A brief discussion of some of our experiences while living and traveling in Michoacán, Mexico.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Community! What is it? As a sociologist I have talked about community all my adult life having realized that sociology is a long nostalgic essay on the loss of community. If sociology is correct, most of us have never experienced community in the strongest sense of the term. We do see flashes of community in times of disaster or personal tragedies but what must it have been like in a stronger and or more encompassing form? First a word or two about this difficult notion of community. For me it refers to a strong sense of solidarity among a non-family group, a sense of belonging, involvement and emotional connection. The capacity and willingness of people to not necessarily deny their individuality but to be able to make substantial contributions to the common good or the welfare of the group. In most western societies this contribution is made in a very impersonal fashion - we pay our taxes and hope or even demand that government take care of the marginalized, the sick and the poor and even to organize our entertainment. Increasingly we rely on the corporate sector to arrange for public events, pay for what we call democracy and so on. Community would be a much more personal involvement and commitment to these projects.
This is a prelude to my trying to understand our experience of attending a Mexican fiesta on Three Kings Day (Jan. 6). We arrived in the pueblo, a place that is not really very remote now having good highway access, but felt like another world, around 3:00 pm. The town has a different feel to it because of being surrounded by forest and mountains and the more traditional type of housing. Not exactly the traditional trojes but troje-like. The town is an access point to the newest volcano in the world (having emerged in a farmer’s field around 1935 and exploded in the mid-1940s devastating a community), so attracts a number of tourist, many of whom are invited to travel to their destination on horse-back. The church was very attractive in it’s Christmas finery and the yard had a number of nacimientos (manger scenes) around the wall each with one or more doll sized images of baby Jesus. Local dancers were beginning to appear from houses and people were congregating in the large church yard. Before long there were too many dancers to count, a substantial crowd, three kings on horses and a beautiful image of the baby Jesus seated in a chair was brought from the church.
The dancers were unlike anything we had seen before but it became clear that they were “kurpites” (fittingly in the local language this means coming together). (However, some carried viejito canes adding to my confusion.) What was distinctive about the dancers clothing was that they had up to 20 aprons tied quite high up on the body and going around the body. This gave the dancers the appearance of being quite fat. These aprons were hand-made with fine needlework probably by mothers, aunts, grandmothers, girl friends. The dancers carried their personal history on their backs. These were the Kurpites dancers and as well one or two wore masks of Mary (Marangillas) and of Jose (Joseph). The dancers wore a scarf just over the nose and a mask covered in beads, tinsel and ribbons, on the top of their heads. Many appeared to have new cowboy boots and all had bells on their ankles. There appeared to be a group of quite young dancers (some 4 or 5 years old) and then a group of older teenagers. After much waiting the procession began with all of the dancers, the horses, an image of the Virgin, the image of baby Jesus and well as all of the Jesus figures from the mangers and a substantial crowd. An incense burner was carried before Jesus and immediately after one or two people throwing confetti on the carriers. The procession proceeded around the community on a very cold night accompanied by the usual cojetes (rocket-like fireworks).
On arrival at the church we found women appearing from the side streets with large containers of pozole, baskets of tortillas, more baskets of tamales and countless bags of oranges. Before long the church-yard was filled with perhaps 800 people (perhaps the whole town). The ritual of giving gifts to the children began. Remarkably they lined up without pushing or fighting and the young ones waited to be given a gift from one of the trucks parked in the yard. Girls appeared to receive small Barbie-like dolls, very small ironing boards, small plastic chairs and the boys very small plastic wheel-barrows and balls. Eventually the organization broke down as the men in the truck began throwing gifts into the crowd. There were no signs of “brought to you be corporation x” and no sign of political types.
In the background food was being prepared with a table set for the elders of the community and I assume everyone who wished would be given access to food. We too could have participated having been told that what was expected was presentation of a gift of cigarettes or tequila to the chief elder. Although we had purchased the gift we left the community before food was consumed having decided there just wasn’t enough space for 4 gringos to navigate the crowd.
For me a sense of community was every where but most clearly in the amount of effort and money many family had contributed to make this event happen and have the marvelous appearance and feel it did. For example, if there were 100 dancers (and there may have been more) each with 20 aprons, this would amount to 2000 aprons! Who purchased the gifts for about 200 young people? Who prepared all the food (this may have involved grinding the corn, making masa, filling tomales, etc.? In a traditional community like this there may have been a carguero in charge of the image of Santo Niño who may have been selected because of his resources and he may have borrowed money from others or required people to contribute money to purchase supplies, pay for the band, and so on. In any event what we saw was the signs of community with little presence of the usual stage managers of public events in the West.
One final thought: all of the dancers were under the age of 18 so this would create a constant need for new dancers thus bringing in the next generation. As a result the majority of the adults would share something in common with these kids. All of the males would be bound together in some fashion by this common service to baby Jesus and to the community. Females would be bound together in a similar fashion through their service to organization, costume creation and food preparation. I doubt if opting out of attendance was an option: saying you were tired or had other commitments just wouldn’t wash. Community came first.