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Thousands of candles flicker in the dim chamber. The air is thick with the smoke from copal incense. On the altar, men in black wool tunics and white knee-length pants play solemn music on drums and gourds. Below them, a score of Tzotzil Indians chant in small circles on the pine needle-covered floor. In the center of each circle are candles, eggs, copal and pox —fermented corn mash—in an old glass container, stopped with a corn cob.
And next to the pox is a half-liter bottle of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. In the year-old Church of St. John the Baptist, in Chamula, a town of 60, in Chiapas, Mexico, those bottles indicate the intersection of religion, politics, water and consumer markets.
In the United States, Coke and Pepsi vie for monopoly contracts with schools and universities. Traveling through the cold highlands of the San Juan Chamula municipality any Saturday afternoon, one regularly encounters a scene resembling a battleground: dozens of bodies sprawled on the ground, arms and legs sometimes extending perilously into the road.
At the epicenter of each of these scenes are plastic tables and chairs in front of a diminutive wooden store. Along with pox, they swig Coke or Pepsi, depending on whose store they patronize; each store sells only one brand. Like fireworks and copal, pox is a sacrament in a local religion that blends Catholicism with elements of native tradition.
It is a sacred drink that cleanses the soul; the more pox one drinks, the greater the purification. Over the past several decades the caciques—local elites who wield economic and political power and control the soft drink concession—have convinced the faithful that pox should be drunk with Coke or Pepsi, depending on who is doing the proselytizing.