Sunday, September 17, 2017

Mexican Fiestas As Sacred Play - Part II: Fiestas as Creative Acts of Cultural Transformation and Continuity

At the core of the so-called Spiritual Conquest, the conversion of the indigenous peoples living in what the Spanish called Nueva España, New Spain, was the tactic of assigning a Christian saint as the patron of every pueblo or village. Churches were erected to house each of these saints and be the center of Catholic worship via the Mass. Each patron saint was then celebrated on his/her feast day with a fiesta to which everyone was expected to contribute and to participate. These patron saint fiestas, along with fiestas celebrating other holy days on the Catholic religious calendar, such as Semana Santa (Holy Week leading to Easter Sunday) are still celebrated in many of these original villages.

Virtually all the elements of these Catholic fiestas were brought from Spain by the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and the friars of other religious orders. Mexicans have, however, creatively "played" with each of these elements, transforming them into their own Mexican style and their own unique expressions of identity.

Each pueblo's fiesta incorporates and adapts these elements following a more or less ritualized sequence and set of components. Over the past year and a half Mexico City Ambles has been attending many of these fiestas. The following "guide", based on those experiences, looks at each of their components and how they have been creatively adapted and transformed into expressions of traditional Mexican identity.

Saints and Their Appropriation by the Indigenous People

The Spanish transported statues of saints across the ocean. Cortés brought with him a statue of the Virgin Mary. Some of these statues are the still among the most highly venerated in Mexico.

St. Mary of the Assumption
in the church of Santa María La Redonda,
in the barrio of Santa María Cuepopán.
The church was one of the first built
 by Friar Peter of Ghent, in 1524.

The statue's head and hands
are said to have been brought from Spain
 by Friar Rodrigo de Sequera,
Commissioner General of the Franciscans,
An indigenous artisan carved the body

in the mid-16th century.

Soon, however, new statues were being crafted in New Spain by indigenous craftsmen.

El Niño pa,
The Child of this Place,
carried by his mayordomo, 
caretaker for the year,
in His annual celebration on Candelaria
February 2, in Xochimilco

One of the most widely known and venerated in Mexico City is El Niño Pa, the Child of This Place, who is the de facto saint of the entire delegación, or borough, of Xochimilco—still among the most indigenous sections of Mexico City. The statue was carved by an indigenous artisan in the sixteenth century from the wood of a native Mexican tree. Scientifically verified to be over 400 years old, it is considered one of the oldest images of Catholic worship created in the Americas. 

Unlike parish saints, El Niño does not reside in a church, or even in just one parish. Each year, on Candelaria, Candlemass, February 2, which celebrates the presentation by the Virgin Mary and Joseph of the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, He is put in the care of a new mayordomo who lives in one of the original barrios of Xochimilco. The mayordomo keeps Him in a special room in his home and surpervises his visits to other homes, including other barrios and pueblos, including ones beyond Xochimilco. Thus, El Niño serves as a concrete and symbolic connection between the original indigenous communities of southern Mexico City, a function that goes beyond His Catholic significance.

Recently, some of the faithful of Xochimilco took El Niño to Centro Históricothe original Tenochtitlan, where they presented him in the original headquarters for the Spiritual Conquest, the Church of San Francisco, as well as in the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Church of the Holy Trinity. His bearers were groups of chinelo and conchero dancers from the delegación who describe themselves as "inheritors of traditional dancing and singing...and cultural resistance".

El Niño Pa has clearly been appropriated by the people as a symbol of Mexican identity and "cultural resistance" to the pure imposition of foreign ones. (The chinelos and concheros originated from the indigenous side of the encounter, so we'll discuss them later.)

(See also video (0:59 min) - Chinelos Dancing in the Church of the Holy Trinity - Centro Histórico
Spanish caption (translation):  "This is an utterly meaningful video: around an altar, on which rests the sacred image [El Niño Pa], the heirs of traditional dance and sing ... cultural resistance.  Temple of the Holy Trinity, Historic Center of Mexico City."

