Where in the World is Chichicastenango?

Unless you’ve visited the beautiful Central American nation of Guatemala, I’ll bet you have never heard of the village of Chichicastenango. Nestled high in the mountains on a road that takes you past the spectacular volcanic lake of Atitlan, Chichi’s colorful present belies its dark past.

Most towns settled by the Spaniards follow a similar pattern: a Catholic church sits on one end of the town square. The square serves as the home for a park, or the town’s weekend open marketplace.

Life and business are transacted there every day.

But Chichi is different. Unique. It has TWO churches facing each other across the square: La Iglesia de Santo Tomás and the Church El Calvario. Why would this Mayan village need two churches? This is where the dark history of the town begins to make sense.

Nearly 500 years ago, missionary after missionary arrived in the region, energized to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the local Maya tribes. One by one, each was martyred for his faith. Unable to penetrate the deeply religious Mayan traditions, one trembling yet entrepreneurial priest arrived, determined not to follow his predecessors into a premature death.

He learned the local culture. Language. And religious ways. And in so doing, realized that to penetrate the Mayan religion, he needed to adapt his faith to theirs.

So, one by one, each of the Mayan gods was translated to seem Christian; Father God became the Sun god, for example. And all the Catholic saints also took on new identities as Mayan deities.

And so the young priest preserved his life. And, by the way, introduced syncretism to the New World – the blending of religions.

Today both churches thrive. The Church of Santo Tomás, built on the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple, welcomes worshipers who enter to pray for the necessities of life: healthy harvests, healthy families and even to put a curse on an enemy. Across the plaza, parishioners follow traditional Christian liturgies as they worship the One True God.

Life in Guatemala is often perilous and dangerous. But the power of God has moved so fully that, by some estimates, Evangelical Christians comprise over 40% of the population.

Learn more about Chichicastenango and God’s power in all of Latin America through our Latin America region page

Written by:

Norman C. Mintle, Ph.D.