Tag Archives: syncretism

Mascaras Mexicanas: Mexican Masks — Dances, Dieties, Identity

A new temporary special exhibition at the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) on the Zocalo in Mexico City features hundreds of hand-made masks from towns and villages throughout Mexico.

This is the same building that houses Diego Rivera murals, so if you go there soon, don’t miss this. Enter on side street through security, go to second floor.

 

I returned on my last day in the Federal District and spent about an hour-and-a-half learning more about Mexican art and culture. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In ancient civilizations one of the main functions of ritual masks was to represent gods to worship them in religious celebrations. This was designed to support natural and social equilibrium.

 

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, masks served as elements of transformation that allowed rulers and priests to assume the identity of their gods during ritual ceremonies.  This helped bridge communication between the spiritual and natural world.

 The gold mask, above right, was found in a Monte Alban, Oaxaca tomb.

Sculptures, reliefs, murals and figurines from throughout Mesoamerica show ancient members of the elite personifying deities with the masks and attire that empowered them.

If you come with us on Looking for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Art History Study Tour in February or March, you can drop in to see this show.

According to the exhibition curators, since the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, the invaders prevented pre-Hispanic civilizations from freely practicing their religious customs. The conquistadores imposed their will by force. The Catholic religious friars sought to supplant native ancestral traditions by incorporating Christian ideas into native rituals.

 

Despite these efforts, pre-Hispanic symbols survived and indigenous people continue to observe their ancient religion under the veil of Catholicism.  New masks arose from this cultural mixing (mestizaje) with an original combination of symbols that continue to the present in many regions throughout Mexico.

 

This provides continuity for ceremonial and celebratory traditions.  Many communities throughout Mexico, such as Teotitlan del Valle, where I live, practice rites and dances like Dance of the Feather (Danza de la Pluma) from viceregal times in which costumes and masks play a central role in the celebrations.

        La Malinche mask, left, called Maringuilla bonita, is from the Purepecha Danza de los Viejitos, Michoacan. Here she appears as a sweet, modest young woman.  To the right is Moor Mask from the Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, with eyelashes and red cheeks depicting cultural exoticism.

 

The masks are handmade from gold, precious stones such as jade, turquoise, malachite and coral, wood, paper, straw, textiles and other materials. All the indigenous people of Mexico, including Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Purepechas and others used them.

 

Sacred dances in pre-Hispanic Mexico were ceremonies of invocation that found resonance in Catholicism as indigenous people were folded into the Spanish concept of small towns or barrios under the sponsorship of patron saints.

  Right, Huichol mask from the Sierra Madre of Jalisco. The Huichol people do intricate beadwork.

Indigenous people adopted and venerated these saint along with their own ancestors and pre-Hispanic deities. Friars promoted village feast days during the liturgical calendar and introduced morality plays. These were dramas based on sacred history and events that focused on the struggle between good and evil.

 

Often featured in these dances are masks representing Judas, Jews, Moors and the devil. The purpose of this was to instill fear and respect in the local population along with the message that they were defeated and obliged to strictly obey the new religion. I have no personal evidence today of any anti-Semitism in Mexico, that continues to welcome dissidents and disenfranchised.

 MuralsSEP+Best81-7

We see in the Hall of Festivals at the Secretary of Public Education Building in Mexico City, many of these celebrations painted by Diego Rivera in his murals. Masks in this exhibit depict the Deer Dance from Sinaloa, also featured by Rivera.

  La mascara posee un extraño poder de sugestiøn sobre la imaginaciøn … es la sintesis, la               esencia de la deidad, del demonio, muerto o héroe qu se trata de representar.                           — Miguel Covarrubias

           The mask has a strange power of suggestion on the imagination … it is the                                    synthesis, and represents the essence of deity, demon, death or hero.                                           — Miguel Covarrubias

The exhibition takes a step beyond the traditional to include the work of Mexican contemporary artists who work in various media. This painting (below) by Frida Kahlo, My Nanny and Me, is on loan for this exhibition from its home at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

Evoking Frida Kahlo: Making Altars and Shrines Art Workshop

The painting is part of this exhibition because of the masked wet-nurse representing indigenous culture that provides sustenance.

 

Also included are the work of artists Francisco Toledo (paper mask) and Germån Cueto (wood mask), and painters and printmakers whose names I didn’t record (sorry).

   

Today, we often hide behind the mask we present to the world as a way of self-protection, self-preservation. In the days before the popularity of mask-wearing for Halloween, the mask was a symbol for deception, hypocrisy, and lies.

Instead, we can hide behind a straight face, make-up, choice of clothing to present who we are — to project “our face” outward. It is interesting to think that an exhibition of this type can cause each of us to ask the question, Who am I?How do I present myself and how am I “seen” in the world?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Guiding the Disfuntos Home

The bells in the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca church tower start ringing on November 1 at 3:00 p.m. and continue all night and into the next day, November 2, giving the disfuntos (the visiting souls) the sound to follow home.

JoseChavez Altar1

They follow the trail of scent, sight and sound: marigold flowers, copal incense, simmering mole negro, chocolate, candlelight, mezcal, bread, music, bells. Home to visit loved ones who are still here on earth.

This 24-hour period is sacred and solemn. It is also festive and joyful. Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is more than an all night party (as it has become for some). It is a time to reconnect emotionally and spiritually with departed family members and friends.

FullSizeRender Altar2

The 3:00 p.m. comida on November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle signals the moment when the disfuntos will take their favorite meal and then begin their return to the grave. Janet brings a plate of chicken with mole negro to the altar, her grandfather Jose’s favorite food. Bien rico!

The firecrackers or cohetes go off exactly at 3:00 p.m., too. At this moment, Dolores approaches the altar and says a prayer before the photograph of her mother, who died too young.

