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.

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