Campo Santiago: 

After I realized how far Mariano walked barefooted I started offering to drop him off about half way, he gladly accepted my offer.  About 4 miles north of town he would exit the car and disappear on some foot trail known only by the locals. After a while Mary and I started going to his house and small chapel he built at the edge of his property for church services. Both buildings were extremely small one room dwellings with room for not much more than a dozen people. Ironically there were only two evangelicals in Campo Santiago, Mariano and his brother Jose and they each had there own rival churches. Whenever I’d go to have church with Mariano he would put the small Hog Nose battery run amplifier on the roof of his mini-chapel and point it towards the other houses. The locals said they were not interested in becoming part of either of their churches since the only thing they accomplished was to confuse and bewilder their neighbors. I felt somewhat embarrassed.  I could never understand why the local churches were so divided and petty. Instead of working together they compete with one another. Man’s need to be right is the source of many evils. There is no greater righteousness than maintaining the circle of relationships in love. Forgiveness helps man achieve the impossible, it even conquers hate and prejudice. 


Spirit Offering: 

Close to Teopisca there’s a well known cave to the local Indian population. The first thing one notices as he or she enters it is burnt candles and plastic bags with dirt in them. These I was told are offering to the dueno or guardian spirit of the cave as well as prayers for the spirits blessing on the land the Indians farm. Once my friend Francisco and I went to see a cave near Mariano’s house in Campo Santiago but Mariano wasn’t there so I asked his younger son if he would show us where the cave was, we hiked a short distance and came upon a small opening to the cave. When I asked Mariano’s  son if he wanted to enter the cave with us he shook his head, no. I could tell that he was scared and thought we were crazy to go into the cave, perhaps because we didn’t have an offering.  We turned on our flashlights and started working our way down into the depths until we couldn’t go any further. We encountered several stalactites and I broke two of them off.  When we emerged from the cavern I pulled them out of my pocket and flashed them before Mariano’s son and said “Don’t worry I killed the dueno and here’s his teeth!”  His eyes were like two lollypops popping out of his scared face. For western man there is no respect for the spirits!


School of Dreams:

As I got closer to Mariano he started to share different stories with me. He was a

man of the earth, he slept on the ground, walked barefooted everywhere, his

skins was weathered, he grew food from the earth and carved owls and other

figures from tree limbs.  Mariano had never been to school yet  as a squatter he

founded a small village which today numbers about 500 and he speaks three

languages, Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Spanish.  In addition to these feats Mariano could

also write in all three languages, however Mariano did not learn to write in a

classroom but in his dreams. He told me how in a dream he saw a beautiful large

book that had gold edges. He was consumed by his vision and had to know what

the book said, and so he inquired night after night into the meaning of what he

saw and in this manner the words started to speak to him and he learned their

sounds and eventually learned to write the words the way they sounded. Once

when I was at Mariano’s house he showed me something he had written and it

looked like this; heshowdmesomthinghehadwritinanditlookdlikthis, at first I

thought he was crazy and then as I looked closer I realized he had left no spaces

between words and that his alphabet was phonetically correct but not

grammatically so.  An interesting twist on this story is that years later Mariano

saw the book of his dreams in a Catholic Church, it was the Bible.  After

Mariano started reading the Bible he confronted the Priest and asked him why

they didn’t do the things written in the book. Mariano was the most educated

Indian I ever knew!



In addition to Mariano I started to develop another friendship in the Tzeltal

village of Aguacatenengo which was about 15 miles from Teopisca. Vicente was

a well respected soft spoken elder in the village who had served as a ruling elder

in the past. I heard later that he was chosen as a chief elder again at a future date.

This village had a remarkable balance of a small lake, horses roaming free, the

village on an elevated hill in the background with a towering Catholic Church.

The Indian churches are Cristo-Pagan or a mixture of Catholicism and traditional

Animism.  Vicente lived on the far side of the village at the end of a dirt road.  I

started visiting Vicente after he had come by our house in Teopisca: He had been

interested in what we were doing, so I offered to visit him at his home.  I had

records in the Tzeltal language of Bible stories that you turn with your finger (no

electricity needed). On my second or third visit the rains had made the dirt road

impassible so I parked several blocks away and walked to his house. After about

an hour, his daughter came running into the house with a frightened look on her

face speaking rapidly to her father. I just knew something horrible had happened.

I asked Vicente what was wrong and he said someone was stoning my car. I

jumped up and ran the two or three blocks where I had left my car, when I got

there I saw the back and the side windows were broken out, and there was a dent

on the side. I screamed to the crowd that had gathered “who did it?”  They

pointed to a drunken Indian who was standing in front of a nearby house. I

exploded running over to him I said “Why did you do that? Why did you do

that?” and then I punched him in the face.  He turned around and ran into his

house, the crowd of people yelled, “He’s going to get his machete.”  At those

words fear came over me, I thought I’m dead meat. Then a surge of adrenaline

directed my eyes to a eight foot pole which was part of the nearby corral fence. I

felt with confidence that if he came out with a machete I’d grab that pole and

knock him on his ass before he could get close enough to do any damage. When

he came out, his family and other villagers wrestled him to the ground, then the

village police showed up and arrested him.  The following week, him and I

came before the tribal elders so they could decide on who did what and

appropriate punishment. I took a Mexican friend to help me but when the family

of the accused made it sound like I beat the drunk many times my Mexican fiend

believed it and started to take their side. I boldly said I was defending my

property and that I only hit him once.  There was a disgusting Mexican lawyer

there representing the tribe or the accused, he had been drinking all morning. I

remember the smell of booze on his breath and his slurred speech.  After

everything was said the tribal elders agreed that the man was guilty and would

pay $150.00 for damages.


