Pagan Catholicism in Modern Mexico, understanding the syncretism behind Dia de la Santa Cruz

February 23, 2017

          The ceremonial rites of contemporary Catholic Mexico continue to be rooted in ancient Mesoamerican agricultural cycles. The blending of Spanish and Mesoamerican cultural inheritances produced a complex religious syncretism. In light of several ancient Mesoamerican practices that survived despite violent conquest, it's important to establish that the indigenous communities of Mexico were not passive receptors of a cultural reformation imposed from above, but rather exercised a creative capacity for reorganizing their entire metaphysics. In the midst of a complex intertwining of religions and cultures, indigenous communities adopted different strategies in light of ecclesiastical impositions. This process of ideological shift was fundamental for the cohesion of ethnic groups. The fertile religious syncretism that flourished beginning in the XVI century remodelled the intimate expression of Prehispanic cult to earth, agriculture and natural manifestations, particularly those related to crop cycles and seasonality. The unbreakable bond between people and their geography shaped the “existential mode of the native communities.” The purpose of this research paper is to present an  overview of the essential contemporary agricultural rites marking ancient celestial passages and seasonal cycles syncretized with and embedded within  Catholic feasts, symbolism, and practices.  

      Indigenous popular religiosity today manifests itself as an intimate infusion between agricultural practices echoing Mesoamerican tradition incorporated with Catholic fiestas. During the XV and XVI centuries, the Mexicas achieved a synthesis of cultural elements that derived from the ancient Mesoamerican traditions with an infusion of Mexica-warrior state ideologies. The common Nahua people centered their agricultural festivities towards fertility cults, particularity towards deities associated with rain and maize. This contrasted with the noble warrior sacrificial feasts charged with political and military power of the state cults that took practice at urban centers, most predominantly at the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan. The ritual multiplicity found in the center - periphery dynamics of the Mexica state developed a fruitful ceremonial landscape where the cult of water, maize and earth expressed elements that were fundamental to  Mesoamerican cosmovision. These ritual cycles elapsed throughout the year as they corresponded to the celestial shifts, climatic seasons and natural systems. 

       Mesoamerican agricultural rituals and cosmological constructs were  one of the most elaborate expressions of society. This was evident particularly since the Classic Period (200 - 1000 CE) when powerful cultural centers in the Central Mexico region, such as the Teotihuacan state (100 BCE - 600 CE) and later the Mexica state (1328 - 1521 CE), founded their civilizations on the shoulders of the peasants farmers who understood the needs of prosperous agricultural systems. This agricultural religiosity became the framework for an elaborate 365-day calendrical cycle divided into  18 months, each with 20 days, plus an additional 5 days at the end of the year. During  each of these 18 months several minor feasts led to the major celebration mirroring geological and astronomical manifestations. In this manner, a complex weaving of rituals extended throughout the year. 

           To understand the religious and cultural syncretism practiced today by Nahua peoples in modern Mexico, it's important to overview the fragmentation produced by the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish caste system dismembered native social structures. As the elite indigenous class was absorbed, rural cults went into transformation. Mexica nobles of Tenochtitlan were indoctrinated into European lifeways as occurred  in the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco where Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun developed the Florentine Codex in partnership with males of Nahua descendants. The appropriation of Mexica elite resulted in a disjointed ideological system. The official religion of the Mexica State was replaced by the Catholic Church, and to both a local and regional extent, the cult of saints replace ancient deities within the public sphere. As institutionalized Catholicism made its way first amongst the cities, agricultural ritualism fled to the rural sectors as rural Nahuas strived to preserve their traditional practices. Without the presence of sacerdotal authority, these rites survived within the margins of the ceremonial landscape. These agricultural rites became some of the few channels of ethnic identity and expression as pueblos transformed into centers of resistance towards the colonial regime. Within this refuge, indigenous peoples were able to  maintain a collective religious, economic, and legal identity. In response, the Catholic Church sought to restructure the already existing confraternities and mayordomias (stewardships or brotherhoods) with the intent of “consolidating a cooperative organization among the indigenous communities.” Felix Baez-Jorge describes this conversion process as follows:

 

