Cultural Anthropology: Semana Santa in Mexico

“It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”
― Clifford Geertz


The cultural peculiarities of our humanness, especially when studying religions of the world, fascinate me. Mexico has many virgins, and Dolores or Our Lady of Sorrows is particularly intriguing to me.

Although Dolores is an advocation of the Virgin Mary, she represents the sorrows of the mother of Jesus, and is usually depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart, which represent the sorrows all mothers go through when losing a child.

The altars are erected on the streets the Friday before the beginning of Holy Week. Called the Friday of Sorrows, the symbols on the altars help the faithful share her pain and grief, and remind them of the great sacrifice Mary made to become the mother of martyrs.

In Patzcuaro, Mexico, where we are enjoying refreshing highland weather for the month of April, I watched the construction of the shrines, processions, and reenactments of the crucifixion of Jesus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, yet awe for the pageantry.

From the perspective of a cultural anthropologist…as I like to call myself,  I questioned everything, as well as reflected on the religious traditions, how they originated, and their significance to their faithful followers.

Good Friday marks the beginning of the processions and reenactments. The crosses are cleaned and blessed by the priests and prepared for the mass marketing of Jesus.

The faithful vendors prepare palm fronds woven into intricate shapes of crosses and other designs to be brought by parishioners to the churches where holy water is sprinkled on them. Sometimes the parishioners burn the palm frond crosses and make small ash crosses on their foreheads…a symbol of their faith, grief, and hope.

Reenactments of the crucifixion of Jesus take place all over Mexico on Good Friday. Patzcuaro had seven reenactments for each of their main cathedrals, but we only saw three of them.

Typically the reenactments focus on Jesus’ betrayal, the judgment, the procession with the cross, lots of flogging by the Roman soldiers, and the crucifixion.

I found the reenactments to be representative of our brutal past, as well as an indication of our future. When the Roman soldiers were flogging Jesus and screaming, “Extranjero!” which means foreigner, all I could think about were the refugees today who are treated with unfounded fear by the ignorant, hateful, and bigoted people throughout the world.

How do we as human beings tolerate this? How do we fight against the close connection between fear and desire which creates the violent world in which we live? I have come to the conclusion that fear is really a lousy religion. If faith is based on fear…fear of hell…fear of those who are different from us…fear of immigrants…fear of terrorists…then I want no part of that lousy religion.

The evening of Good Friday, all the churches and cathedrals participated in the procession of the crosses. This hour-long solemn and somewhat medieval procession moved me. A sea of faces Illuminated by softly flickering candles of all sizes and shapes, highlighted their compassion and loyalty to their religion, as well as their cohesiveness and depth of spirituality which is an integral part of their traditions and customs in Mexico.

The Purépecha are the group of indigenous people who settled in Patzcuaro, Mexico in the 14th century. They were never conquered by the Aztec Empire, although there were many attempts to do so. After an epidemic of smallpox, which nearly wiped out the Purépecha in 1525, the chief decided to pledge his allegiance to the King of Spain and then the real brutality began.

In 1530, Spain sent a conquistador notoriously known for his brutality and ruthlessness towards the Native Indians. Niño de Guzmán created chaos and havoc, killed, tortured, and plundered the Purépecha people, and executed their chief.

Can you imagine how the indigenous people felt about the Roman Catholic religion after the brutal reign of Guzmán? Fortunately for them, in 1537 he was arrested for treason, abuse of power, and mistreatment of the Purépecha and sent back to Spain in shackles.
Guzmán later wrote his interpretation in a memorial of his time in what is now called Patzcuaro and justified his execution of the indigenous chief as “being necessary to bring a Christian rule of law to the area.”

Many religions, in my opinion, have destroyed the way of life and the customs of the indigenous people throughout the world. Whatever religion tries to indoctrinate the indigenous groups has a devastating impact in spiritual terms, cultural traditions, and bloodshed…all in the name of a god.

Yet, I found a diverse and unusual blending of spiritual practices in Patzcuaro. After Guzmán was shackled and kicked out of Patzcuaro, Don Vasco de Quiroga, a Catholic bishop, took it upon himself to restore order to the Michoacán area which had been ravaged by rebellions and unrest.

He employed several successful strategies like the hospital communities, where the indigenous people congregated for protection and work, He established craft communities in the area depending on the skills of the indigenous people…small villages of skilled copper workers, weavers, potters, and textile craftsmen supported and worked in the communities.