Setting the Scene: Portadas, Tapetes, Papel Picado y Flores | Floral Arches, Sawdust Carpets, Cut Paper and More Flowers

The setting for a fiesta is the atrio, atrium, of the parish church, any adjacent plaza and nearby streets. The scene is adorned with elaborate portadas, portal arches, installed on the church facade. When the parish community can afford them, they are made of fresh flowers. When not, flowers of plastic or other, more permanent materials are used. Often, tapetes de aserín, colorful temproary carpets made of sawdust are laid out in the atrio or in surrounding streets.

Floral portada and
Tapete de aserrín, sawdust carpet;
both portray El Señor de la Misericordia,
the Lord of Compassion.


"Long Live St. Sebastian"
The arch is made of fresh flowers, mostly mums.

San Sebastián Axotla, Álvaro Obregón

One of five portadas set up along the route of the processon
 of the Lord of Compassion for His return from Pueblo Candelaria to His parish
Tres Santos Reyes
Coyoacán, on the first Sunday in September.  
The steel arches supporting the portadas are permanent structures.

Painted portada,
church of La Virgen de los Dolores,
The Virgin of Sorrow.
Pueblo Xaltocán, Xochimilco

Portada at the entrance to 
the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary,
Culhuacán, Iztpalapa

The decoration is a type of mosaic
consisting of tiny pieces of pottery

This portada is a mural portraying indigenous gods.
Made entirely of beans and other seeds, it is at least 15 feet wide and 6 feet tall.  

Santa Magdalena Mixhuca, Venustiano Carranza
We haven't been able to find any documentation of the origins of portadas, but the elaborate floral designs lead us to think of the floral designs of Islamic mosques, which were abundant in Spain. Indigenous public religious art, painted in bright colors on the walls of its temples, was also quite "Baroque", i.e. elaborate.

Goddess of Tenochtitlán
Mural in National Museum of Anthropology and History

Tapetes de Aserrín

The tradition of tapetes originated in Spain for the feast of Corpus Christi. Streets were adorned with flowers and sand, the designs becoming more elaborate throughout the Middle Ages. The making of the carpets was then extended to Good Friday, with images of Christ on the Cross and a grieving Virgin Mary. The Spanish brought the custom to Latin America, where during the colonial period it was established as part of Holy Week celebrations, especially for Good Friday and Easter processions. (Wikipedia)

Tapete de aserrín,
for the reception of the Lord of Compassion
to His home Pueblo de los Tres Santos Reyes

Tapete de aserrín, sawdust carpet

Depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe,
the ultimate creative representation
of the adoption of Catholicism by the indigenous people,
viewed as the Virgin's explicit, special adoption of Mexico.

She is surrounded by Her flower, roses,  
and colibrís, hummingbirds,
symbol of the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli,
"Hummingbird of the South",
and of the drawing of blood in human sacrifice.
The name Churubusco is a corruption of Huitzilopochco,
the Pueblo of Huitzilopochtli

San Mateo, St. Matthew,
portrayed as a Mexica/Aztec Eagle Warrior
tapete de aserrín

Here the Spanish tradition of tapetes de aserrín is fully taken over
by indigenous imagery.

San Mateo Churubusco, Coyoacán

Papel picado, Cut Paper Designs

Papel picado, thin paper cut into designs, is evidently an original Mexican creation, from the 19th century, when tissue paper—called "China paper" in Mexico—became available. Interestingly, Chinese paper cutting goes back to the 2nd century CE. Since there was considerable Spanish trade in Chinese goods beginning in the 16th century, via "La Nao de la China" (The China Ship) from Manila, in the Philippines, to Acapulco, Mexico, one wonders if there is some unknown historical connection between the two crafts. Wikipedia

Papel picado, cut paper,
strung across the street,
announces a fiesta.

