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

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