Mexican Traditional Popular Religious Culture

As we have been exploring Mexico City's traditional, originally indigenous pueblos (villages) and barrios (smaller neighborhoods within a pueblo), we have used their fiestas as an opportunity to visit and meet some of their people. From those wonderful excursions, and other experiences living in Mexico for the past ten years, we have also developed observations about the encompassing, underlying traditional religión popular, popular religion of the Mexican people.

Popular in Spanish has a very different connotation from its meaning in English. Popular (poh-poo-LAHR) means "of the common people". It is the adjective form of the noun el pueblo, meaning 'the people', as well as the village in which they live together. Mexico was predominantly composed of rural villages until the mid 20th century. Mexico City itself, as it grew from the original island city of Tenochtitlan to its present 573 sq.miles, incorporated many such villages that existed for centuries in the Valley of Mexico. These traditional pueblos, as well as the working-class neighborhoods created by squatters arriving from rural pueblos in the latter half of the 20th century, are called "barrios populares". (See our 'How Mexico City Grew From an Island to a Metropolis'.)

The closest English equivalent to the Spanish popular would be the word 'folk' in its anthropological and sociological sense of "people as the carriers of culture, esp. as representing the composite of social mores, customs, forms of behavior, etc., in a society," and as an adjective, "of or originating among the common people,... reflecting the traditional forms of a society." (Random House Unabridged Dictionary of American English )

So la cultura popular, la cultura del pueblo, is still very much alive in Mexico, even in Mexico City, We have written a number of posts about this popular culture that is at the core of the identity of these neighborhoods in Mexico City and of the majority of Mexicans.
 For more on Mexican, and Latino, popular (i.e. of the people) Catholicism, see the work of Latino Catholic theolgians Roberto Goizueta, "The Symbolic Realism of U.S. Latino/a Popular Catholicism" (online PDF) and Orlando Espín, "The Faith of the People: Reflections on Popular Catholicism" available on
Following are introductions and links to these posts:

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

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. Mexicans even play with their nightmares, creating alebrijes, papier-mâché, wooden or pottery monsters, and with Death, celebrating! the Day of the Dead with sugar skulls and elegantly dressed skeletons.

We understand the function of this playfulness by applying the theory of British psychoanalyst and child therapist, Donald W. Winnicott, that the link between play and creativity is primal. Play is at the core of creativity, beginning with that of the child playing with her/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. In the context of Mexicans' experience of the Conquest and subsequent authoritarian governments, Winnicott's theory of play as the primal fountain of creativity helps us to understand Mexicans' playfulness and their use of fiestas as potential spaces for the creation and maintainence of their unique identity.

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

Virtually all the elements of the Catholic fiestas celebrated in Mexican pueblos and city neighborhoods 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 two years Mexico City Ambles has been attending many of these fiestas. Based on those experiences, this post looks at each of their components and how they have been creatively adapted and transformed into expressions of traditional Mexican identity.

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.

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. The Catholic Mass, itself, is a highly structured series of ritual actions and words. But there are also ritualized civic holidays commemorating such historic events as Mexican Independence and the Mexican Revolution.

Indigenous culture was highly ritualistic and, therefore, provided a ready structure for adoption of Catholic rituals. From the indigenous side, Catholic religious rituals became a medium though which the pueblo, the people as a long-established community, could maintain and regularly reinforce their ancient communal identity.

Santos Populares, Saints of the People

More than once in our Ambles to the traditional pueblos of Mexico City, it has become clear that the primary saint venerated is not the pueblo's (now parish's) patron saint, originally assigned to it by Spanish friars in the 16th century. These other saints, we have come to realize, are a type of santo popular, saints chosen by the people. The term santo popular is often applied to non-traditional personages or legendary figures who become the object of popular worship outside the bounds of the Catholic Church, such as Santa Muerte (Saint Death) or Jesús Malverde (Jesus Bad-Green, a legendary bandit viewed as a kind of Robin Hood).

We think the term can likewise be applied to certain saints accepted within Catholic worship, but who—unlike patron saints—were not brought by priests to a community but where chosen by el pueblo, or, from their point of view, chose them, often demonstrated by some miraculous event.

Traditional Indigenous Dancers: Concheros and Danzantes Aztecas

In our early years living in Mexico City, we frequently saw "Aztec dancers" dressed with elaborate feather headdresses and loin cloths, performing with their drums and rattles and burning incense in the Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza. We assumed they were performing for the tourists. We were wrong. Our biased perspective was that of a tourist.

Over the past two years, attending many fiestas in the originally indigenous pueblos and barrios now incorporated in the City, we have frequently encountered such Aztec dancers. We have learned that, while they present themselves in several variations of attire and play a variety of musical instruments and even call themselves names other than Aztec, they share an identification with Mexicans' indigenous roots.

It became obvious that they take their dancing very seriously. It is not for entertainment. It is a very personal and communal ritual act, something that would have to be called religious and spiritual. We wanted to understand the complexity and history of what we were witnessing. So we began to explore their story. It goes back nearly five hundred years, and the beginning of the encounter of indigenous peoples and their culture with the Spanish. 

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