"Long live San Sebastián Axotla"
Papel picado, cut paper (actually plastic)
announces the celebration of the pueblo's patron saint,
and of the pueblo, itself.

Flowers, Flowers and More Flowers

Flowers were prolifically used by the indigenous rulers. Their pathways through the streets were strewn with flowers. With its tropical climate, flowers are always in bloom in Mexico, everywhere. They are a universal, archetypical symbol of the beauty of life and its fragil shortness. We have already seen their profuse use on portadas.

Flowers cover the wall behind the altar
to celebrate the birthday of the Virgin Mary.

Church of Santa María Nativitas
Benito Juárez

Fiesta of San Pedro, St. Peter.
Church of St. Peter, Tláhuac

Fiesta de la Santa Cruz, Holy Cross
Church of the Holy Cross Acalpixca

Announcing the Fiesta | Cohetes, Rockets 

Fireworks were invented in China in the 7th century and brought to Europe, in the mid-18th century,
by among others, Jesuit missionaries. From, there, they were brought to Nueva España Where and when they were incorporated into fiestas is unknown, but they are an essential component of fiestas used to announce to the surrounding world the various events of the celebration.

Cohetero, setting off a cohete,
rocket-style firecracker,
that always announce fiestas 

and their various events such as 
mañanitas (prayers at 5AM or earlier),
processions and Masses.

Barrage of cohetes,
annouce the return of a procession to
Church of Santa Ursula Coapa, Coyoacán

View and hear a super-duper barrage of cohetes at the high point of a fiesta, 
(best viewed full screen, 
with the volume turned up as loud as you can tolerate.)
The preeminent Mexican writer and Nobel prize winner, Octavio Paz identifies the function of these cohetes as an act of the Mexican spirit:

"... During those days (of fiesta) the silent Mexican whistles, shouts (grita), sings, throws firecrackers, unloads his pistol in the air, unloads his soul. His shout, like the rockets we like so much, goes up to the sky, bursts in a explosion of green, red, blue and white and falls vertiginously, leaving a trail of golden sparks." (From The Labyrinth of Solitude)
They are a shout that says, "I am here. You must take notice. You cannot ignore me." The noise is addressed to both God and los demás, other people, especially los de arriba, those from above who otherwise frequently ningunear them, treat them as if they are nobodies. 

The Procession

The central act of most every fiesta is the procession of the saint through the streets of His/Her pueblo. Often the saint is accompanied by saints from neighboring pueblos or even from those at some distance. In Mexico City, we have met saints coming not only from other delegaciones, boroughs, but also from other states—some from as far away as a couple of hundred miles. This visiting of the saints, like the unique ones of El Niño Pa, is a clear way for the pueblos to maintain social, cultural and spiritual bonds that existed long before the Spanish arrived with Catholicism.

Lord of Chalma,
Copy of a version of the Crucified Christ
venerated at a shrine in the State of Mexico.

Peregrinaciones, walking pilgrimages, are held from many pueblos
of Mexico City, as well as elsewhere in Mexico,
to the shrine at Chalma.

Note the abundant fresh flowers,
a major medium for decoration of the andas,
or platforms, on which the saints are carried.

From Greek and then Roman times, processions of rulers and the people's gods were frequent events in Europe. After the Catholic Christian Church was given legal recognition by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century CE, religious processions became a way to manifest the faith in public space. The friars brought the practice with them to Nueva España for the same purpose, to promote the faith. Here, the indigenous people were also well accustomed to processions of their rulers and statues of their gods through the streets.

Perhaps the most impressive one was the procession held once every fifty-two years for the Binding of the Years (known now as Nuevo Fuego, New Fire), when the first day of the 365-day solar calendar coincided with the first day of the 260-day divinitory calendar. On this potent crossroads in time, it was feared that the Apocalypse might occur, the sun would not rise and the world would come to an end.