Best30TeotiMuertos-11

We raise our mezcal glasses in a Zapotec toast — chee-chee-bay-oh — salud, to health and long life. The CD player starts and music fills the altar room. Federico says this tune, Dios Nunca Muere — God never dies — is always played to guide the difuntos. It soothes them. Federico says it is played just after a person dies and at gravesite before the burial. It is the song to signal the end of each Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle. It is a song about the pain of the homeless.

Do you have an altar? he asks me.

Yes, I say. It’s for our father. There are all the pre-requisites: fruit, nuts, bread, chocolate, mezcal, marigolds, beer and candles. (There are no religious symbols.)

Good, he says. Even though your father is buried in the United States, he will come to visit you here. The ancient souls who were buried in the campo many years ago are also happy they have a place to return to. It’s good you have an altar, he says.

Who am I to say what is or isn’t true? Memory and continuity are powerful and life is a mystery.

Best30TeotiMuertos-20  Best30TeotiMuertos-4

The tombs contain the bones of past ancestors. See the photo above left. There are four grave markers. That means there are four family members who are buried in this tomb. This is an ancient Zapotec tradition that continues today.

Best30TeotiMuertos-23 Best30TeotiMuertos-26

I go to the cemetery an hour before dark to capture the last light of day. I don’t think the Panteon has ever been as beautiful. Fresh flowers, fruit and nuts decorate the tombs. Families begin to gather and sit with loved ones as they return to the underworld. They nibble on snacks and drink beer and mezcal.

Best30TeotiMuertos-15

Best30TeotiMuertos-29

The volunteer cemetery committee meets in the chapel and chants an ancient Zapotec song, mournful. It permeates, carries through the small graveyard. A wind picks up. The disfuntos are gathering to return.

Best30TeotiMuertos-27

Visitors come with cameras, accompanied by tour guides. They are respectful of this space. They are prepared well. There are many more this year than last. Locals say this is good for Teotitlan del Valle.  People will come and know our culture. They will appreciate the fine wool tapestries we weave here. Ojala!

Best30TeotiMuertos-19

Each gravesite is an altar of love and respect for those who came before. All generations take part. Sometimes children bring games or a book to read until the light fades. Everyone sits, some all night, to assure their loved ones rest easy.

Best30TeotiMuertos-31

Best30TeotiMuertos-25Many religious and spiritual traditions have a day of remembrance set aside to honor the deceased. We light candles. We say prayers. We may read a poem or meditate. We connect with the person who is physically gone from our lives. I don’t know of a warmer, more personal and family centric celebration of life and death than Day of the Dead. It helps soothe the fear of loss with the hopefulness of reconnection.

Best30TeotiMuertos-9 Best30TeotiMuertos-24

Zapotec people tell me that what they practice is a blend of Catholicism and ancient ritual that pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Zapotecs are more inclined toward their spiritual roots. Want to know more? See meaning of syncretism. Most of the celebrations here take place at home rather than in the church, except for marriage and baptism.

Best30TeotiMuertos-13 Best30TeotiMuertos-21a

 

 

 

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas: No Photographs, Please

It’s impossible to take a photograph inside the once-Catholic church of San Juan Chamula.  It is a Sunday haven of pre-Hispanic mysticism, with folk practices that go way back in indigenous history.  Tourists are warned to tread lightly.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-14

My body aches to take a photograph of the family crouched on pine needles in front of a sainted altar surrounded by a pile of eggs, a live chicken, and dozens of burning candles affixed to the tiled floor where the pine needles have been swept aside.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-16 Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-18

Taking photos in the church is verboten.  Forbidden.  In years past I have seen village officials who mind the church protocol confiscate the cameras and memory cards of those who sneak a pic.  Impossible to be sneaky here. Sometimes, if a tourist resists, s/he is put in the local jail.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-12 Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-13

Our group from Penland School of Crafts is compliant.  We tuck camera’s away into shoulder bags and backpacks. We are not going to tempt the fates or the village fathers.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-24

A woman kneels in prayer singing in an ancient tongue, a melody pitched so that the gods will hear her.  Another keens.  Another weeps.  A shaman makes a blessing with an offering of coca-cola and mezcal.  Burping the fizzy drink is believed to cleanse the soul. Sunlight streams through the high side window and beneath the glow the people are bathed in shadow and light.  The space is illuminated.  Smells like piney forest, smokey candles, the burst of lilies and roses.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-19 Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-20

Feet are bare and worn.  Feet are brown and calloused. Women’s furry black sheep wool skirts are tied at the waist with glittery cummerbunds.  Their blouses, silky polyester, are embroidered with intricate diamonds, birds, flowers, zig-zags and snap at the throat. It’s cold at 7,000 feet elevation.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-23

This is sacred space, like being in a cave.  Here the human and divine spirit are one and belief is powerful. I guess no photographs are necessary to remember.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-26

Beyond the church courtyard is a lively market place to buy hand spun and embroidered wool from the town, strange fruit, clothing from surrounding villages, meat, poultry, vegetables tortillas and bread. Amber and jade vendors hawk their wares. Little old ladies whose garments are beyond wearing, peddle purses, bracelets and keychains.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-27 Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-25

Today, the plaza is lined with indigenous women and children from outlying hamlets, hundreds of them.  They sit on the edge waiting.  What are you waiting for? I ask one of them. She replies, we wait to receive an every-two-month stipend of 850 pesos. Soon, they form a line and hurry to the back of the government building. Their support is equivalent to $45USD per month.  Of course, she doesn’t want her picture taken.

Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-15 Chamula_Zinac_HotelBo-17

 

We organize arts workshop study tours with an educational focus. Contact us to bring a group!