Monday, December 14, 2009


This post (the first of three) attempts to describe and give my impressions of the Fiesta for Nuestra Senora de la Salud in Pátzcuaro. This Virgin is unique to this town (having been made Patrona de Pátzcuaro in 1737 and having a coronation in 1899, making her a Queen) and her day, December 8, is perhaps the biggest day in the calendar of the pueblo. The most fascinating event is the mass held for the indigenous people of the region. On entering the Basilica one is presented with a series of stain glass windows around the upper reaches of the church depicting the history of this virgin. The story begins with the indigenous people, their encounter with the Spaniards and then the arrival of the Catholic church represented by Don Vasco, a local hero. Then we see Salud crowned by the Pope and witnessed by the King of Spain. So the indigenous people are depicted as having a long and positive relationship with the church.

Mass is given in the Purépecha language and the indigenous people play a very large part, giving the event its memorable texture and feeling. Their typical brass band provides the music, women read the scriptures and most of the singing is in the almost falsetto voice of the indigenous men and women. Only a few of the elements of the day are described here and my interpretations may be very wrong.

Facing the alter were 8 Moor dancers (la danza de los Moros), standing for the entire mass. Their dance attire is very special with blue capes and white hats on the women and white capes with blue hats on the men. The hats are not very common anymore, looking like three small stacked pillows in rich fabric adorned with beads, feathers and silver fish. The women’s capes were covered in gold stars and their aprons with flower-like shiny objects and three discreet bows. The men have colorful leggings and boots with substantial spurs. The Moors are always present for the celebration of patron saints and this would explain their presences at this mass. The Moors represent the Catholic victory over infidels, (and perhaps in a more general sense, the world), meaning the Muslims, and their conversion to Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition emerged because this conversion was often temporary or feigned. Nevertheless, the Moors standing in the church represent this conversion and in a more direct sense the conversion of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

At one point the priest goes to the front door and invites in a small procession of men and women. The men are blowing the conch shell and the women carrying a rather large platform bearing a book. I was not sure what the book was, perhaps the Book of Luke. The priest received this book, holding it high for all to see, opening to a page with an image which he kissed. Passages were then read from this book.

The priest then approached the front door again and invited in a group of 60 women, dressed in traditional clothing and wearing or carrying the distinctive shawl of the area, bearing baskets of food as offerings. They were led by men blowing the conch and a woman carrying a traditional container with smoking copal. The women danced down the central aisle, up to the alter where they handed their gifts to the priest who kissed each offering and passed it to another priest to place around the alter. The copal burner was then held high by the priest and he walked around the alter with it before leaving it to distribute its magnificent aroma. The Moors who had left quietly to join this procession, then resumed their central place. Were they in this act making an offering of themselves, showing their submission to God and the church?

While all of this was going on a group of about 10 concheros (representing the prehispanic people) were dancing outside the doors. They too, however, were dancing before an image of the virgin in a chair with baby Jesus as well as another image of Guadalupe. At the end of the mass the Moors gave a presentation of their historic dance. This dance was followed by a group of Purépecha women in colourful traditional clothing doing a dance of the torito, a small and colourful bull held over the head of one of the dancers. (Apparently the torito was the indigenous way of making fun of the Spaniards and their bulls. But they clearly weren’t making fun of the Spanish Christians. I think there are other ways to interpret some of this dance which I will try to talk about later). At the same time Los Mojigangas (15 feet tall giants) were doing their dance and passing the hat. In another corner of the church yard the viejitos (old men) were dancing. This historic dance too was a way of teasing the walking and posture of the older Spanish, perhaps even the priests. So we have this lovely mixture of teasing and subservience. An interesting display of the power structure of the community and perhaps the nation. In the next two posts I will comments on this events and its relationship to the power structures of the town and then on its religious significance.

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