You might call it a coming out party or a debut to society if you lived in the United States of America thirty years ago. Some of my southern women friends participated in debutante balls just before women’s liberation took hold. For me, growing up in the wild west San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California, I went to Sweet Sixteen parties given for my more affluent friends — though I never had one myself.
Here in Teotitlan del Valle, the tradition of moving from girlhood to becoming a young woman is likely steeped village tradition as a rite of passage to marriage and motherhood. It was once celebrated quietly in homes with hot chocolate, bread or tortillas, a cup of mezcal, a parental blessing.
Fifteen years ago, there may have been a gathering of extended family members numbering fewer than 100 people who came together to recognize this coming of age. There was probably a mass at the church followed by a late afternoon dinner, followed by a traditional ritual village dance called the Jarabe del Valle.
Then the quinceañera would take to the dance floor to perform a selection to music of her choosing, creating the choreography, accompanied by a group of young men called chambelanes, dance escorts symbolically representing potential suitors.
Today’s quinceanera celebration is a grand affair, with hundreds of well-wishers participating. It’s almost like a wedding, complete with elaborate flower bouquets and gauze garlands adorning the church that are then moved to the home where the after-party will take place.
The quinceaños, as it is currently observed, is recent history here, practiced in grand style for only the past twenty or thirty years, according to a local friend. In recent years, it has become grander and costlier, costing as much as $25,000 USD.
It is not unheard of to start out with a breakfast of fresh-killed and cooked chicken topped with homemade mole castillo and comal cooked tortillas. Out behind the house, the women cook over wood-fired, make-shift stoves and outdoor kitchens.
In the meantime, the 15-year-old honoree is getting ready. She has already been to the beauty salon the day before for the hair and make-up make-over. She puts on her special dress, traditional gold earrings and necklace with a religious symbol. She is ready for the day.
After the church mass, celebrants return to home for the afternoon into evening festivities. The area is cleared to set-up tables and chairs for the multitude. There are two bands (each costing about 10,000 pesos, I’m told), a disc jockey, decorated cakes, a late afternoon lunch we call comida, plenty of mezcal toasts with beer chasers.
The afternoon meal is a special barbecue pork. The two pigs, raised from piglets in the back stable, were slaughtered the day before by a special maestro. Every part is used for the meat and broth.
Of course, in a Usos y Costumbres village like Teotitlan del Valle, this expense is not totally out-of-pocket. Many costs are covered by a host of affiliated supporters, like the Madrina and Padrino, usually a couple of high social and religious stature who provide financial, cultural and religious underpinnings. They will instruct the quinceañera in the values and traditions of the community.
Funding also comes in the form of the guelaguetza system where family and friends repay goods and services that have been given to them over the years, this includes labor, too. This a complex collaboration and accounting system keeps families connected, indebted to each other, and promotes strong community values.
Here, one can always count on a relative or friend to make blessings and offerings. They come with an armful of flowers, roses and lilies, a case of beer, a bottle of mezcal, a beautifully wrapped gift that might be a sweater, a dress, an apron or blouse, a pair of earrings, a purse. They come to the altar room where they are greeted formally by the host family and the quinceañera, giving and receiving thanks.
Guelaguetza, after all, really means giving and receiving, sharing, thanks and blessings, honor and tradition.
In the past, this was a fiesta to recognize that a young woman was ready to become a wife and mother, to become attached to another, to take on the role of helpmate in the household of her husband. These are vestiges. Today, it is party-time.
I asked two young women, now in their thirties, if they had quinceañeras. Yes, they answered. One said her parents gave her the choice of a party or a trip. She chose the party. She still loves to party! The other remembers her dance to the song of her favorite recording artist of the time.
The quince is dream time. The time to imagine, giving up the dolls and baby toys and think about how life will unfold. It is a time to celebrate family, culture, youth, energy. I recall how the DJ master of ceremonies called Lupita la muñeca, la princesa, la reina, la mariposa — the doll, the princess, the queen, the butterfly — as she danced and twirled, transformed. For one day she was all of that and hopefully, this will build upon her self-confidence to become her dreams.
Days after, after the tarp came down, the chairs and tables taken away, the millions of dishes washed, the house almost back to normal, I made a visit to Lupita, her mother and grandmother. Do you want to see my gifts? she asked, still glowing.
Yes, I said, as I took a seat in the altar room next to the family. Everyone was filled with pride. I saw how meaningful this event was for Lupita and her family. The rite of passage was complete.
My own mother was an aspiring feminist who never manifested her own profession but who supported her daughters in our quest for individuation and identity. Education was critical to our family to advance and reach beyond the struggle of immigrant grandparents. Our family spent money cautiously. Grand celebrations and rituals were not part of that experience.
It is important for any of us here in Mexico to understand, accept and appreciate lifestyle and traditions that are different than our own. Teotitlan del Valle is a village of connection and community, where the constant flow of fiesta is a way of life. I see it as a way of celebrating life, and it is a privilege for me to be living here.
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.
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?
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Travel & Tourism, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged art, culture, exhibit, Frida Kahlo, gallery, indigenous, masks, mestizo, Mexican, Mexico, Mexico City, mixed media, pre-Hispanic, Spanish, syncretism