the ruins of Tonantzin's temple on Tepayac Hill near modern Mexico City. The Dominicans and Augustinians noticed that the native people flocked to this dark-skinned Virgin. Evangelization skyrocketed when they used her as a Catholic symbol. That settled the argument. The Church has always been very practical about its own best interests. Notice the red, white, and green lights that frame the Virgin's image. They are colors of the Mexican flag, with which she is often associated. She has long been a powerful political symbol in Mexico, as well as a religious one.

A statue of San Charbel stands off  to the side, draped in ribbons filled with messages. San Charbel Makhluf (1828-1898) was a Lebanese Maronite Christian who spent his life as a monk and a solitary hermit. Although respected for his piety during his life, he did nothing that made him eligible for sainthood until after his death. Then, a series of miracles were reported, including finding his body intact and still capable of bleeding years after his 1898 death. His other post-life miracles include a series of healings over the years. This led believers to seek his help, particularly with their health issues. The petitioner generally writes a request on a ribbon and leaves it draped over San Charbel's arm or hand. Pope Paul VI canonized ("sainted") him in 1977. Since, at the time, the Catholic Church was seeking to bring various Mediterranean-area Christian sects, including the Maronites, back into the Catholic fold, it is reasonable to suspect some practical motives here, too. 

A Maya man stands reverently before still another image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Notice the furry wool coat he wears. This is the same material used for women's skirts seen in my previous San Cristóbal postings. Coats like this are part of the traditional wardrobe for Maya men in the San Cristóbal area. Tradition only goes so far, however. He is also wearing blue jeans. The statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe seen above was carved in the early 19th Century and was presented to the Templo by the Dean of San Cristóbal's Cathedral in 1850.

This completes Part 4 of my Chiapas series. Next time we'll look at another one of the pedestrian-only streets. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to make a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim