Postcard from... San Juan Chamula



Two recently severed bulls’ heads watch glassy-eyed as the men of San Juan Chamula dance around three bottles of tequila in the main square. It is carnaval, the week long celebration before the rigours of lent in Catholic Mexico.

But in this small autonomous village in the state of Chiapas ancient Maya traditions are still strong. Carnaval is also the celebration of the five lost days of the old Maya calendar.

The dancers wear black cone hats, flowing with coloured ribbons to represent the rays of the sun. Their English tailcoats are criss-crossed on the tails with blood-red ribbons. The dancers, Los Pasiones, and their helpers, about 30 men in all, tramp in a circle to a steady beat of drums, maracas, guitars and accordions in front of a palm-fronded altar.

Older men, wearing traditional ponchos and cowboy hats, supply some of the music. They each take a shot of tequila and make their way down the hill to the church of San Juan.

Some of the men are happy to be photographed. For others, the sight of a camera causes consternation. But the modern world is drifting in to an independent place where many only speak broken Spanish – their Tzotzil tongue still dominant. One of the cone-hatted mummers suggests: “Make a video and put it on YouTube.”