The procession went from the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) in Tenochtitlan, down the causeway across Lake Texcoco, to the peninsula of Iztapalapa, where it climbed the hill now known as Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star. At the summit, on a temple platform, a human sacrifice was carried out and a new fire lit, to be carried by runners to all other temples and homes and kept burning for the next cycle of fifty-two years. The same hill is now used each year for the culmination of the Passion Play of Iztapalapa, in which the crucifixion of Jesus is reenacted.


In the processions, the saints are usually transported on andas, platforms ranging in size from modest to huge, covered with flowers and other decorations and born on the shoulders of men and, occasionally, women of the parish. Again, these are a Spanish tradition, but their design and decoration is a major opportunity for exercising communal creativity (and some friendly competition between pueblos).

Anda, flower-bedecked "float", of the Lord of Compassion
born by members of the parish confradía, brotherhood of the
Church of the Three Holy Kings, Coyoacán.

Note the Golden Calf, symbol of pagan religions of ancient Mediterranean cultures, 
semi-secularized in the highly ritualized bull fights of Spain and Mexico.

St. Francisco and St. Dominic,
the "Holy Founders" of the first two religious orders to come to New Spain,
along with the Virgin Mary.
Pueblo de Santo Domingo

San Mateo, St. Matthew,
Barrio San Mateo Churubusco,

This anda inventively uses fresh fruits from the local Mercado Churubusco:
carrots, onions, red and orange peppers, radishes, lettuce.

Santa Ursula,
Pueblo Santa Ursula Coapa,

Note the two peacocks in front;
as royal birds they are commonly used images on andas,

though they have no Christian significance.

Accompanying the Saint: Music and Dance

The procession  is always accompanied by some form of music, usually a brass banda, but sometimes drummers or mariachis. Various types of comparsas, troupes of dancers, also usually are part of the procession. Both musicians and dancers also perform in the church atrio before and after (and sometimes during) the Mass


All the brass, string and wind musical instruments and many of the rhythms (marches, waltzes, polkas, etc.) used in Mexican music and fiestas came from Europe. The indigenous people had only various kinds of drums, simple flutes and various forms of rattles. But with these imported instruments and rhythms, Mexicans have created one of the most distinctive marks of their identity.

are the most common form of music for fiesta processions

Mariachis play ranchera style music.
It was originally a form of son music, i.e. sound, made by a string group.

Again, the instruments are European in origin,
with some Mexican modifications. 

Trumpets and the fancy charro, cowboy, outfits 
were added in the early 20th century.

Rondalla (rohn-DAH-yah)a balladic, "folk-style" guitar-playing and singing
that originated in medieval Spainis frequently played at Masses.

Dance bands
often play in the atrio before or after a procession or Mass.
Many times, the tunes are mid-20th century U.S. dance melodies.

Rumba caliente, Hot Rumba dance band
will play on the Monday night after the fiesta
Rock and Salsa bands
also often play for a closing community dance.

Comparsas, Fiesta Dance Troupes

Comparsas, amateur dance troupes are another artistic component that enriches a procession and the larger fiesta. Dance groups called Aztecas or Mexicas or concheros (lute players) present indigenous symbols and identity most directly. But traditional Spanish-based folkloric, i.e. social, dance is also presented at times. Most strikingly, dance is also used to burlesque or ridicule the original Spanish ruling powers, and implicitly, the current Mexican ones.

Comparsa of Conchero dancers,
one style of "Aztec" dancers who play lute-like instruments

(see example, far left)

Aztec ritual
The conch shell trumpet is an ancient indigenous instrument.
The censer burns copal, an indigenous pine resin incense.



Indios, Indian dancers
Colonia Santo Domingo, Coyoacán

Knights of St. James the Moor Slayer

Comparsa (troupe) of Chinelo ("disguised") dancers
who jump and spin in their Moorish-style costumes.

