Adoring the Saints: Fiestas in Central Mexico

By Yolanda Lastra, Dina Sherzer, and Joel Sherzer. 2009. Austin: University of Texas Press. 208 pages. ISBN: 978-0-292-71980-4 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Lisa Gabbert, Utah State University

[Review length: 1567 words • Review posted on September 8, 2010]


Adoring the Saints: Fiestas in Central Mexico is a triple-authored book detailing two overlapping and complementary patron saint fiestas in the Mexican state of Guanajuato: the fiesta of Holy Burial of Cruz del Palmar, celebrated on January 1, and the fiesta of Saint Louis in San Luis de la Paz, celebrated on August 25. A main argument of the book is that the communities honor each other’s fiestas and are ritually linked.

Both the rural ejido of Cruz del Palmar and parts of the more urbanized and commercial San Luis de la Paz (i.e., the adjacent Misión district, which is the focus of the book) are heavily indigenous areas, and it is the indigenous elements of religious celebration and the ways in which these elements overlap with more official forms of Catholicism that is of primary interest to the authors. Cruz del Palmar is largely comprised of descendants of Otomi, while La Misión district of San Luis de la Paz is Chichimec. Chapter 1 describes each community in some detail and also provides a brief historical overview of each group, expanded upon in the appendices. The Otomi, who aligned themselves with the Spanish conquerors, were converted to Christianity earlier than their enemies the Chichimec, who were eventually conquered and converted by the Spanish and their Otomi allies. The date of the truce between the two groups apparently coincides with the founding date of San Luis de la Paz on August 25, 1552, and hence also with date of the celebration of the fiesta of Saint Louis. The authors explain that some individuals “view their fiestas as a contemporary manifestation of the alliance between the Otomis and the Chichimecs” (11).

Chapters 2 through 5 are largely descriptive, providing information on various components of each community’s fiesta. The chapters are structured similarly: each begins with a general description of the topic, followed by details of its manifestation in Cruz del Palmar, and then a section— usually much shorter and more general—of the same elements in San Luis de la Paz. Chapter 2, for example, “Fiesta Leaders, Officials, and Saints,” provides an overview of the cargo system and fiesta roles, such as the civic and spiritual responsibilities of the mayordomos (fiesta leaders) and cargueros (officials), a general description of saint adoration in Mexico, including the importance of ritual objects such as adorned panels and ramilletes (altarpieces), and then specifics on these topics in Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz. Chapter 3, “Vigils, Visits, and Ritual Meals,” notes that vigils are held when representatives from the communities visit each other, and describes food and drink, the making of panel or altarpieces, blessings, and altar offerings. A large portion of the chapter consists of an examination of the ballads and hymns sung during vigils. Chapter 4, “Processions, Encounters, Ceremonies, and Masses,” describes six different processions during the fiesta of Holy Burial in Cruz del Palmar, including the permission procession, the promenade of the cow, and the gathering, of the breads procession. Chapter 5, “Dances, Dance Dramas, and Entertainments,” describes the rattle dance, the dance of the French and Apaches, the “crazies,” and Aztec dancers. Chapter 6, “Toward Understanding the Patron Saint Fiesta,” does what it says: provides interpretation of the various components discussed.

It is obvious from the overviews and detail provided that the fiestas of Holy Burial and Saint Louis are rich sites of meaning-making in Guanajuato, and I think this book makes an important contribution to scholarship by insisting on examining the two fiestas as a single relational unit. Too often, ethnographers focus on single sites of performance rather than examining them as part of larger frameworks of events (for important exceptions see Magliocco 2006; Borland 2006). These are, as the authors point out several times over the course of this book, complicated sites that actively invoke other fiestas, other times, and other peoples. The ritual objects, dances, prayers, hymns and ballads, and other components reference and enact violent histories of war and conquest, Catholicism and conversion, indigeneity and European identity. The ballads and hymns alone, for example, link indigenous references of the Four Winds to the Four Gospels and invoke images of Cuauhtemoc, Malinche, Cortez, and Christ. They also include veiled critiques of the government, which is not surprising in Mexican song-making traditions (McDowell 2000).

