To the editors:

I think I have as much of a sense of humor as the next guy, but I’ve long been annoyed by how Chuck Shepherd, in his only occasionally amusing column News of the Weird, so often presents accident victims, mentally disturbed people, and other profoundly unlucky souls as objects of ridicule. Recently he went even further. I quote the item in full from his January 14 column:

“The Toronto Globe and Mail reported in October that in the town of San Juan Chamula in southern Mexico, where a blend of Christianity and worship of Mayan gods is practiced, many parishioners believe their leaders’ doctrine that because Pepsi has more bubbles than Coca-Cola it’s closer to the sun and therefore more powerful. Bottles of Pepsi are among the holy artifacts inside local churches, and some leaders believe the cola has healing powers. (Coca-Cola officials say Pepsi’s importance is due purely to Pepsi’s payment of kickbacks to the leaders.)”

I didn’t read the original Globe and Mail story, but I have been to the (fairly well-touristed) town in question, and to me Shepherd’s treatment of this material does seem sufficiently misleading as to warrant a slightly fuller description of the religion of the Tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula (a mountain village just a few kilometers outside the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas). As with so many of the Mayan regions of southern Mexico and Central America, the religious practices there still reflect how the locals, “converted” to Christianity by 16th-century Spanish missionaries, cast aside most–but not all–of their old gods, and went on to apply the old Mayan rituals toward worship of the new Roman Catholic saints. The result was a hybrid religion–nominally Catholic, though unrecognized as such by the Vatican–in which the saints coexist with certain Mayan deities, with the Sun supreme over all.

The church of Chamula was built by the Spanish and later taken over by the Chamulans themselves, who did away with pews, priests, and masses. It’s open 24 hours a day so that the faithful can drop by any time they feel the need to visit a saint–whether to ask a favor, seek advice, or give thanks. The central spot under the apse is occupied by the statue of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of the town, with the crucified Jesus hung in a subordinate position at his right. Along the walls on either side of the church stand effigies of other saints, festooned with little mirrors and necklaces of fruit and flowers. Individuals, couples, and whole families huddle on the floor, lighting hundreds of candles and singing repetitive hypnotic chants to the saints amid the heavy, sweet smell of pine branches and copal incense. Traditional healing ceremonies also take place there. The Chamulans take their religion extremely seriously and treat outsiders with suspicion. If they catch you taking photographs inside their church, expect to spend some time in jail.

Like many other Tzotzil, the Chamulans attach a certain religious importance to the act of burping during prayer. It’s considered a means of purging negative spiritual energy in the saints’ presence (a conception roughly analogous to the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession) and the Chamulans have ways of facilitating it. In the old days, the favored agent was posh, a fermented sugarcane rum. But in more recent years, while the Chamulans have continued to value posh for its ability to bring on a euphoria considered conducive to spiritual contemplation, they’ve found carbonated cola to be superior to posh for making them burp. Since Pepsi has more burp-inducing bubbles than Coca-Cola, it’s the preferred brand. Nowadays in the church of Chamula, whole families periodically pause in their chanting to rapidly chug whole bottles of Pepsi and belch sonorously.

Living as we do in a secularized industrial society where much of our food comes to us in cardboard, aluminum, and plastic, we may find it hard to understand how anyone could assign a spiritual dimension to a soft drink that comes in six-packs and is advertised worldwide by celebrities like Michael Jackson. But although the Chamulans possess TV sets and other trappings of modernity, they still live very close to the land and probably simply regard Pepsi as what it really is: a concoction of cola nuts, maize sugar, and water. When I visited their church, I didn’t see any Pepsi bottles being displayed as “holy artifacts,” as Shepherd puts it–but if I had, I might have considered it no more “weird” than the reverence accorded the wine chalice in many Christian churches.

Incidentally, many of these same Tzotzil people have been participants in the recent Zapatista uprisings timed to coincide with the effective date of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Thanks to the success of the Bush and Clinton administrations in pushing through a “free trade” treaty with the Mexican one-party de facto dictatorship, the Mexican market is about to be flooded with maize from U.S. corporate farms, produced and sold at prices the impoverished small-scale Mayan farmers of Chiapas won’t be able to match. As a result, a lot of them are likely to go broke and lose their land–thus accelerating the demise of an already endangered culture, and contributing to the further aggrandizement of “land barons” who wield most of the political and economic power in the region.

Given the possibility that the Tzotzil Maya could see their traditions virtually wiped out partly as a result of policies of our government, I’d like to wish we could at least view their religious practices with a little bit of intelligent curiosity, rather than with Shepherd’s deadpan condescension. Of course, his attitude may be only feigned. He has a column that has to be filled every week with the requisite quota of “weirdness,” and he probably knows that if modern-day Mayan rituals were described with dignity, they wouldn’t seem all that “weird” anymore and he’d have to get busy digging up another item for his column. At any rate, his work–tediously representative of the sort of snide, fish-cold “hip satire” so popular these days–suggests that he considers his audience the type of yuppie geeks who, whenever confronted with anything that challenges their cultural preconceptions, simply make a face and sneer: “Eeuw, how weird!”

Renaldo Migaldi