Saturday, April 22, 2017

Mexican Popular Culture: Ritual As a Vehicle for Sustaining Communal Identity

Throughout our nearly ten years living in Mexico, first in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, surrounded by its indigenous Purépecha pueblos, then, for the past seven years in Mexico City, we have been struck by the omnipresence of rituals.

Religious Rituals

Ritual action, with its symbolic nature, is most obvious in the fiestas held to commemorate each pueblo's or parish's patron saint's day or the various holy days of the Catholic liturgical calendar, such as Three Kings' Day (January 6), Candelaria (February 2), Easter (March or April), and All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1 and 2, celebrated as Day of the Dead). The Catholic Mass, itself, is a highly structured series of ritual actions and words.

Fiesta de Cruz Verde, Fiesta of the Green Cross,
May 3, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

Procession of Silence, Semana Santa, Holy Week
Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

El Señor de la Misericordia,
The Lord of Compassion
begins his annual summer series of visits
to the pueblos of Coyoacán

Church of Three Sacred Kings,

Secular Rituals

But there are also ritualized civic holidays commemorating such historic events as Mexican Independence (September 15-16, with its midnight "Grito", Cry of Independence) and the Mexican Revolution (November 20) with its parades of children dressed as revolutionaries and speeches calling for fulfillment of the promises of the Revolution.

School Independence Day Parade
Father Miguel Hidalgo is portrayed on the banner.
Parades like this are still held every September 16, all across Mexico.
By Antonio Ruiz
Museum of the Secretariat of Hacienda,
Centro Histórico

All of these celebrations, both religious and secular, are accompanied with the explosion of cohetes, rocket-style firecrackers, and end with a nighttime fireworks display.

Cohetes set off to announce the beginning of a church fiesta

Castillo, "castle",
a wooden tower of fireworks is set off to mark the end of a fiesta.

Everyday Rituals

La Cortesía

But there are also less obvious rituals that are embedded in everyday life. La cortesía­—the courtesy, the formalized language and behaviors, based on medieval Spanish court etiquette­—is enacted between individuals at every occasion of greeting and parting. There is not only the "buenos días", "good day/morning", "buenas tardes", "good afternoon", and mutiple phrases at parting ("hasta luego", "until the next time", "qué le vaya bien", "may it go well for you", "cuídase", "take care"), but also the "con permiso" | "es proprio" exchange, i.e., "with permission" | "it's proper", upon entering and leaving someone's home, doctor's waiting rooms and even elevators. Then there is the "buen provecho", "have a good meal", said to fellow diners as one enters or leaves a restaurant.

Sweeping the Doorstep

An even less obvious example of ritualized behavior is the daily sweeping or scrubbing of entrance doorways and the sidewalk in front of homes and businesses (and inside business and government offices). We wondered about the stylized quality of this action, which led us to the Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, The General History of the Things of New Spain, compiled by the Spanish Franciscan friar or brother, Bernardino de Sahagún (lived 1499 to October 23, 1590). Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529. He learned Nahuatl and spent more than 50 years in the study of Aztec (Nahua) beliefs, culture and history. His extraordinary work documenting the indigenous worldview and culture has earned him the title “the first anthropologist." Wikipedia

Sweeping up after a fiesta,
The traditional broom is made of twigs.

Preparing to open outdoor restaurants for the day

Street sweepers

Reading parts of Sahagún's extensive work, we found that much of it catalogues the daily rituals of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico. Sahagún details the ritualization of the indigenous world, with different gods overseeing each of the eighteen months of twenty days and being honored by the people with their proper, highly structured fiesta, which usually lasted several days. Each day of the year was also under the rule of a god. These monthly and daily acts of ritualized worship were much like those of the Catholic calendar of annual sacred days and daily saints' days. We discovered that at the familial level, one ritual that was required was the daily sweeping of a household's internal patio, the space in front of the household's image of its protecting god and the front entrance to the home. Thus, the sweeping we see daily goes back centuries.

