Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dipping our toes into the pool of ethnography

After a season of intense excavation and consolidation of the main pool in Palenque’s Picota Group in 2014, investigations have since widened to include ethnographic research in the modern Maya village of Chamula in Mexico’s southern most state of Chiapas. Ethnography is a technique normally used in the cultural side of anthropology to describe and better understand a modern culture. Located on the northern edge of San Cristóbal de las Casas, this community is home to three constructed pools that appear to be very similar to those found just 110 km north in ancient Maya site of Palenque.
The Spring of San Juan in Chamula.
The first is the Spring of San Juan, which is the largest and most complex of the three pools. The upper section of this system is used only on May 3rd during the Día de la Santa Cruz. The Spring of San Pedro is a smaller and simpler water feature. The people of Chamula regularly come here to gather holy water for ceremonial use. Finally, the third pool, Ya’al Jtotik, is a compound-like area with many drying racks and sitting areas for people to gather and perform ceremonies together. All three of the springs have associated architectural features, such as shrines, staircases, and ledges on which patrons are able to stand while washing clothing.
Chamulan women wash clothes in the lower pool at the Spring of San Juan.
The pools in Palenque and Chamula are remarkably similar and unique to Mesoamerica. The project’s goal is to both learn more about the significance of the pools to the everyday life of Chamulans, as well as invite a few of the elders from the Waterhole Committee of Chamula to Palenque so they can see the ancient Maya pools firsthand.  
Kirk and Chip take a look at the Spring of San Pedro.
In early June we met with the president of the Potable Water Committee in Chamula. When told about the water management system in Palenque with the three pools along the stream, he seemed very unsurprised. In a very matter-of-fact tone, he stated that flowing water through limestone naturally forms waterholes along its edges. That being said, after seeing photos of the Palenque pools, their beauty impressed both he and his family. We concluded that the people of Chamula seem to view the pools as natural features of the landscape, therefore obvious elements of their everyday lives.
Soap collects in the Ya'al Jtotik pool.
After spending a few days photographing the pools and exploring the area around Chamula, we received permission from the local government to create a map of each of the pools. This data will later be incorporated into ArcGIS to create a more solidified version of the map. Having a tangible representation of our work in this area will be essential for future investigations. There is still much data to be obtained through ethnographic interviews with the people of Chamula, but it is vital to the project that we were able to create maps of the three major pools and familiarize ourselves with many local officials.

Crucial to the success of this project are the contributions of Walter “Chip” Morris, an American anthropologist who first came to Chiapas in 1972. Over the years he was able to master not only Spanish, but also the Maya languages of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Ch’ol. San Cristóbal de las Casas became his permanent home upon receiving the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award in 1983. Walking around Chamula with Chip could almost be compared to being a part of a rock star’s entourage. After many years of interacting with the people of the village, virtually every Chamulan man, woman, and child knows him.

Since the success of ethnographic research hinges on communication, it would be very difficult to obtain any data when both parties are speaking Spanish, their second language. Chip’s ability to speak Tzotzil, the language used in Chamula, and to also know certain local taboos and traditions had incalculable value and enabled us to explain our goals to anyone who was wondering.

One of the most unique experiences was walking through the San Juan Chamula Church, which can be found at the center of the town. To preface, I want to stress this is a recognized Catholic church. My very limited experience with Catholic churches in the United States made me assume that all churches have pews on which people sit and listen to the sermon presented by the priest.
The San Juan Chamula Church.
It was certainly a shock to walk into this edifice where there was nobody sitting in pews listening to someone preach from the pulpit. Instead, individual family units knelt in their respective zones they had claimed upon clearing away a section of pine needles that cover the entire floor of the church, which is devoid of any seating areas. Families make appointments to come to the church to have a ceremony for any kind of personal reason, be it a sickness in the family, starting a new job, or building a new house, just to name a few instances. To perform these ceremonies, people bring items including but not limited to candles, soda, water, chickens to be sacrificed, and pox (pronounced “posh”), a strong alcoholic beverage native to the area. In order for the prayer to be complete, everything that is brought must be consumed; the candles have to burn until they are simply a pile of wax, the chicken has to be sacrificed, and all the beverages must be finished.
A pox distillery.
Chip always makes sure he has a bag full of snacks to hand out to the children of the families who are undoubtedly fussy and bored. Some aspects of childhood remain the same across cultures as this is much like how young children sitting through mass in a church in the United States would also act. Almost like a Chamulan Santa Claus, he wanders around to find particularly distraught kids and pulls a bag of popcorn out of his satchel of goodies that makes their faces light up with excitement. It serves as a perfect icebreaker to facilitate casual conversation during the family’s ceremony. It should be noted that although these prayers are very personal, there is a sort of community-feel inside the walls of the Church of San Juan. They are elated when you offer to aid in the completion of the family’s offerings, whether it be the Coca-Cola, pox, or water. It is not considered to be freeloading for the sake of intoxication, but rather helping consume the gifts they have prepared for their prayer. This is the way in which outsiders can actually contribute to the family’s ceremony. Upon exiting the church, having drunk a fair amount of pox and still in a state of minor shock from seeing a chicken sacrificed, we were startled as a roaring firework soared from the plaza in front of the church. It is common for fireworks to be set off at the completion of the family’s ceremony, a fact of which I quickly became aware.
Panela, an unrefined cane sugar, is the ingredient of pox.
All of these experiences, although very different from what many Americans would consider to be “normal,” demonstrated to me that at the core of our existence, we truly are all quite similar. Sure, there is a wide range of traditions that make us unique from our neighbors, but they are all done with the same goals in mind. Family is a universally important entity. Alcohol translates into any culture, no matter how remote or traditional. The fiery desire to learn and grow burns deep in every person in every culture across the globe. There are certain aspects that collectively give us our identity of “human.” Anyone who believes that people halfway across the globe are vastly different needs to see for themselves in order to understand. It all goes back to the idea of the necessity to step out of your comfort zone to expand the level of consciousness and mature as a human. Anthropology is a marvelous facilitator to move towards achieving such a lofty feat. While studying humans you realize you are essentially looking in a mirror and gazing at yourself in a different culture. Recognizing similarity is the key to understanding humanity, and learning differences is the fundamental way to move toward human acceptance.

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