Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The best of Tlaltenango

The Tlaltenango fair, which runs through next Monday, has been an annual event for 293 years in what is now northern Cuernavaca. I have long thought of it as a nuisance that closed Cuernavaca’s main north-south boulevard, causing traffic congestion and detours for ten days. But thanks to political science professor Adriana Hernandez I now recognize what a wonderful blend of religion, politics, tradition, and commerce it is.

The draw at the Tlaltenango fair is the Virgin of the Nativity. People more commonly refer to her as the Virgin of Tlaltenango or the Virgin of the Miracles. "Let me tell you two of her most famous miracles," Adriana said enthusiastically.

"A hundred years ago there were open fields between Cuernavaca and Tlaltenango.  Emiliano Zapata was being chased from Cuernavaca by the federal army.  The federales were gaining on him but he could see Tlaltenango’s church.  Zapata prayed to the Virgin for her assistance.  She raised such a dust storm that the federales lost sight of Zapata and he was able to find refuge and protection in the church.  In appreciation he gave the Virgin of Tlaltenango a scepter and a crown which she still wears."

Another miracle has caused the far off community of Iztapalapa, now part of the Federal District, to play an ongoing roll in the annual fair. According to Adriana, "some say Iztapalapa was suffering a drought, others say there was an epidemic.  But whatever it was, the townspeople gathered to plead with the Virgin of Tlaltenango to save them and she did.  In appreciation they promised to visit her every year on the Feast of the Birth of Mary (September 8) and offer her a floral arch over the entrance to her church.  Iztapalapa has been fulfilling that "manda" (promise) for close to 200 years.”

Now this is no small gesture. Sixty or more people travel from Iztapalapa to assemble the floral arch. Tradition maintains that during the time they work on it there shall be a band playing continuously and fireworks shot off. They also need someplace to stay overnight. Here’s where things have recently gotten sticky.

For many years the Iztapalapans stayed in a lot that had bathrooms, showers, and a shed under which they slept. But last year that lot was lost due to a lawsuit. The ayudante municipal (a liaison between a community and the municipal government) and the local priest lacked the foresight to prepare other lodging for the pilgrims. The Iztapalapans were understandably offended and said they would not return this year.

Tlatelolco's current ayudante municipal, elected on an independent ticket, is Adriana’s son Daniel Vazquez. It fell on his shoulders to repair the damage. With an offering in hand and accompanied only by a coach in traditional Indigenous protocol, Daniel set off to Iztapalapa. He was granted an audience with Iztapalapa's elders and seven mayordomos.

It amazes me that even though now part of Mexico City, Iztapalapa has active cofradías headed by mayordomos.  During the colonial period Spanish authorities restricted communication between Indigenous groups as a control mechanism.  However, they were allowed to establish “cofradías” (brotherhoods) headed by “mayordomos” for the purpose of taking care of the image of saints.  Religious festivals were one of the few places people from different ethnic groups were allowed to interact.

Tlaltenango, on the other hand, has lost its cofradías and hence its mayordomos.  As ayudante municipal twenty-seven year old Daniel represented the community.  At the meeting his coach stood on the other side of the room and indicated through hand signals when Daniel should enter, sit, and stand. The coach signaled him to wait until he was given the right to speak and pointed out to him who was the proper person to address.  The audience was such a success that Daniel was addressed as the Señor de Tlaltenango (Lord of Tlatenango)!  Adriana reports that there were tequila toasts (no drunkenness), tears, and embraces.  This year the Iztapalapans will be hosted in local peoples' homes when they visit Tlaltenango.

The Iztapalapans are not the only ones who return to the Tlaltenango fair every year. Merchants arrive bearing receipts from previous years and expect to get the same spot back in which to set up their stall. Some report that their families have been participating in the fair for generations.  Many speak Indigenous languages with Spanish as their second language.  Adriana finds they already know their neighboring stall-keepers.  She refers to them as "ferieros" (merchants at fairs).  "They go from festival to festival throughout the country as part of a steady occupational group.  In the case of this fair, a thousand vendors and their dependents speaks of about 5,000 people whose income is directly linked to traditional religious fairs."    

A new feature at this year’s fair is talks by noted residents of Cuernavaca.  The topics include history, human rights, gender, anthropology, and economics. They are scheduled at 5:00 p.m. in Tlaltenango park every day through Monday, September 9.  Send me an email for the schedule.

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