...decapitada la inteligencia mesoamericana [prehispánica], desmanteladas las manifestaciones canónicas de las religiones autóctonas por el aparato represivo eclesiástico-militar de la Corona Espa;ola, los cultos populares emergieron como alternativa a la catequesis o como mediadores simbólicos que, en algunos casos, terminaron sintetizando con las deidades católicas

... decapitated the [prehispanic] Mesoamerican intelligence, the repressive ecclesiastical-military of the Spanish Crown dismantled the autochthonous canonical religions. Popular cults emerged as an alternative to the catechesis from where Catholic deities became synthesized as symbolic mediators

 

         The Colonial period gave place to a symbolic reinterpretation and birth to new popular traditions where ancient Mesoamerican elements become integrated and articulated into the imposed religion.  In this context,  “saints funnelled the autochthonous sacred entities venerated by indigenous peoples and became the protagonists of the syncretic process of life in Colonial Mexico”.  This produced an extensive repertoire of ritual imagery where local ancestral deities were associated selectively with Catholic saints. Contemporary anthropologist Johanna Broda has analyzed agricultural rites within different indigenous communities from the regions of Central Mexico, Guerrero and Veracruz.   Her research is oriented towards reconstructing a corpus of common denominators amongst the different regions and communities in order to understand the internal essence of contemporary agricultural ritual through the study of calendrical feast dates. She argues that Mesoamerican agricultural cults, despite revolving around patronal fiestas customarily celebrated within the churches of the pueblos, reach their apogee whenever “rituals are taken to the landscape to become intimately vinculated with the phenomenons of nature.” Although there are several minor rites, major agricultural feasts are marked by seasonal transitions and adapted into the liturgical calendar.

       February 2nd gives way to the beginning of the agricultural cycle and it is celebrated as Dia de la Candelaria. May 3rd, or Dia de la Santa Cruz announces the coming of rain and planting  time. The harvest season and ripe corn is marked on August 15th by the Assumption of the Virgin, and finally, the consummation of the agricultural cycle is commemorated by celebrating ancestral lineage on Dia de los Muertos on November 2nd.  

          La Candelaria is a feast dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria who, according to a legend recorded by Alonso de Espinosa in 1594,  appeared in Tenerife, Canary Islands, in the southwest of Spain at the beginning of the XV century. Celebrations most commonly take place on February 2nd, which, following Old Testament law, marks the official presentation of Jesus to the Temple of Jerusalem when the Virgin Mary has been cleansed and no traces of blood are left from the delivery 40 days after Christ’s birth.  

       February 2nd in the Gregorian calendar corresponds to the first day of the first month in the Aztec Calendar, Atl caualo, thus the celebration of the Virgin of Candelaria and baby Jesus initiate the agricultural cycle. The ancient Mexica would have originally celebrated a feast in honor of the Tlaloc gods, Chalchiuhtlicue and some even say “in honor of the great priest or god of the winds Quetzalcoatl” to plead for rain. During the first quarter of the Mexica year, agricultural rituals were centered on the sacrifice of children, particularly at the crest of Mount Tlaloc and in the remolino de la laguna (lagoon “swirl”) at Pantitlan, east in the outskirts of Mexico City, once the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan. Children represented tlatoques, that is to say Tlaloc’s servants, thus they believed that by sacrificing children they would call upon magical forces to make rain descend from the skies in order to once again initiate the cycle of corn: their most humble nurturer. In the Codex Mendoza, child sacrifices are illustrated as having occurred as the months progressed while the quantity and the age range of children increased: “some in each month… so that until the rains came in abundance, in all the feasts they slew children.”   In Mesoamerican cosmovision, maize’s agricultural cycle parallels the human life cycle and are both intimately interrelated.

             In rural sectors today, indigenous farmers bring their corn seeds to church to receive blessing for the upcoming planting season. In urbanized centers,like Xochimilco in Mexico City, baby Jesus becomes venerated as el Niñoapa, and is symbolically intertwined within agricultural meaning. Xochimilco in one of the few places today within Mexico City where the ancient lake of Texcoco continues to be visible and in use. The floating gardens, chinampas, once engineered by the ancient Mexica are now inhabited by residents that gather on February 2nd to honor el Niñoapa with color, music, dance, costumes and delicacies.  

