Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Death and the Idea of Mexico: Claudio Lomnitz (2)

"To all this the Indian responded: I know, father, that the dead do not eat meat, nor the bones. Instead, they place themselves above the food and suck out all its virtues and the substance that they need, and they leave behind what they don't need...And the servant of God responded that the intention of the faithful was not to feed the dead, but to give these alms to the ministers in the name of the dead, so that the priests would pray to God for their souls."

In the sixteenth century the Days of the Dead received far less public support than other Catholic festivals such as Corpus Christi — used as a public reaffirmation of the physical and spiritual conquest of New Spain.

On paper at least, the civic bias against All Souls' Day was rationalised by the friars as part of their cautious response to certain 'recalcitrant' tendencies within the native population. Specifically, the Aztecs had celebrated a two-part mortuary festival beginning in August (Miccailhuitontli and Xocotlhuetzi), which some felt offered a dangerous cultural bridge via which native idolatry might extend itself into the new order.

But perhaps the real reason the priests started to play down this festival is revealed by the excerpted quoted above from the account of Alonso de Espinoza's expedition to Oaxaca. Whereas in Spain all the food and other goodies presented as tribute was destined for the men of the cloth, the Indians obstinately persisted in the view that it was their ancestors who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of these ofrendas.

And it seems that unsupervised indigenous rituals typically involved a far greater quantity of food offerings than was the norm back in Spain, as well as a certain degree of unfettered banqueting: convites y borracheras.

Lomnitz also notes that in the early post-conquest period Indians were (rather conveniently) exempt from the obligations to fast, seek penance and abstain from work on the first two days of November. The tougher religious observance expected of the Spaniards was, he adds, "meant to serve both as an example of what being an old Christian was and as a legitimising device for the Spaniard's social superiority."

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