“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.
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.
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.
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?