Sunday, January 20, 2013

I just wanted to write some comments for the photos, but this is getting out of hand, and the photos didn't come out so good. Whatever. So this is how we spent the New Year. 

An anthropologist friend of ours, Carlos, invited us to see the tepehua rites of the New Year in a remote village where he works. 

You cannot find San Simon on Google Maps. It is there, of course, on the satellite image, a characteristic growth on a line that looks like a road, but there is no name next to it and the map is blank. I don't think anyone in San Simon cares: there is no internet and cellphones do not work.

Getting there is not easy either. We set out on a first-class bus that goes towards the Atlantic coast. The luxuries of the first class include a hysterical TV and a twenty-minute stop in a government-designated "magic town" said to be famous for its snacks. "Tortas, tortas, tortas, tortas, tortaas" wails a sandwich seller all these twenty minutes, as if mourning some irreparable loss. She sounds like a swamp bird. I cannot help her, I already have my own torta. After several long hours we arrive to a wet and dirty town haphazardly built around a Pemex oil rig. 

The next bus is a guajolotero ("turkey bus", guess why). At times it feels like a rollercoaster, at times like a ship on rough seas. It brings us to a shallow sleepy river, which can be crossed either by a shaky wooden bridge or by a dinghy boat. The bridge costs 2 pesos vs 3 pesos for the boat, but everybody chooses the dinghy. Clearly, crossing by boat is more symbolic (unless you burn the bridge behind you, but no, we want to come back).

On the other bank a few taxis are waiting, and in ten minutes we arrive to the next village; here, after asking around, we find someone with a truck to take us to San Simon. A 10 kilometer ride costs 250 pesos, but the terrain is difficult and it is getting dark soon, so we agree. This last leg of the trip is the slowest; grass and weeds have to be thrown under the wheels in especially slippery spots. On the final approach to San Simon the driver picks up everyone we meet on the way for free: a heavier truck has better chances to climb the muddy road uphill.

We get there at nightfall. Carlos lives in an old stone house at the entrance to the village. The austerity is total: there is no furniture save for a couple of chairs and an old folding bed. (The villagers see it differently. Later, a neighbour comes in, looks around and says with respect: "This mosquito net must be very, very expensive".) We shall sleep on the floor.

There are several perfectly round holes in the high ceiling. According to Carlos, many years ago the local mestizo chiefs used this house as a headquarters; their main industries were aguardiente, livestock and assassinations.  The trade in aguardiente was incredibly lucrative but it mostly ended with the arrival of Bacardi; now the local distillery only serves San Simon. As for the killings, they achieved their goal completely: there is no communal land in the village, as if the land reform never happened.
Tomorrow (31 of December) is the day of the rites. A small rite will be performed in the next village by Don Severo, a healer from San Simon. Today he is making paper dolls for the ceremony: these will serve as bodies for the evil spirits who will need somewhere to reside after being chased out of the human quarters. We hurry to his house in the hope of witnessing the procedure. Don Severo welcomes us but it is too late: the dolls are already prepared and packed. Anyway, we stay to chat.

There are four of us, visitors: Carlos, Libertad, Karla and I. Myself excluded, all are anthropologists, and, being professionals, ask questions incessantly. (An anthropologist must look rather silly to local folks: the questions repeat, or almost repeat each other and seem to reveal a total lack of basic knowledge about anything. I guess that an anthropologist who looks too clever will get far fewer answers.) Quite soon the questioning gets to interesting subjects, such as the meaning of the ceremonies and the purpose of the healer's accessories. We are shown all sorts of objects, among them small stripes of jonote which will also serve as bodies for spirits. We are told that to lift the shadow of a girl you need twelve stripes of jonote, for the shadow of a boy - thirteen. Each stripe has a piece of copal inside: it is the heart.

On the healer's altar there are two sticks with ribbons of all colours attached to them. Karla is allowed to hold them. Each ribbon represents a person healed by Don Severo; the patient chooses the colour.

While the professionals talk, I try to take photos. Unfortunately, it is quite dark inside and the few unshaded lightbulbs blind more than they illuminate. I should learn to be shameless and move around without asking for permission; this will be my New Year resolution. Meanwhile, I am stuck wherever I was offered a seat and all I can do is try to compose the shots so that  the lightbulbs are behind my subjects' backs. This does not really work.

The conversation turns to traditional tepehua outfits. Doña María, the wife of Don Severo, does not use traditional dress any more, but she makes blouses for sale. Garments are brought and Karla is invited to be a model. All the local men present are eager to assist her: it takes two to wrap a shawl around her waist. The result is very good and everyone is pleased, Karla most of all. The heavy boots are somewhat out of place, but taking them off would be unthinkable: it is cold and the wind moves freely above the floor, which is nothing but beaten earth. 

Cold days are rare here and Don Severo's home is not built to protect from the winter. On the contrary, its design has a clear purpose of strong ventilation since all the cooking is done inside on the open fire. Right now, the chill is getting to us so we agree with Don Severo to meet at 7am and leave.

Tomorrow's grand event will be the dedicated to Baby Jesus changing home: this year he stayed with Don Raymundo and his next home will be  the house of Doña Nila, a healer. The main part of the rite will be at the house of Don Raymundo and we stop by. 500 flower arrangements have been made today here and tamales are being prepared with the best pork one can get: Don Raymundo raised the pig on seeds and maize. We are offered "chicharrones": they are delicious. Don Raymundo complains at length about the costs of hosting the feast; we say nothing but the message is understood. We shall buy a live chicken for ritual slaughter.  

There's a party at the main square: fiesta de quince años. Not everybody is poor in this village and some can afford an electric band and cake for hundreds. We arrive discreetly with a litre of aguardiente that we somehow procured on the way; before we even step on the dance floor our presence is detected and we are sent generous pieces of cake. We dance, we talk to people, we get seriously drunk. Later, I find a series of characteristic shots in my camera: attempts at group portraits in pitch dark with no flash, a plastic glass with some liquid pouring into it, unidentifiable colour spots, a dim lightbulb. 

This, apparently, ends the day. I wake up with my face on the stone floor at 6AM.

Enough for now.

And here are the photos (link to the album):

Carlos lives here:

Don Severo:

Carlos interviewing Don Severo:

Libertad, Karla and Don Severo:

Don Severo:

A strip of jonote with the heart of copal:

Karla and Don Severo:


Doña María:

Putting the skirt on:

Wrapping the shawl instead of a belt:

Final touches:


Doña María, Karla and Don Severo:

Flower arrangements prepared for the ceremony:

Una fiesta de quince años:


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