Charro dancers
San Francisco Culhuacán, Coyoacán

Female charro dancers,
San Francisco Culhuacán, Coyoacán

Comparsa de Caporales, Cowboys,
San Pedro Mártir, Tlalpan

Little Old Person, dancer
From Pueblo Santa Cruz Xochitepec,
Comparsa de Tecuanes, "Dance of the Jaguars"
from Acatlán, state of Puebla,

performing at the Fiesta of Santa María Tepepan, Xochimilco.

The Core of the Fiesta: The Mass

The oldest and most ritualized component of Catholic worship is the Mass. Many Masses are celebrated during fiestas in addition to those on the usual parish schedule. A special Mass is often celebrated as the central act on Sunday, frequently held outdoors in the church atrio. The order and language of the Mass have been set for centuries.

Until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) convened by Pope John XXIII, the Mass was conducted in Latin. The Council allowed the Mass to be spoken in the congregation's vernacular language, let priests face the people instead of being turned away from them, and authorized the use of contemporary liturgical music. This relaxation gave priests and congregants some freedom to "play" with the ancient ritual.

The banners or standards are from several other pueblos in Xochimilco
and neighboring delegaciones, whose faithful have come to Tepepan's fiesta.

Outdoor Mass, Church of Santa Cruz Acalpixca, Xochimilco
Priest, accompanied by a rondalla group of young guitarists and child singers,
leads the congregation in handclapping song. 

Outdoor Mass, Church of San Bernadino, Xochimilco,
celebrating Candelaria, February 2,
Congregants await the arrival of  El Niño Pa, the Child of This Place.
The Archbishop of Mexico, Norberto Rivera, officiated, 
indicating official recognition of the importance of El Niño for the faithful of Xochimilco.

Pyrotechnic Climax: Burning of the Castillo

Castillos, castles of fireworks, are always ignited the last night of a fiesta, sometimes at the end of each night. Again, the fireworks came from China, via Spain, but the experience is totally Mexican. Businesses dedicated to pyrotechnics construct and ignite the towers. 

Pueblo Santa María Magdalena Petlacalco 
has three fireworks castillos, "castles",
one for each of the three nights of the fiesta.

Castillo, "castle", on fire.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mexican Fiestas As Sacred Play - Part I: Transforming Culture Thru Play

In our Ambles over the past year, we have been seeking out the vestiges of some of the hundreds of original indigenous pueblos that were spread around the lakes and across several of the islands in those lakes in what the indigenous called the Valley of Anahuac. Today those original pueblos have been subsumed by Mexico City and its surrounding metropolis which fills the Valley of Mexico.

Original pueblos currently recognized by the Mexico City government

Transforming Culture by Playing with It

As we have pursued finding and visiting these pueblos, we have puzzled over the question of how their transformation from indigenous villages to Spanish Catholic parishes was effected. Our interest is not from the side of the Spanish friars who implemented the evangelization (preaching the Christian message) and conversion (baptism) to Catholicism now known as the Spiritual Conquest. Rather, our focus is on the side of the pueblos, the village people. How did they respond?

Cortés' explicit message to the indigenous "pagans" was:
submit to the power of the Spanish king and place their religious faith (and cultural identity) in the Catholic Church, or be slaughtered.
Given the blunt choice, and with the final defeat of the Aztec/Mexica army by Cortés and his indigenous allies in August 1521, the only viable option was submission.  During the three hundred years of colonial Nueva España (1521-1823) and even after Independence, there were a number of indigenous rebellions against the Spanish and their criollo (pure-blooded) descendants, who continued to hold power and wealth. All the rebellions were suppressed. Acceptance of authoritarian rule and Catholicism was the only choice for the indigenous peoples to survive, even marginally.

So how did the indigenous peoples manage this radical cultural change?  We believe we have glimpsed a part of the answer during our visits to the pueblos. In the process of our explorations, we have discovered that the best time to visit the pueblos is when they are celebrating their patron saint's feast day, or any other fiesta of the Catholic religious calendar.