He knew the indigenous people had no understanding of the Catholic saints, and were afraid of the macabre statues of Jesus bleeding from the wounds of crucifixion. So, in his attempts to incorporate indigenous beliefs, he created large open plazas near the cathedrals where the people could congregate, cook, and enjoy their days together.

Inside the cathedrals and churches, he incorporated familiar patterns of the indigenous people. He had the arches painted to resemble stalks of wheat and straw, and brightly colored geometric shapes and swirls splashed across the walls and ceilings.

His efforts were very successful.  In fact, today, he is honored and revered as a saint who brought the indigenous people and the Spaniards together in peaceful understanding.
His light still shines brightly throughout Patzcuaro.

Mexico’s Holy Week traditions are based on Spanish ones brought over during the Conquest, with a mixture of evangelicalism and indigenous influences. That is probably why it is very difficult for me to understand some of the strange practices like the penitents who inflict real pain on themselves during the Procession of Silence held the night before Semana Santa.

During the Procession of Silence, there are groups of followers, who remind me of the KKK. They wear white, purple, or black gowns tied at the waist with a horsehair belts and hide their identity under large pointed hoods.

They walk in silence, barefoot over the rough cobblestone streets. They carry candles, and a few drummers beat a solemn drumbeat so they can march in step to the beat.

I found it spooky and mysterious. The Procession of Silence came from Seville, Spain. I assume that since the masked men form brotherhoods of penance depending on the color of their robes, they don’t want to be embarrassed by exposing their identities when they flog and whip themselves with chains. But, then again, who knows?

One thing I do know is that the customs and religious traditions are fascinating. Throughout the ages, the cultures and traditions continue to blend and are influenced by a variety of factors. No two Semana Santa celebrations and processions are the same. The faithful followers hold fast to their customs, tweaking them to meet the modern age.

For me, the oddities and  quirks in religious pageantry reveal our humanness and our need to form cohesive groups because all we really ever want in life is to belong…to be loved…and to be fulfilled.

What religious pageantry do you find fascinating? 


10 thoughts on “Cultural Anthropology: Semana Santa in Mexico

  1. I must confess Debbie, that I could rightly be called an agnostic and your phrase, “If faith is based on fear…fear of hell…fear of those who are different from us…fear of immigrants…fear of terrorists…then I want no part of that lousy religion” really resonated with me. And yet, throughout our time in Central America, I was impressed over and over again, with the devotion of so many of the people to their churches and their vision of a God who forgives, grants requests and bestows favors. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to reconcile those two views … Anita

  2. I’m in Guatemala and for my service work here I shot many photos for the 18 year old organization CEPAC , located in Santa Cruz on Good Friday.
    The lovely block long sawdust carpets with colorful ornate patterns adorned the streets after many hours as kids and adults of every age , on their knees, had worked and toiled in the heat for many hours on end.
    They worked joyfully as these amazing carpets were created only to be finally walked upon by church representatives and children carrying
    replicas of Jesus Christ on the cross, whom was also laid out in a coffin carried by men who would set the coffin down as clouds of incense filled the air and prayers were carried out by loud voices on small megaphones .
    Little girls from the village followed far behind picking up the colorful strewn, stomped on sawdust and chips, stuffing their small plastic bags…..with the leftovers…to take home…
    and the feeling of such beauty and time consuming work , so quickly spoiled , was summed up ,,, in my heart anyway ,,,
    that beauty and toil of work in our fallen world fades fast ,
    and what does it matter anyway when we have faith and trust in Jesus Christ , whom gave his life for all of our humanly sins…. and forgiveness…
    and whom suffered…..
    so we can have the all peace he offers…….
    when you believe .
    An amazing gift , and an Easter to remember .

    Thanks much for your post , loved it !!!
    Light ,

  3. “all I could think about were the refugees today who are treated with unfounded fear by the ignorant, hateful, and bigoted people throughout the world.” so very true, amiga…. so many of us can trace our own family trees and confirm that the native americans were here long before we were… yet if immigrants today should attempt that same history/pattern… oh my it would be very ugly…

    the caped figures triggered that same reaction to me when i first witnessed a similar procession in quito…

    the national museum had an exhibit last week, and hopefully it will stay up til the end of the month. it would be nice to learn more….

  4. Fought back so many childhood memories at my grandmothers home in downtown Tegucigalpa during Holy Week. Enjoyed all your postings.

I'd love to read your ideas and thoughts below....

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.