I’d seen cemeteries in the wake of Day of the Dead and had been fascinated by the ambiance of the fading remains of a party after the revelers were long gone, with the presence, still, of the guests of honor looking forward to peace and quiet for another year. But there was no relationship between that memory and this day in San Sebastián Cemetery of San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil Maya town in Chiapas, Mexico.
After all the excitement and intensity of the activities at the church in the center of town, several of us walked together to the edge of the cemetery where another kind of intensity was in progress. With all the family members, decorations, even a strolling band occupying what little space was available between gravesites, it was clear that if any sort of low profile picture-taking was going to happen it would have to be from the adjacent road and an area just off the street with a view to the old church below.
Our guide, César, had accompanied us and as we made arrangements to meet him later he reiterated the need to be sensitive when it came to photography. I’d noticed that in general we were ignored, a not-unpleasant feeling of being invisible but, on occasion, a direct look seen through the camera lens was a reminder that we were indeed seen.
The cemetery sits on a hillside on the edge of Chamula and surrounds the ruins of the 17th century Dominican Church of San Sebastián. When the church was destroyed in the early 20th century, there are variations on the story of exactly when, the saints whose statues occupied the church were moved to Templo San Juan Chamula but punished by being placed facing the wall and other indignities, for the sin of not having saved their church. And the church was never rebuilt.
So from my position lurking on the perimeter I observed the comings, goings and socializing and made a likely self-deluded effort to be low key in recording the riotous color of flowers and people. Though an outsider, an intruder, I was never made to feel uncomfortable, though I generally need no help in that regard and is probably one of the reasons my pictures are often unpopulated. The acceptance of my presence may also be because there were surprisingly few tourists in town, and just a couple of others at the large cemetery. I suspect that could change in future and the acceptance along with it.
Eventually we met up with César and walked to the parked vans. When everyone was loaded up we were off again, next stop the neighboring Tzozil village of San Lorenzo Zinacantán.
Find all episodes of 'A Month in Chiapas' here.
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