 

 

         The Niñoapa is one of the first images of baby Jesus Christ crafted in Mexico. It is said to have been made in the Franciscan Convent of San Bernardino de Siena of Xochimilco by an indigenous artisan in 1575 and now receives annual restoration services by the Anthropology and History National Institue of Mexico City. Its name, Niñoapa, is an intermingling  of Spanish and Nahuatl meaning “niño del lugar” or “child of the place” and it's considered “one of the oldest Catholic images of America.” In contrast to other representations of baby Jesus whose permanent home is the church, the Niñoapa travels from family to family every year. After 440 years of practicing the tradition, February 2nd becomes that yearly date where the Niñoapa, with a great feast, changes hosting family also known as Los  Posaderos.

         On the morning of Dia de La Candelaria, faithful believers fill the streets with a vivid procession of color, chants, fireworks and the traditional chinelos dance towards the San Bernardino Church of Xochimilco to attend mass as a gesture of gratitude. Chinelo dancers are most popular in the Mexican states of Morelos, the State of Mexico and Mexico City - particularly in the boroughs of Milpa Alta and Xochimilco. The tradition began as a mockery of European carnival mannerisms, fine clothing, beards and fair skin. The Chinelos, dressed in rectangular-multicolored velvet robes, wear iconological paper-mache masks crowned by an adorned conical headdress topped by feathers. The word ‘chinelos’ derives from the Nahuatl word “zineloquie” meaning ‘disguised’.  At the end of mass, the Niñopa is delivered to his new Posadero and is then accompanied by the same procession, to be taken to his new home where la fiesta begins. Traditional food, like tamales, carnitas, barbecue tacos, are served with atole beverages or popular soft drinks - particularly Coca-Cola. To host the Niñopa is thought of as a great honor, and it is expected that the Posaderos welcome visitors who wish to demonstrate their devotion into their home throughout the year.

             Día de la Candelaria, in many ways, manifests the beginning of the agricultural calendar and liturgical calendar. As the year progresses Semana Santa or Easter has a  strong presence in the Christian belief system and continued to produce a complex syncretism and agricultural symbolism. Despite the flexibility on celebratory dates, the Santo Entierro or Holy Burial is linked with the act of planting, particularly of maize, as in the ancient world maize was considered the sacred substance from which the body was made. As the body of Christ is buried in the fertile ground, maize seeds are planted for their coming  ‘resurrection’. However, it is not until May the 3rd, or Day of the Holy Cross, that pleading for rain takes precedence.

           La Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), is a principal fiesta among the indigenous groups of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras (despite the date being officially removed from the liturgical calendar in 1960 by Pope John XXIII).  The date, although with variations from region to region, recognizes the transition between dry season (marked by the sun’s passing through the zenith) to rainy season - thus planting time. The Mexica celebrated Huey Tozoztli (or Great Vigil) during the fourth veintena, a feast which today corresponds to May 3rd and La Santa Cruz. Both of these feasts rotate around the sun’s passing through the zenith. For the Mexica, celebration began when priests from each temple spread throughout the city in ritual processions. Before returning to the Temple of Cinteopan with the day’s offerings, the priests departed to the milpa fields to get ocholli (green maize stalk), also known as cintil or cinteotl, that is to say “maize god” (Centeotl embodied the male aspects of maize in contrast to Chicomecoatl who represented the female features). The green stalk would be brought back to be decorated with flowers to represent containers of the divine essence in reference to the dynamic co-essence of the gods and their ability to animate objects. This feast was centered in celebrating the blessing of maize awaiting its sowing.

        Scholar Johanna Broda has focused her research on understanding the elaborate rites for this particular date in the contemporary Nahua regions of the Alto Balsas and La Montaña de Guerrero.  Located central north in the Guerrero state, Nahua pueblos in the Alto Balsas region include Ameyaltepec, San Juan Tetelcingo and San Agustin Oapan.  These communities  adjoin with Nahuas from the central region of the state located in the sanctuary of Oztotempan and Citlala in La Montaña de Guerrero. In these sites, the celebration of La Santa Cruz is elaborate and varies region to region, however, essential features remain similar. 

