[Currents headergraphic]

September 22, 1997

Anthropologist's new book examines Mexican festival commemorating Spanish conquest

By Jennifer McNulty

For Olga Najera-Ramirez, the decision to study Mexican folk dance at the University of Guadalajara in the late 1970s was a fateful one.

It was there, while studying the dances of a traditional Mexican festival as part of a school project, that she discovered the passion that would usher her back to graduate school and become the subject of her dissertation and first book.

The three-day festival in a small indigenous community near Guadalajara called Jocotan commemorates the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It is the subject of Najera-Ramirez's new book, La Fiesta de los Tastoanes: Critical Encounters in Mexican Festival Performance (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

In the book, Najera-Ramirez, an associate professor of anthropology, provides an in-depth look at the festival, its symbols, and its cultural significance. It will be used by students in anthropology and Latin American studies classes.

The festival is filled with mock battles between Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, and the Tastoanes, the leaders of the indigenous resistance. Like similar festivals performed in towns throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the Philippines, the three-day celebration incorporates elements of Christian and indigenous practices and serves as a living form of history that has endured for more than 450 years, said Najera-Ramirez.

"Reenacting the Spanish conquest is an indigenous form of documenting history and processing the colonization experience," said Najera-Ramirez, who suspects that the missionizing process was actually helped along by the ritual of reenactment.

Lacking the language skills to communicate with indigenous populations, Christian missionaries resorted to plays and performances in their quest to popularize their religion, explained Najera-Ramirez. It was a strategy that worked in part because for indigenous people, religious expression had never been confined to churches.

For the townspeople of Jocotan, Najera-Ramirez believes that the festival is a positive commemoration of the yearlong resistance waged by their indigenous forefathers. "Theirs was the biggest rebellion that followed the arrival of the Spanish in the region in 1530," she said.

The three-day festival begins with a reenactment of the arrival of the Spaniards and the dispute that followed with local leaders, who questioned the Spaniards' claim that they were sent by God to Christianize the Jocotenos. The village elders suspected that the Spaniards had come instead to steal their land. The day culminates with the death and resurrection of Santiago.

The skirmishes continue on the second day, which ends with the presentation of seven elaborate gifts to Santiago. On day three, the skirmishes are resolved and the highlight is a parade through town to the church with music, singing, and decorations.

Several elements of the festivities, particularly the gift exchange on the second day and the selection on day three of a man who will play Santiago next year, help ensure that the tradition will be carried on, noted Najera-Ramirez.

Although Santiago, or St. James, was introduced by the Christians as the patron saint of Spain, the Jocotenos have over the years appropriated him as their own folk hero. That twist hints at the complexity of the relationship between Spanish missionaries and Jocotenos, who have modified some indigenous religious practices and adopted other traditional Christian practices, said Najera-Ramirez.

Najera-Ramirez, who observed the festival at least six times during her research, said she struggled to capture in words the excitement of the celebration--"that feeling that all of your senses are being tapped simultaneously."

She is certain that the festival has endured in part because it serves multiple purposes, including religious and historical ones, although it is clearly not purely indigenous or purely Catholic. The local priest objects to the festival, finding it an inappropriate form of religious expression, but priests in surrounding communities recognize the importance of the ritual, said Najera-Ramirez.

Today, as the small village of Jocotan is being surrounded by the sprawling metropolis of Guadalajara, residents hold fast to the tradition of the festival in part because it gives them an opportunity to celebrate their identity and their longevity, said Najera-Ramirez.

"The Jocotenos have always been marginalized," she said. "And the urban sprawl today represents another form of invasion. The city is coming right up to their door, and the locals are being ostracized. This festival represents an important way that they express their perspectives on their history as well as their ongoing struggles."

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