Chontal of Tabasco - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Chontal Maya are very religious. In most Chontal communities, the Catholic church is the most important building. Each town has its own patron saint and some secondary saints. Many Chontal Maya make pilgrimages to visit the saints in other towns, particularly, El Señor de Tila, the patron saint of Tila, in Chiapas. Each patron saint has an annual festival, with a lavish display of music, food, and prayers.

Religious Practitioners. Since the 1940s, however, a growing number of Chontal Maya have converted to Protestantism and no longer participate in the religious festivals for saints. As the religious competition between Catholics and Protestants increases, more Catholic priests and nuns and Protestant missionaries are visiting Chontal communities. The net result is that more adults and children are learning modern Catholic and Protestant doctrine and are being taught to reject traditional rituals. The traditional recomendores (religious petitioners) and patrones (church officials) are losing influence.

Arts. Among the Chontal Maya, expressive culture is focused primarily on religion. Music, drama, and art are part of all religious and ritual events. Churches and saints are decorated during the festivals, which culminate in elaborate processions, often with music and dancing.

Medicine. Traditional folk practices coexist with Western medicine in most Chontal communities. Most Chontal Maya seek medical help for serious injuries and illness. Curanderos (folk healers) are frequently consulted, however, particularly by older, more traditional Chontal Maya.

Death and Afterlife. The Chontal Maya believe in an afterlife in which one is rewarded or punished for having led a good or evil life. Traditional Catholic Chontal Maya believe that communication with the dead is possible and that dead friends and relatives can function as intermediaries between the living and the saints. Consequently, formal petitions to the dead are an important part of traditional Chontal ritual. Such petitions are offered during novenas (nine-day mourning periods) for the dead and during the month of October, climaxing on the second day of November. The petitions are usually offered by a Chontal recomendor, a ritual specialist who is hired to pray and petition the dead and the saints, although laymen occasionally offer the petitions. During these rituals, food, beverages, incense, candles, and skyrockets are offered to the dead and/or the saints, together with requests for aid.

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