A brief discussion of some of our experiences while living and traveling in Michoacán, Mexico.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
FIESTAS: FOLLOW THE MONEY
Brandes (1988) offers a very useful analysis of the role of fiestas in Mexico. While the example he works with is the pueblo of Tzintzuntzan I think much of what he says is probably generalizable. The tile of the book is Power and Persuasion and so he shows us how to see that fiestas have elements of the power structure of the community built into them. He looks, for example, at the study of the fireworks which are a significant element of any fiesta. He shows us how we should ask important questions: who pays for the fireworks? Who receives the fireworks? In his case the origin of the fireworks reveals a structure of submission and dominance and the receipt of the fireworks reveals the power structure of the community.
Fiestas are very expensive and often leave individuals in debt. In 1951 Ocativio Paz writes that the Mexican fiesta is “ .. a ritual squandering of the goods painfully accumulated during the rest of the year”. If so, why do people do this? The psychology of this is unclear but in some communities we see that the position of carguero (the person or persons responsible for organizing and thus raising the funds for a particular fiesta) is often a symbol of status. It would be unusual to elect a poor person to the position of carguero so most of those who do get elected are among the more wealthy. To understand the connection between the carguero and the fiesta we need to go to anthropology to learn something of community psychology. Mexican pueblos often give the impression of great communal involvement and activity. Deeper down, however, we find that these communities are very individualistic and have a somewhat fatalistic attitude. It is often believed that the goods of the world are already distributed and will not change very much. (For more on this see the writings of George Foster). However, it is apparent that some are more wealthy (have more of the good) than do others. How does this tension get dealt with?
We can see that to some extent the fiesta is a mechanism to redistribute the goods and thus has elements of the potlatch of the West Coast Native peoples. In a stratified society the fiesta gives to others in the community if only through the receipt of entertainment, some food and perhaps some tequila. A very small number of people will be employed directly. Over a five day period, which is not uncommon for fiestas, a number of bands are hired, there is much dancing, many very large diner parties are held and much alcohol is given away. These things do not of course sustain people in the way that new blankets might or might other sustainable economic goods. However, this redistribution does cement the honoured position of the giver and perhaps eases the tension that flows from inequality. (A more wealthy person may be left with bills exceeding $15,000 dollars, a not inconsiderable sum). Perhaps it is the case that those sponsors who do not have sufficient funds must go to their network of possible lenders and this cementing of relationships of dependence helps build and maintain community stability and solidarity. So the fiesta may be a squandering of money, but it appears to serve a function in the pueblos.
With this in mind I was struck during attendance at one fiesta to be shown the carguero. He was a very young man who spends a great deal of time in the United States were presumably he makes a reasonable amount of money. He then returns home to spend this on his community. (Again, not in building houses or parks but in sponsoring a party.) At a second very large fiesta the “master of ceremonies” identified the sponsors of the fiesta and gave the amount of their donation. The vast majority of these people were from California. What would Brandes make of this? Does it suggest that power has moved out of the community and indeed out of the country? Does it reveal the tension between those who stay at home and those who go abroad to succeed in ways they could not at home? Does it equalize everyone to a small extent and encourage the feeling of collective involvement? Or perhaps, the giver does not make sufficient money in the USA to attain status there or his status is blocked by discrimination, but when he brings some of this money home he can attain an honorary position for himself and his family.