08 October 2007

Ferias: Church & State in Colonial Guatemala

As a former colony of Catholic Spain, Guatemala’s culture and history are richly steeped in Roman Catholicism. During the colonization of Latin America,( which coincided a peak of Roman Catholic power in Europe), political and city planning was heavily influenced by the Church. As n most of the world’s major religions, they were one of the first international bureaucracies, with political with administrative procedures more advanced than most nations.

While Spain may have had a system of dividing its conquered lands up, appointed governors over vast provinces, and systems of taxation, it was the Catholic Church that held a strong role in more active and direct connection with its citizenry in other means. For instance, it was the Catholic Church that throughout colonies was responsible in converting local populations into those with a personal allegiance to European colonialist culture (through baptism). As for the subdivision of vasts regions into smaller municipal units, every town in Guatemala is recognized by a significant Catholic Church in its town center. While a municipal office was likely also present, it was going to Church regularly that gave reason for people living outside of towns to give make them feel an identity and attachment to the town, as well as to create communal bonds with its larger residency. In addition, the evangelical fervor of Catholic missionaries made them often the first representatives of Europe ever seen by most populations in Guatemala.

One of the most obvious influences religion has had on Spanish colonies is the naming of towns, made obvious even by maps in the United States. The former Spanish colony that made up of much of California includes the towns of San Francisco (named for St. Francis), Los Angeles (The Angels), San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento (as in The Holy Sacraments). Further Southeast of California, they founded Corpus Christi, and San Antonio. While these names are those of the cities, they are also the patron saints of the first churches erected in the town. As church and state were much more blurred during colonization, it's worth noting a person of the time would refer them as the patron saint of the entire town.

For those of you not familiar with Roman Catholic tradition, each church is given a particular patron saint (or sometimes miracle or mystery). That saint is usually given special consideration by the people of that church, asking the saint for particular help or guidance in prayer, as well as celebrating one day a year that is recognized by the entire Catholic Church as that Saint’s special day every year. Generally, this gives the congregation a feeling of special relationship with that saint. Don’t think too hard on these realities, because they’re truly more complicated. Simply put, a church is to a patron saint as a high school is to a mascot.

In Guatemala, it’s safe to say every town has one church, and therefore one patron saint. During that particular’s saint’s day, the town has a large celebration. Just like Christmas and Easter didn’t start out with spiked egg nog and mashmallow rabbits, these celebrations started out purely as religious services.

Somewhere along the way, a fireworks stand, a carnival owner, and a taco stand got together and decided to make a buck from the holday.
The week to two-week long period building up to the day of the patron saint are now known as the feria (pron. fairy-uh), which means fair or holiday. While I suspect that the word originally translated better as holiday, travelling carnival rides, funnel cakes and junk food stands, concerts and dances, have transformed the week to better resemble the former translation.

In Tecpan, the patron saint is St. Francis of Asisi, whose official day is October fourth. The carnival rides began setting up 10 days before hand. Before the end of September, three ferris wheels had been erected within a block of the town center, in the town plaza and nearby empty lots. Stands selling peanuts, cotton candy, rock candy, lollipops, (lousy) pizza, and dozens of local sweets had filled the streets within a block of the town center, closing off all traffic. Even before the junk food and the ferris wheels came, stands holding decade-old arcade games that appeared to had been refurbished into new machines were put up in the town center, attracting every boy from 6 to 16. Every day, more vendors appeared, transforming the downtown into an unrecognizeable midway.

I’d like to give interesting anecdotes about the feria, but I felt like I was at a fair in the States. People from all the nearby towns came, we laughed till our stomachs hurt on the ferris wheel, and made ourselves ill from too much grease and sweets.

I did get a couple of photos of a tradition I’ve wanted to capture for a little while, known as the Torito. Torito, meaning little bull, is something out of an 11-year-old boy’s dream. A small wooden encasement that resembles a doghouse has a bamboo cube attached around it, resembling the dimensions a telephone booth (the doghouse two or three feet high inside the six-foot telephone booth). Then, dozens and dozens of bottle rockets, spinners, and other firecrackers are atached to the “telephone booth.” A long, slow-burning fuse is then connected to the hundreds of fireworks,. The doghouse may be painted to roughly resemble the top half of a bull. The night of the celebrations, two men lift the contraption, revealing that the bottom of the “dog house” has no bottom, and the bravest (read dumbest) person on hand has the contraption placed atop him. The doghouse portion on the bottom of the booth is meant to act as a shield against him against what happens next. A crowd gathers round and, you guessed it, the fuse is lit. The man inside walks to music, resembling a bull. The fuse, which takes 10 minutes to get to the final fireworks, goes around, lighting pounds of gunpowder-propelled rockets, which are designed mostly to shoot into the air or spin. However, these contraptions are not exactly NASA-designed, and rockets frequently go astray and hit or nearly hit watchers. One torito used during the feria I saw launch a rocket directly into a man’s chest – and did it again three minutes later to the same man. No injuries have occurred in any of the torito showings I’ve been in, but the odds are that it happens. During one of these showings, I watched a large portion of lit fireworks actually fall off of the contraption, spinning and jumping into a large crowd of people, who actually moved toward it to see it better. It’s possible the man inside the booth is actually the smartest person at the event, considering he has some level of protection against the object of destruction. The fuse usually winds upward through the booth, and a large, more awe-inspiring fireworks display set on the top of the booth. The aerial rockets, wihle impressive and exciting, are hard to watch while trying to be prepared for whatever next may fire off the dancing bomb and fire into the crowd.

1 comment:

Beverley said...

Very interesting! We were at the fiesta at San Martin Jilot. recently which was similar to what you describe. Wonderful traje! Wonderful cultural traditions. I would like to see a list of the feast days for the various highland communities.

Beverley

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.