A Message from the Director, 4-20-2020
I received many positive responses to my message last week and it was great hearing from so many of you. I am looking forward to when we can be together in person again. Today, I thought I would take you down south into southern Mexico and share another extraordinary experience with you. It was 2008 and I took eight members from the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/ Laboratory of Anthropology to Chiapas, Mexico for a “Maya Arts, Archaeology, and Day of the Dead” tour. This was my second visit to Chiapas during the Day of the Dead celebrations with Traditions Mexico, a tour guide company out of Oaxaca.
We flew into Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico and visited the La Venta Museum and Park, which showcases several spectacular Olmec stone heads and pre-Hispanic stone sculptures. The park is also full of tropical flora and the zoo has several animals including beautiful macaws, jaguars and boa constrictors. We then went to Palenque, the ancestral home of the Mayan people living in the area today. There we explored the monumental palaces and temples, and, also saw Howler monkeys. From there we traveled into the Lacandon jungle to visit the ruin of Bonampak that still has colorful frescoes inside the temples. After visiting some of the Indigenous Lancandon traditional craftspeople we spent the night at a small lodge along the Usumacinta River, which runs between Chiapas and Guatemala. The next morning, we boarded a boat that took us to Yaxchilan, a beautiful ruin perched strategically above a horseshoe bend in the river.
Now it was time to head into the pine-clad highlands and our stay at San Cristobal de las Casa which would serve as our home base for the next four days. We met Walter “Chip” Morris who had lived in Chiapas since 1972 and served as our local guide. We visited local artisan markets and weaving co-ops and watched as the Day of the Dead activities started to take place. We visited the Mayan village of Chamula where we witnessed a fusion of Catholicism with Classic Mayan ceremonies. We visited the cross-clad hilltop Chamula cemetery of Romerio, where we were greeted by a festival with thousands of highland Maya wearing beautiful, colorful clothing, live bands, food and general pandemonium as they celebrated the dead.
The next day, we visited Zinacantan, a markedly different Mayan village on a misty mountain top, where the graveyard tombs were decorated with millions of flowers and attended by somber family members dressed in their finest blue green floral embroidery work. After going through the cemetery, we visited a household of weavers and ate lunch in their smoke-filled kitchen. Afterwards, we visited the San Lorenzo church where we saw a group of men representing the religious hierarchy, or cargo system. They were just finishing one of their rituals that involved the changing of the jewelry on the saints. These four men were dressed in the type of clothing signifying that they were the top-ranking members of the cargo system for that year. As they left the church, they invited us to follow them to one of the homes. The responsibility and care of the religious ornaments and materials are transferred each year to a high-ranking individual within the cargo system and these items are kept in room specified for this purpose at their homes. We entered a large room and chairs were place along the wall on the opposite side of the room for us to sit on. We witnessed the ritual of purifying the jewelry with prayers, songs and the smoke of copal incense. We were given fresh tortillas and a drink called “poche” while Chip talked to the group of men in their Tzotzil Mayan language. We could tell that they were transfixed by what he was telling them It wasn’t until we were walking back to the center of Zinacantan that Chip told us that he was describing a ceremony that they had forgotten and wanted to bring back. We all felt certain that we had witnessed something very special that day. The next day we left Chiapas with our memories of an amazing trip. If this interests you please stay tuned as I am hoping to be able to provide a guided tour during the Day of the Dead celebration in Chiapas for our Center of Southwest Studies members in 2021 or 2022.