13 March, 2006

The Holy Drink

San Juan Chamula is a village in Chiapas, just outside of San Cristobal de las Casas. Its residents are famed for their fierce independence, which kept them out from under the thumb of Spanish rule for all of their history. Nowadays Chamula is a popular destination for tourists (such as myself) on day trips, to see authentic Mayan customs being practiced.*

Chamulans (now numbering about 60,000) are ruled by an elite group of families who pass their authority down hereditarily. Their law is absolute, and Chamulans obey to the letter. It is these elites who decide the shape of Chamulan society. It changes when they change and stagnates when they stand firm. The penalty for disobedience is exile or death; those Chamulans who convert away from Catholicism, for example, are given twenty days to leave the valley, or they and their family are burned to death.

Chamula resisted converting to Catholicism for a long time. Never having been subject to Spain, they were never really beholden to missionaries in any way and had few motives to convert. In the end, though, a group of missionaries managed to convince the village leaders to become Catholics. They decided they would; they built a church, kicked out the priests, and told their shamans to dress in sacerdotal vestiments from now on. The Mayan gods were replaced with Catholic saints (whom the Chamulans continue to refer to as "gods"), with the principle deity being Saint Sebastian. (Chamulans have only recently started to accept Jesus Christ as a being of some importance, and he's still pretty low on the totem pole.) These days the principle deities are Saint Sebastian, Saint Peter, and Saint John the Baptist in the lead.

This is about all that Chamula took from Catholicism; most of the rest of their religious praxis comes from traditional Mayan rituals. Or something.

Chamulan healing and prayer rituals use a few key ingredients. One is a sugarcane liquor called posh, used to induce intoxication which brings one closer in line with the world of spirits. Another is a dark brew sipped in several ceremonies (I've forgotten the name of it).

A few decades ago, Coca-Cola made its introduction to Chamula. It was superficially similar to the traditional dark brew that was used in sacred rituals, but it was sweeter and tastier. Many Chamulans began to substitute Coca-Cola for the traditional drink.

About eleven years ago, the leaders decided to replace the traditional drink completely with Coca-Cola. The latter now became the 'holy drink', to be used in all sacred rituals. Naturally the level of cola consumption in Chamula skyrocketed.

Not long afterwards, the Pepsico company became apprised of this situation. Not wanting to be left out of a plum arrangement, they came into town and greased the palms of the leadership with a generous amount of money. Soon it came to be known that Pepsi, too, was a sacred drink.

This situation persisted until about three years ago, when Coke and Pepsi both decided that they could do better by diversifying their inventory in Chamula. After all, Coca-Cola and Pepsico are nowadays properly considered titans of the "beverage" market, rather than mere "cola" giants. Why restrict a broad range of products from sale, merely because they happen to be the wrong color?

Soon enough the shamans announced that the primary benefit of the sacred drink came from the production of gas, rather than the dark color. Gas produced burps, which aided in the expulsion of bad spirits. Any carbonated beverage would thus serve as a sacred drink. So long as it was made by Coke or Pepsi, of course.

The result is a Chamula where soda beverages are consumed by the entire population on a daily basis. In the town church, when we visited, everyone was armed with a bottle of soda, and many of the residents around town could be seen drinking the stuff. The leading families, of course, are the only authorized distributors of soda products in the valley, ensuring that this tidy market succeeds in aggrandizing and confirming their power. In exchange, they only have to give up a modicum of authority and verify that all their decisions meet the approval of the Coke and Pepsi corporations. Thus they may maintain the rigid control over Chamula that allows them to preserve their ancient Mayan ways.

* Our guide was an opinionated man named Miguel, who had almost nothing positive to say about the Chamulans. This gave me a fairly jaundiced view of the group, so take what I say with a grain of salt.


CHAMULA!! Check out
All Religions Are Good in Tzintzuntzan: Evangelicals in Catholic Mexico, by Peter S. Cahn of University of Oklahoma!

Friend of a friend who's a really great guy. Google search through the book and you will find some fun references to Coca-cola mediated power.  

Posted by Saheli

I have been to said place! the natives (to use the pejorative) took an inordinate joy in lighting fireworks off without warning passersby and/or tourists with minimal spanish that large numbers of small explosives were about to be fired in the air.

As such, I have no sympathy :)

But, on a related note, Subcomandante Marcos, now Delegate Zero, has a really cool campaign going on . He's my hero (so dreamy!!!--take that statist Chavez fans!) 

Posted by someone else

opiate of the masses, indeed 

Posted by hedgedog

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