San Juan Chamula:

Once I visited this Tzotzil village on the Saints Feast Day. In the center towers

the Catholic Church but no priest has said mass here in years as this is a center of

Animistic Catholic religion. Some have said that it is the old religion cloaked in

Catholicism. When one enters the sanctuary there are no pews. Along each wall

there was assembled various images of saints with mirrors hanging from their

necks. In front  of each image was amassed a large number of long skinny

candles all flickering with life. Groups of Tzotziles gathered at the foot of each

image reciting the prescribed petitions. They would remain in this state of prayer

until they would feel sorry for their sins, which would then be caught in the

mirrors along with other evil, then a shot of fire water would be downed as a type

of reward. This went on until the candles burned out, by that time the petitioner

was completely drunk.  The overall atmosphere of candles, incense and devout

petitions made one feel that he was in the realm of the spirit. These were perhaps

the most devout people I had ever met. Because these people are animists anyone

who preaches Jesus as the only way is labeled as an evangelical whether they be

protestant or Catholic.


The way of the Cross:

Surrounding San Cristobal de las Casas are a number of sacred mountains to the

Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indians. Built upon each high place is a cross which is

considered a portal to the spirit world. Shamans will visit these places and

perform special ceremonies.  When we moved to our home in Teopisca I made a

simple cross about 3 by 4 feet and hung it on the wall for all to see. Knowing its

significance many of the evangelicals I knew criticized me for putting it up. I left

it up hoping that it would open doors to those who gathered on Sunday to hear

our spiritual songs.


Indian women:

Each tribal center (village) has its own unique women’s style of dress and when

one goes to the open market in San Cristobal they can see each style represented

among the vendors and shoppers. The Indian blouse or " huipil is a symbolic

universe; when a Mayan woman places it over her head, she emerges through

the opening for the neck onto the axis of the world…Here the supernatural and

the ordinary converge. Here is the nucleus of a woven world of dream and myths,

she floats between heaven and the world below. The huipil is woman's personal

declaration that she has preserved the wisdom of the saints or ancestors. She is a

woman alone, who has cried and learned how to move the universe herself,"

Artes de Mexico, Textiles de Chiapas, 2nd ed, 1988 

The ancient symbols vary as do the colors. Some are made on the ancient back

strap loom. In addition to making clothes and cooking meals women are seen

carrying bundles of firewood on their backs, the load is held in place by a strap

that is placed around the forehead. At times these women are seen hunched over

by the weight of their loads emerging from the misty mountain trails that

crisscross the Pan American Highway. The exception to this seen is in

Amatenengo where the men gather firewood for the women Potters. After they

gather the wood they stack it on little wooden  go cart (no motor) that lie close to

the ground and ride them down the Pan American highway to town. The women

in this town are too busy for such mundane things! See

Chiapas Women onYouTube.


Tradition is Strong: The Mayan Indians and their particular pueblo lies at the center of the world. In fact they call it the navel of the earth, the place where life emerged and began. The land is sacred, it’s ancestral private property' passed down to them from the ancestors through the generations. Each Indian has two souls, one which wanders, the other which is bound to the earth under the tallest mountain in the sacred landscape. To abandon the land is the same as abandoning one’s soul as well as the souls of the ancestors. Therefore they have no desire to relocate nor do they have knowledge or appreciation of life outside their sacred space. In fact the further one travels from the center, the more danger, evil and uncertainty one encounters. A good example of this is to see Tzotzil Indians in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the State of Chiapas, they all stay together and move as one as the travel on foot through the streets of the city. They look like scared deer as they glance back and forth traversing their way around unfamiliar territory.  While tradition is strong there are other voices enticing the highland Indians of Chiapas to change, there is the government’s voice to assimilate into mainstream society, there’s the voice of missionaries challenging them to embrace Christianity and then there’s the voice of liberationists (Zapatists) enticing the people to reject the way of NAFTA and capitalism. When Indians convert to Christianity they are persecuted out of the tribe mainly because they refuse to support the local traditions. With the exception of the Tzeltal where there are over 30 thousand Christians most other tribal communities ask those who change, to change their place of residence as well. Entirely new communities have been established to relocate converts to Christianity. Ingrained in the ancient tradition is alcoholism, 15th century’s Spanish contribution. The expense of supporting the religious festivals tends to keep the earnest practitioner of tradition in a state of indebtedness and poverty. This is one of the appeals of Christianity which requires Indian converts to clean up and dry up.  In the early 1980’s the first Tzotzil convert who also became the first Pastor of that tribe was hacked to death with machetes and decapitated for leading tribal members to abandon tradition. Indeed tradition is strong! To destroy tradition is to destroy the world! Oh that the tradition of love would rise up to unite! See Chiapas Persecution. on Youtube.



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Indian Stories

 Stories of Bill Redondo, Fresno, California