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Do you believe in magic? I am not talking about sleight of hand, but magic. If you are travelling around the world, you will have a chance to visit a number of sacred spaces of some sort. In many of those, a magical worldview rules. Outside of our rationally based worldview, there is a world of magic, where a spiritual dimension to life affects everyday living. There are spirits, powers, demons, angels, assorted gods and goddesses, saints and sinners, who control and protect everyday life. Living in that world means doing everyday rituals to keep things in balance.
There are two important cross-cultural concepts you need to understand located in this. One is the concept of time-space and the other is this real spiritual dimension to life. Both of them are often very difficult to deal with cross-culturally. The concept of time-space is very tricky. It is more than just “things starting on time.” It has to do with entering the space and I believe therefore the concept of time of people in another culture. Sacred places are very much a part of that. Whether it is a church building in rural México, a gothic cathedral in France, or a Buddhist monastery, it is important to recall that these are their spaces not ours. We may want to say something like “this is so primitive”, but it is important to recall that their “primitive” is really everyday life explored perhaps by older rituals, but very much alive in today’s world.
These everyday issues are often dealt with by magical means. Entering into one of these sacred places is entering a world controlled and kept in balance by magical practices. Some would label them as primitive ideas or superstition. I detest the word superstition. These are not some unsophisticated, irrational ideas. They make up the warp and woof of life for 90% of the world’s population. Real people inhabit these spaces and hold on to these ideas.
San Juan Chamula is one of my favorite places in Mexico. It is similar to other areas of Central and South America where indigenous ideas have so mixed with Roman Catholicism that the nature of Catholicism itself has changed. It is located just north of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, in the Tzotzil speaking area of México. The religious practices there are mixed with Catholicism, though it really is not that. Some would call them indigenous practices, but of course they have been incredibly modified over time. On top of that, there are new innovations introduced over the years.
When you enter the church in San Juan you are immediately wrapped up in another world where the curanderos are helping local individuals deal with an important life event. The ritual usually involves some sort of sacrifice or offering, including sacrificed chickens, a “limpia” or cleansing, and the lighting of incense and candles. As you sit and watch you can see families kneeling on the pine needle covered floor laying out their candles and incense, sometimes with offerings of flowers and something very interesting: a bottle of Coca Cola.
I just sat and stared for a long time the first time I entered the chapel. Candles were lit, bowls of incense were giving off thick smoke, both from the individuals on the floor and from the altar. Prayers were whispered, and often a curandero would come and assist the family. Obviously the coke was playing an integral part in the practices. Why a bottle of coke? Later I discovered why. As I was speaking with a local anthropologist, he explained that in the past, the indigenous people had used a strong medicinal herb to produce a burp or series of burps. This herb often had strong and serious side-effects. After the road to San Juan was opened, of course the first two trucks were the ones carrying papitas and Coca-Cola. They quickly learned that the coke had the same effect as the herb. When a person burps as a part of the ritual according to the Tzotzil practice, “bad powers” pass from the body. The cleansing takes place through the burp and the counter effect of the candles and incense. Do you believe in the magical powers of Coca Cola?
Entering into that chapel, it isn’t that one has to suspend belief. I don’t think that is the correct term. You have to enter into a closed space, their world, for a couple of moments. All of the saints in the church are dressed, but not sitting on pedestals. They are all down on the floor. The saints, the powers, the ritual, are all very close and very necessary for life. This spiritual dimension to life is real. Whatever you choose to think either about the efficacy of the ritual or the practices, you have to see that there is a dimensionality to life that somehow the West has managed to either relegate to some personal choice or dismiss altogether. At San Juan Chamula, that dimension becomes three dimensional in time and space. It is a different time and a different space than the one we usually live in.
San Juan Chamula is no place to go for some sort of tourist participation to achieve a higher plane of existence. You cannot enter that world like a ride at an amusement park. Outsiders are not permitted to participate. It is however a wonderful place to see first-hand the multi-dimensionality of other cultures. Visiting in another culture: South American, Central American, Chinese, African, Indian, or Southeast Asian, is not about viewing quaint local practices. Somehow, it has to change or at least bring into question our own worldview. It ought to make us consider something about who we are as people in this world.
San Juan Chamula is a fascinating, and in its own way a beautiful place. The religious practices there will be, more than likely, incredibly different from anything you have ever experienced. Do you believe in magic? The spiritual space of the chapel at San Juan takes you, wraps you up in that world, even if for a short time. Outside of our own ideas, there are other ideas about how the world works. Becoming a world traveler, means not just visiting, but entering into another world. This world of magic is inside those buildings and sacred places, but more importantly inside of the lives of the people you are travelling to meet.

Dr. Michael McAleer
I am availalbe for cross-cultural training or coaching at therebedragons@austin.rr.com
© September 2012 Michael McAleer and Third Gringo Productions