             Although the day of La Santa Cruz forms part of the Catholic belief system, it is not celebrated within the canon of liturgical practice. The principal rituals are performed outside the church in the tallest hills of the region, bodies of water, and other sacred places in the surrounding landscape. In actuality, the Nahuatl name for this feast is yalo tepetl or “ida al cerro” (way to the hill) which implies a “symbolistic association between the hills, rain and maize.” According to ancient Nahua cosmovision, maize (the sacred substance of the universe) originated from the interiors of hills and mountains, a concept that continues to be interpreted today during the day of the Holy Cross. Arturo Gomez Martinez, subdirector of Ethnography at the Museum of Anthropology stated “maize has been and continues to be a sacred entity embodying the importance of transformation and processes of metamorphosis. As a primordial vegetable, maize has interacted with humans as a plant, person and deity.” Maize became the gravitational pull for agricultural festivities usually organized by the traditional local authorities rather than by Catholic priests. 

            At Ameyaltepec in the Alto Balsas, - a community studied by Catherine Good  - the people ascend on May 1st to San Juan hill on the late afternoon to spend the night. On site, there is a rustic altar made out of stones with four erected crosses adorned with ribbons, streams of flowers (cempoalxochitl and cacaloxochitl) and arches made from branches. Traditional indigenous food offerings, including green mole with squash seeds and chicken or turkey, baskets with maize grain, tamales, tortillas, bread, watermelon, salt, chocolate, and water are placed on the stone altar along with copal incense, candles and fireworks. A group of maidens, called shepherdesses, sing all night accompanied by the reciter, and at dusk, people eat the delicacies that were originally placed as offerings. This constitutes a ceremonial interchange where once again, large amounts of copal incense is lit before people begin to return to their town of Ameyaltepec. 

        Other minor ceremonies occur once at Ameyaltepec where multiple smaller crosses and altars upholster the streets, wells and plazas. Each of these cross-altars are placed by independent families and are decorated with tlaquentis (“clothing, dress”), or handmade satin laces. Each of these smaller altars, like the one made at the hill of San Juan, are venerated with food offerings principally with baskets full with maize grains in hopes of receiving blessing for the upcoming planting season. Whenever ceremonies concluded at Ameyaltepec on May 2nd, the people from the neighboring pueblo of San Juan Tetelcingo ascend to the same hill. For the people of Ameyaltepec the hill is known as San Juan, but the residents of San Juan Tetelcingo call it Cacalotepetl (hill of  the crow). In contrast to the Ameyaltepecans, when the people from Tetelcingo descend from the hill, they lower their two crosses and carry them with them. These two crosses will remain in the interior of the church until la Misa de Rogacion (Pleading Mass) which takes place in late May on the day of Christ’s Ascension. It is then that the two crosses “listen to mass and eat along with the other 27 crosses of the pueblo that are gathered together inside the church.” Afterwards, the crosses are returned to their original site in the planting fields and surrounding hills. 

         According to the writings of Johanna Broda, the people of Tetelcingo are said to “have memory” (quimaztica) of what resides in the inside of hills. It is from the interior of hills that spring water flows, wind deities (yeyecame) of various colors reside and maize originates. It is believed that at the hill’s summit (pane tepetl), the rain clouds from where serpents come are formed. Thus, rain deities are ultimately vinculated with mountain archetypes to whom the wooden crosses are dedicated. . The altars are dedicated to the deceased who have now become protectors as they travel through the axis mundi that mountains possess. The pilgrimage to the mountain and the prayers offered at the hilltop are to summon rain, fertility and the deceased. According to indigenous cosmovision, the dead or ancestral lineage is  connected with the proper fulfillment of the agricultural cycle. 