One of the most fascinating examples to me of the complicated ways in which history and conquest were commemorated was the Dance of the Apache and French, a New World derivation of the Dance of the Spanish and Moors, in which locals dressed as “savage Apaches” and carrying a representation of the Mexican flag (but with the Virgin of Guadalupe, an indigenous symbol, rather than the nationalist eagle) fight others dressed as Frenchmen. In Cruz del Palmar, the Apaches die, their stomachs are opened, and their entrails are eaten by figures dressed as Monkeys. In San Luis de la Cruz, the Apaches live. The authors interpret this dance as a somewhat peculiar celebration of religion and faith. People here are very Catholic; Columbus is viewed as a benefactor and a bringer of Christianity (119), yet participants also are essentially celebrating the conquest and conversion of their ancestors. The authors write, “This dance drama…contains many uncanny, strange elements, including the fact that it is a celebration on the part of representatives of Mexico profundo of the defeat and conversion of their own ancestors, in a playful and mocking way” (127). At the same time, the authors also interpret the dance as saying, “the Indians survived, despite everything.” When the authors asked an official in Cruz del Palmar why the Indians die in the dance, the answer was, “yes they die, but we are here” (121), which they interpret as meaning “we (are) Indians (and) are still here.” To me the meaning of this quote was less clear, but it represents the delicious ambiguity and complexity not only of this particular dance, but of the entire complex of celebration, which, given the violent history upon which it is founded, is perhaps too frequently interpreted as based on consensus, communality, and sharing: “the festival is a time for hospitality, generosity, and abundance during which people are united or reunited” (118).

Given this complexity, I did find myself occasionally wanting both more detail and more interpretation. I think this is partly a problem of structure: interpretation was left to the final chapter, rather than being embedded throughout the text. The authors also would bring up an interesting element—the Four Winds Ceremony, for example—yet a description occasionally was not found until much later in the book. And sometimes there just wasn’t enough information: who, for example, is the Saint of Holy Burial? The reader is told that he is a manifestation of Christ entombed and associated with Good Friday (30), but what this means in terms of Catholicism, or how Holy Burial came to be the patron saint of Cruz del Palmar, or what he means to practitioners, or how he is used in their faith is never really addressed. And why do people in San Luis care about Holy Burial? Other aspects of the fiestas also sometimes are given short shrift (although admittedly it is very difficult to cover all aspects of festival!): giant puppets are mentioned but not described; the children’s rattle dance mentioned frequently, is really only discussed in a brief paragraph; the Aztec dance is not covered much; etc. I also was somewhat uncomfortable with the generalized nature of the descriptions. The reader usually is not given the names of any of the participants, and although the authors obviously draw from field recordings of oral texts and musical performances, there does not seem to be much interview material used except very sporadically. Texts of ritual speeches are described, for example, as given by “a ritual specialist” with little additional information or comment. I also would have liked more discussion of the collaborative nature of the research and writing, as well as a discussion of issues of transcription and translation.

I did, however, enjoy the book overall and think it makes several important contributions. First, it illustrates the importance of looking at performance events in relation to other performance events. Second, it illustrates—even if it does not fully describe and interpret—how celebrations such as saints fiestas can be complicated and important ways of re-membering violent histories of conquest and domination by those who frequently are perceived by scholars to lack voice. The authors also point out the importance of not simply reading these performances as straightforward resistance or as pure accommodation (Gilman 2004). Third, there are a number of texts provided in the book and in the appendices, including ballads, hymns, and ritual speeches, as well as lovely photographs scattered throughout, and these will be useful material to others looking to do comparative work. I recommend the book for people interested in folk Catholicism, saints festivals, and Indo-Hispanic celebration.

WORKS CITED

Borland, Katherine. 2006. Unmasking Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Nicaraguan Festival. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Gilman, Lisa. 2004. “The Traditionalization of Women’s Dancing, Hegemony, and Politics in Malawi.” Journal of Folklore Research 41 (1): 33–60.

McDowell, John H. 2000. Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Magliocco, Sabina. 2006. The Two Madonnas: The Politics of Festival in a Sardinian Community. 2d ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.