Our Ambles posts of these fiestas illustrate not only the exuberant vitality and multi-faceted creativity of the people in expressing their devotion to their faith, but also their commitment to their continuing communal identity. The shouts of "Viva", "Long live" are not solely alabanzas (praise) to the saint, but indeed calls to the people to maintain their collective identity as a pueblo.

Societies Maintained by Ritual

Along with witnessing these fiestas, we also have read (skimmed) parts of the Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), compiled by the Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún in the mid-16th century. This twelve volume, 2,400 page work (1,000 pages in the printed Spanish version), written both in Nahuatl and Spanish and illustrated with over 2,000 drawings, describes the religion, social structure and natural world of the indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico. Books 1 and 2 present the gods of the Aztecs/Mexica and the many festivals dedicated to honoring them.

Reading these descriptions makes it very clear that Azteca/Mexica society (and by extension the societies of other Mesoamerican peoples) was strictly organized via a complex system of religious rituals. A god was in charge of each of their eighteen months, consisting of twenty days, that comprised a year, and each was celebrated during his month with elaborate, prescribed fiestas, often lasting several days.

There were, moreover, daily rituals carried out in each household. One example among many is the morning sweeping of the area around the shrine to the household god, as well as the inner patio and the entrance from the street. The persistant power of such rituals across the centuries is evident in the daily sweeping that can be witnessed nowadays in front of homes and shops and in the streets of Mexico. This daily sweeping retains a ritualistic quality in the regularity of its timing and its movements.

Street sweepers
using traditional brooms made of twigs.

Shared Theme of Ritual Human Sacrifice

The rituals of the Mexicas centered on human sacrifice. In their cosmology, the Fifth Sun—the fifth attempt by the gods to create a world inhabited by creatures who could talk, and thereby praise them—required the sacrifice of two gods, one of whom became the Sun, the other the Moon. In return, it was required that humans be sacrificed so their blood could feed the Sun, providing it with the energy to survive the perils of its nightly journey through the Underworld and enable it to Rise again each morning.

The Catholic system of saints, with its highly ritualized fiestas organized to honor them, was very compatible with this indigenous system. Instead of multiple gods, there are multiple saints, one of whom was assigned as the patron protector of each pueblo. Catholic worship also shares the concept of human sacrifice, as it centers on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to liberate humans from the death that is the consequence of sin. Different from the indigenous belief, this sacrifice was needed only once, but is symbolically repeated with every believer in every Mass, where the wafer and the wine become the body and blood of Christ. Every Mexican Catholic Church has its statues of the suffering Christ with his bloody wounds and, often, of Christ in a glass coffin.

The Chapel of the Lord of Calvary
in Pueblo Culhuacán, Iztapalapa.

Statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, wearing the crown of thorns,
stand at each side of the altar.
On the altar, behind a picture of the Holy Trinity, is a large glass coffin,
with the Lord of Calvary inside.

It is our thesis that this compatibility in underlying cultural structure of ritual and the theme of sacrifice provided a viable psycho-social space for a dynamic interaction between the two cultures. It was, and remains, a space for indigenous Mexicans to creatively, playfully adapt and transform Spanish Catholicism into uniquely Mexican forms and, thereby, into their own, distinct Mexican identity.

Playing with Reality

For all the serious stresses Mexicans have undergone since the Conquest, and continue to undergo (see our paper: Mexico, Fractured and Fragmented), the people have a distinctively playful side in their social interactions and artistic expressions. Mexicans love to playfully tease people they feel comfortable with; they love to play with words, constantly making up new slang that defines them as an in-group and new words for their lively political discussions. Mexican political cartoons are notoriously vicious and outrageously funny. Many of the murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco have this same devastating humor.

"The Last Breakfast"
a spoof of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper"
attended by a wide range of Mexican "types"
By Eduardo del Río, aka "Rius"
Mexican cartoonist who died on Aug. 8, 2017, age 83.