            In the same region of the Alto Balsas, San Agustin Oapan was a Mexica tributary head during ancient times and an important town during the Spanish Colonial period, where the royal road to  Acapulco crossed the Balsas River. The pleading of rain in this town is carried out on May 2nd on the highest hill of their region, Mishuehue. Unlike in Ameyaltepec or Tetelcingo, in Oapan it is a selected number of people who ascend to Mishuehue during sun rise. It's important to note that during this time of the year in this region the vegetation is dry, the heat is intense and it's known for being one of Mexico’s hottests territories.  At Mishuehue’s summit, there is a rudimentary stone altar with two blue, wooden crosses erected. The selected people who participate in the peregrination to the mountain bring with them traditional foods, candles, copal incense and fireworks.  Baskets with the grain for the imminent planting  cycle is brought to get blessed through prayer. Like the Ameyaltepecans, the people from Oapan stay overnight chanting, feasting and drinking mezcal, an alcoholic beverage native of Mexico made from the agave plant. Over the span of night the fireworks becomes a thunderous roar that multiplies in echos from the all the surrounding mountains occupied by the indigenous people in honor to the celestial powers of above. The following day, the people descend the mountain and leave behind the casseroles filled with green mole with turkey for the zopilotes or vultures to devour. 

            Mishuehue is an ancient place that is bound to the cult to air (yeyecame) and wind (ehecatl). The Mesoamerican deity of wind, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl swept the skies to prepare them for the coming of the rain deity, Tlaloc. Within this region in Guerrero state, the ancient Mexica believe that the zopilotes (vultures) are powerful birds associated with wind manifestations capable of calling on the forces of rain. Towards the central region of Guerrero, La Gran Montana (Great Mountain) is the paramount site for the adoration of water, rain and fertility. The sanctuary of Oztotempan is the center for agricultural peregrination within the greater Nahua community of Guerrero. In cosmological terms Oztotempan represents entry to the paradise of the rain deity, Tlaloc, anciently known as Tlalocan. The sacred site can only be accessed through a cave (oztotl), the ancient house of the winds where “the master of winds resides.”  

                At Oztotempan, pilgrims arrive on horse, mule or by foot from over 30 different Nahua communities of Guerrero.  There, they congregate in honor of La Santa Cruz to organize a complex ceremonial organization involving participants of the entire region. The “Stewardship of the Cross” has been tasked with preparing the altar and offerings to host thousands of incoming pilgrims. The principal ceremonies are headed by the members of the nearby pueblo of Atliaca who perform an elaborate ‘dance of the devil’ where males masked in costume are topped with flower sombreros (hats) and lash their whips. Ritual in Oztotempan begins in April 25 marked by the Feast of San Marcos and increasingly intensifies until the impending sacred feast of La Santa Cruz arrives. It is then that the surrounding towns carry with them the cross of their community and bring it to the cave of Oztotempan where up to 80 crosses reside for the length of the festivities, while over 10 others are planted on the edge of the immense water well for  which Oztotempan is notorious. The pilgrims then extend their food offerings, candles, and copal incense,  and maize seeds are laid at the base of the crosses. At dusk, after a full night of celebration, the crosses face the rising sun as the participants throw the remaining food offerings down the immense water well along with multitude of prayers.  In this reverent act, a chanter, pleading for rain and abundant harvest, sings in honor of the winds, the Cross, Saint Marcos, Saint Isidore the Laborer, and Saint Francis.  

           The feast of la Santa Cruz is present among other indigenous peoples outside the Nahua populations of Guerrero. Towards the Central Altiplano of Mexico, in the Valley of Ixtlahuaca, another ceremonial center, the Hill of Santa Cruz Tepexpan, is visited by pilgrims from the Mazahua and Otomi indigenous groups of the Estado de Mexico. This site is visited on May 3rd (Day of the Holy Cross) to initiate the rain season of the agricultural cycle and October 15th (Day of Saint Theresa) to commemorate the end of the harvest period. For the community of Oxtotilpan of the Matlatzinca region, located north of Mexico City, ritual regarding the pleading of rain and the initiation of plantation season is performed on May 15th in honor of Saint Isidore the Laborer. In San Juan Coatetelco in Morelos state, planting season does not start until June 24 in correspondence to Day of Saint John. 