Ritual Language

As we have noted elsewhere, a also highly ritualized language is also used in discussing political issues or carrying out a demonstration in the streets. The terms often occur in sets of opposites, implying an undelying dualistic world view.
  • México tranquilo versus México bronco (Mexico unbridled);
  • los indios vs. los pobres (the poor);
  • las provincias vs. México (meaning Mexico City)
  • los de arriba versus los de abajo (those above vs. those below);
  • la autoridad, la imposición, la represión (by those above) vs. la lucha del pueblo (struggle of the people against them);
  • el personalismo, el clientelismo, el corporatismo (the control of society via personal connections and distribution of benefits to defined client groups for political ends);
  • la corrupción, la impunidad, la mentira (the lie), el sospechoso (suspiciousness), el retraso (the backwardness) vs. la lucha, la justicia. la dignidad and la esperanza (the hope).
This language carries over into public protest demonstrations, with oft-repeated slogans such as "¡La lucha sigue!" "The struggle continues!" and symbolic, ritualized routes for marches. In Mexico City, the capital, they are usually from the Angel of Independence on the Paseo de la Reforma, both of which are symbols of the Mexican lucha, struggle, for political liberties, to the Zócalo, the central plaza and symbolic "heart of Mexico."

March up Paseo de la Reforma from the Angel of Independence,
September 26, 2015,
commemorating one year since the disappearance
of 43 Ayotzinapa Normal School students.

Note far right: Banner portraying Emiliano Zapata, a prime symbol of

the hopes of the Mexican Revolution.
In the distance, behind
 the column topped by the golden Angel,

is Chapúltepec Castle, also a highly symbolic site.
Photo: Cuartoscuro

Ritual and Continuity of Communal Identity

It would appear from all these observations and comparisions of contemporaty Mexican popular culture with pre-hispanic indigenous culture, that the ritualistic nature of indigenous life provided a ready structure for adoption of Spanish court rituals and Catholic religious ones. From the indigenous side, Catholic religious rituals also provided a medium though which the pueblo, the people as a long-established community, could maintain and regularly reinforce their ancient communal identity, paradoxically, both in spite of the Spanish Military Conquest and subsequent Spiritual Conquest.

It is noteworthy that the Franciscans and the other religious orders that followed them to Nueva España to convert los naturales, the natives, to Spanish Catholic Christianity intentionally adopted a strategy of seeking out indigenous religious practices and customs that were similar to Catholic ones and building on them by introducing the beliefs and practices of the new faith as an evolutionay step from those previous ones to spiritual and religious maturity, not as a radical replacement. As a result, although the gods and their representations have changed, the continuity of pueblo life remains bien arraigado, deeply rooted, and retains its ánimo, its vitality.

Communal identity and pride
From final procession of The Lord of Compassion
ending His series of summer visits to pueblos of Coyoacán

Members of the Society of Jesus Nazarene,
Passion Play of Iztapalapa 

Providing tacos dorados, fried tacos, at Carnaval Fiesta
Santa María Magdalena Petlacalco, Tlalpan

"Aztec" dance group enacting an indigenous ritual offering of corn.
Xaltocán, Xochimilco

Member of fiesta organizing committee (identified by pink polo shirt with emblem)
with his wife and daughter,
San Lucas, Coyoacán.

La Comparsa de Chinelos de San Lorenzo Huipulco
The Dance Group of the "Disguised Ones"
San Lorenzo Huipulco, Tlalpan

Passing on Tradition and Identity 

Elders of the original villages of the City are most evident in the maintaining of their traditions and, thereby, their community identity, although in some neighborhoods this process has all but disappeared in the face of modern urbanization and homogenization, But in many communities, there is also an active effort to engage youth and children in the ceremonies and thus, invest in the transmission of tradition and communal identity to the next generation.

Little girl leading the Grupo de Comparsas Piñas y Pinones.
Group of Dance Groups, Pineapples and Pinenuts.
a city-wide association of pueblo comparsas-

San Lorenzo Huipulco, Tlalpan

Children and youth participate in the Parade of the Axolotls, salamanders unique to the waters of the Valley of Mexico,
during patron saint fiesta of
San Sebastian Axotla,  Delegación Álvaro Obregón

Candelaria, Candlemass,

Sword fight of the Santiagueros, Kights of St. James,
who reenact the battle between Christians and Muslims Moors in Spain.
The boy's red costume indicates he is playing a Moor.
Pueblo Candelaria, Coyoacán

Marching band,
Pueblo of Three Sacred Kings, Coyoacán

Nazarene youth,
Passion Play of Iztapalapa

Passion Play of Iztapalapa

Aztec dancers,
Pueblo Xaltocán, Xochimilco

 Child Chinelo dancer, Carnaval,
Santa María Magdalena Petlacalco, Tlalpan

Spanish-Mexican dancer,
San Mateo Churubusco, Coyoacán

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