El juicio final
The Final Judgment

God, the Father, is portrayed as unstable, possibly inebriated,
and losing His grip on the world,
while well-to-do bourgeoisie with halos worship Him.
To the right, outside this photo, little devils chase the poor
away from the Lord's presence.

José Clemente Orozco,
Ex.Colegio San Ildefonso

Playing with the Dark Side of Life

Mexicans even play with their nightmares. In the 1930s, the Mexico City artist Pedro Linares fell very ill. While in bed, delirious with fever, he dreamt of a strange place resembling a forest. There, he saw trees, animals, rocks, clouds that suddenly turned into various kinds of strange, unreal animals. He saw a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, like the chimeras of the ancient Greeks, and all of them were shouting one word, "Alebrijes!".

Upon recovery, Linares began recreating the creatures he saw, using cardboard and papier-mâché, calling them alebrijes. The images spread across Mexico and were adopted by other artisans—creating a folkart made out of wood in Oaxaca and pottery in Michoacán. Now, every October in Mexico City, there is a parade and month-long display of giant papier-mâché alebrijes.

Alebrije monster
at Mexico City display leading to Day of the Dead

(Maurice Sendak's Max, of Where the Wild Things Are, would feel quite at home,
as would the inhabitants of Monsters' Inc.)

Most strikingly and uniquely, Mexicans even play with death. During the Day of the Dead, November 1 and 2, playful images of death—calaveras (skulls) and Catrinas (skeletal figures dressed as elegant ladies or other characters)—are displayed in plazas and streets. They are even made out of sugar and chocolate, to be eaten as candy. Life is a Dance with Death, which she (Catrina) leads and brings to an end.

"Grand Fandango (Dance) and Revelry of the Living and the Walking Dead
in the Cemetery of Sorrow,
with Music and Drink"

By José Guadalupe Posada, (1852-1913) famed political cartoonist
and inspiration for Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco,
He created the first Catrina image, which Rivera then expanded on.

Catrina, during Day of the Dead,
Plaza of Coyoacán.

Play as the Essence of Creativity

According to the British psychoanalyst and child therapist, Donald W. Winnicott, the link between play and creativity is primal. Play is at the core of creativity, beginning with that of the child playing with his parents and extending through adult creative acts of art in all its forms, popular cultural expressions, religion and even the creation of scientific theory.
"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."              Albert Einstein
"All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree." Albert Einstein
Creative play, according to Winnicott, can only only take place when the person—child or adult—feels safe to allow their inner fantasies to be "played out" in an objective, acutal space, using real materials (including other cooperating people), but at the service of their imagination. 
"The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the mother). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play." The Location of Cultural Experience (pdf file), in Playing and Reality, (Tavistock Publications, 1971, Routledge Publications, 2005)
"It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people—the transitional space—that intimate relationships and creativity occur." Transitional Objects and Transitional Phennomena (pdf file), in Playing and Reality.
In the context of Mexicans' experience of the Conquest and subsequent authoritarian governments, Winnicott's statement about two contrasting ways of living, one of creativity (and playfulness) versus one of compliance, is especially pertinent.

"Creativity is a whole attitude towards external reality. It is the creative apperception, more than anything else, that makes the individual feel that life is worth living. Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation.

"Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and life is not worth living... Living creatively is a healthy state and compliance is a sick basis for life. Creativity and Its Origins (pdf file), in Playing and Reality

It is with this vision of creativity, with play as its source, standing over against compliance with authority, that we turn to understand what we experience in Mexican religious fiestas.

Fiesta procession in Pueblo Candelaria, Coyoacán

La Virgen de Candelaria is carried in procession.
Her approach is announced by a cohete, rocket-style firecracker (at left)
and a brass banda (musicians wearing blue shirts).
She is also accompanied by charras, cowgirls, members of a comparsa
a troupe of dancers whose purpose is to accompany such processions

We will explore each of these elements of a fiesta, and others, 
in Part II of Mexican Fiestas As Sacred Play