        Despite the slight date variations, the essential agricultural rites, seasonal change and celestial passages are in alignment with Catholic fiestas. Its essential to recognize that the agricultural celebrations mentioned have been interpreted in public spaces, sustained by communal-oriented efforts led by the chanter and ritualist specialists. In regards to the petition of rain, Johanna Broda points out the symbolic ritual role of children particularly because it correlates to  the  ancient  Mexica practice celebrated in the sixth month, Etzalcualiztli where children represented tlatoques, that is to say Tlaloc’s servants. For the Mexica, the so-called Day of the Holy Cross would have been commemorated by preparing etzalli - corn dough bolitos guisados (stewed buns) with beans, along with green husks, jilotes (corn hair) and corn grain to denote abundance and to  honor Tlaloc and Chalchiuhticue. These offerings would have been made to serve as a supernatural analogy for the aspiration for the culmination of rain and the already young, growing cobs. Other elements Broda states  are  of interest are the cosmological significance of vultures and crows as “atmospheric elements that can call on rain and are interrelated with the winds (yeyecame), Oztotempan, and the great water well that symbolizes the entry to Tlaloc’s paradise.”  

       Of a higher syncretic interest, the profusion of crosses indicates the beginning of a historical phenomenon concerning the reinterpretation of symbolic meanings. Apart from theology and liturgical teachings, this syncretism embraces a complex symbolism invested in rites and beliefs of contemporary indigenous peoples. While the cross can potentially invoke concepts of Christ as holy father and the Virgin Mary as holy mother, in the cultural syncretism of Mexico these get essentially translated and transformed.  Devotion to “our father,” or Tonatzin in Nahuatl, and “our mother,” Tonantzin, is linked to the adoration of earth as mother and the ancient Mesoamerican known as Tonacatecuhtli, “the tree of substance” who is traditionally related to a cross-like tree symbol representing axis mundi.   Tonacatecuhtli is perceived as a male  - and sometimes as female too - deity invested with Mesoamerican  conceptions of land, fertility and creation. As Leon Portilla recounts “for the Nahua thought, [...] the intervention of the supreme dual principle, a masculine face is always needed to act, but a feminine one to conceive.” Altepemeh (watery mountains or sustenance mountains), is a cosmological concept that intertwines the essence of both maize and water deities. Mountains, thus, were fundamental sources of tonacayotl (our sustenance) as they could both store the grains of maize and hold bodies of water. At the same time, totatatzitzihuan (our revered fathers), was an ancient term used to refer ancestors who ‘live’ at the summit of hills and mountains. However, today it is used in reference to saints. The cross is essentially connected with the physical aspects of the landscape, including milpas and hills where deities of air (yeyecame), and ancestral lineage reside. Painted in blue or green, colors vinculated with water, the crosses are believed to have the supernatural force of attracting rain and protecting crops. 

           Sowing season is followed by proper maintenance of crops and the eventual ripening of them. During the month of August (Ochpanztli, the eleventh month in the Mexica calendar), the milpa comes to a mature stage and it is necessary to guarantee the successful development of this process. In this phase of the agricultural cycle, Dia de San Salvador (August 6th) and the Ascension of the Virgin (August 15th) have acquired substantial importance. Aside from its inherent significance in  liturgic practice, in Mexico it acquired new flavours. In  Nahua communities of the Guerrero region mentioned above, the date is honored by once again by ascending the mountain to request a good harvest. For this particular feast, churches are adorned with green corn stalks and women participate in a dance in which they carry ripened corn as an emblem of ritual fertility. 

          The inclusion of women in agricultural rituals echos ancient  Mexica fertility practices. Male-female tensions and antagonism played important roles in these seasonal agricultural sacrifices. For all the seasonal markers and agricultural feasts that have been discussed so far, the Mexica would have traditionally sacrificed female teotl ixiptlas (“god form”) adorned with cosmic symbols “all in red - completely red on her arms, her legs, her face” to become the living image of Chicomecoatl (seven serpent), the heart of corn. Under the spell of ritual, the young woman became young corn possessed with the sacred power of plant regeneration. At the height of this magical renewal of being, the young female ixiptla, the female receptacle of the heart of maize, was sacrificed and her skin flayed and later worn by a male priest whose ritual identity was then transformed into the corn goddess.

            The coming of harvest season in today’s ceremonial landscape is identified with the xilocruz, “cross of jilote” (jilote meaning corn hair)  as it is celebrated on September 14th or Dia de la Exaltación de la Cruz (Exaltation of the Holy Cross). This date belongs to the Catholic commemoration of the Holy Cross and in Spain is particularly invested with the events of the Spanish Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. In Mexico, it came to be understood as a conclusive stage of maize’s agricultural cycle. The feast calls upon the indigenous peoples of Guerrero to ascent the mountain for a third time. It is during the month of September that fiestas gravitate towards the successful completion of the rainy season and crop sowing, growth and harvest cycles. The culmination of agricultural festivities, rituals and prayers resolve in a final episode dedicated to the deceased and ancestors. 

          Widely known as the Dia de los Muertos, November 1st and 2nd are the epitome of modern syncretism among the crossfire of cultural heritage and collision. Day of the Dead is vastly celebrated throughout all regions of Mexico as it integrates features from All Saint’s Day of European descendance. Mexicas, on the other hand, held a festival celebrating the death of their ancestors by honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld, or Lady of the Dead.  Precessions of cempazúchitl (flower of the dead), unique for blooming in early dry season (October and November), along with copal incense and personal offerings were brought to the goddess's sanctuary . The time was designated to the harvest of crops, principally of maize, and it would have found its ritualistic expression through the people’s adoration to hills and mountains as they were seen as the keepers of water, storers of the great cosmological granary and points for axis mundi where the living could conjure with the dead.  This was ritualistically performed in commemoration of  the dead as landscape itself dried out, died and  - metaphorically - descended into the Mictlan, the place of the dead. 

            All Saints Day became the Catholic vessel for the Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl.  In contrast to indigenous practices, where the pivot was to celebrate the true coming of eternal life by passing to a new existential plane called death, All Saints Day commemorated the martyrdom of saints. Today in the Central Altiplano region, especially in Mexico City, La Santa Muerte, or Death Saint, - perhaps mirroring the importance of  death devotion in  Mexica worldview - is a profoundly venerated in this time of year.  The concentration of ‘death’ and the ‘death spirit’ is an intercultural belief associated with the change of light in response to the movement of the sun. The passing of the Autumn Equinox (September 22nd), the time at which the sun crosses the celestial equator, results in significant light decline, thus causing the death of organic matter, like crops. The shifting of the sun and its effect on earthly subjects, directly shaped and molded Mexica  cosmovision  and grounded societies in contextual unities. Rendered by time and space, the indigenous societies of Mexico were capable of developing a complex system of symbols to consolidate the meaning of their existence. Ritualistic expressions in Mesoamerica found their own cultural configurations through an interpretation and eventual reinterpretation of time and space.   

        The ceremonial rites of contemporary Catholic Mexico continue to be rooted in Mesoamerican agricultural cycles. In the XVI century, the Spanish introduced Catholicism in which cults of saints were emphasized by elaborate public feasts like processions, ritual dramas and dance forms. Both Spanish and Mesoamerican cultural inheritance produced a complex religious syncretism which developed various processes of acculturation in different regions. Several Mesoamerican practices survived despite violent Conquest, and it's important to establish that indigenous communities of Mexico are not passive receptors of a cultural reformation imposed from above, but rather exercised creative capacity  for reorganizing their entire metaphysics. Despite the forced acculturation, Mexican indigenous pueblos maintained a strong native identity. 

        Indigenous popular religiosity today manifests itself as an intimate fusion of agricultural practices rooted in Mesoamerican  tradition and Catholic belief. Symbolic reinterpretation and the configuration of new popular traditions preserved ancient elements that were articulated with the new religion imposed by the Spaniards. Agricultural rituality in ancient Mesoamerica was the framework for elaborate calendrical systems of the most complex expressions of society, government, and cosmological constructs. The feast of the Holy Cross is the living custom  of Prehispanic and Hispanic convergence. Dia de la Santa Cruz or yalo tepetl (way to the hill) begins on April 25th celebrating San Marcos and endures  up to May 2nd in dedication to the Holy Cross (significantly, it does not take place during May 3rd, the actual date recognized by the Church).  In correspondence to celestial movements and seasonal change, the cult of water, maize and earth represent the practical knowledge behind the sacred forces of ritual activity. Contemporary Nahuas, for all the fragmentations caused by Catholic intervention during the Spanish Conquest, adapted a synthesis of ritual multiplicity, allowing them to exercise an existential mode in correspondence to their geographical conditions. The ceremonial landscape remained as an organic system embedded in the liturgic belief as a channel preserving a collective religious and ethnic identity. 

 

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