Mesoamerican Religions: Contemporary Cultures

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Since long before the arrival of the first Europeans to Mesoamerica, the area's indigenous inhabitants have understood their world and indeed the cosmos to be an inherently unstable place whose continuity has demanded periodic human intervention in the form of religious rituals. It is ironic that a tendency for the world to slip into chaos has provided a primary organizing force, one which links the Mesoamerican with his or her individual community, its leaders, and ultimately with the cosmos beyond. This ritually forged cultural nexus has been pivotal in the cultural survival that has characterized the post-Conquest history of many regional towns. A widespread belief that a given town's leaders are uniquely capable of performing the rituals needed to maintain cosmic order has functioned in a centripetal manner to strengthen the community at its political center. This in turn might buttress the capacity of a town to negotiate with outside religious, political, and economic interests.

These dynamics help explain a common characteristic of post-Conquest Mesoamerican religion: its distinctly local orientation. In various places, such as Zincantan, Mexico, and Momostenango, Guatemala, the town has been understood by its inhabitants to be the literal center of the cosmos. Whereas this sense of sacred center manifest on a local level has identifiably pre-Conquest origins, with the arrival of Europeans it came to include key elements of Catholicism, such as the saints, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. In marked contrast to this syncretistic blending of indigenous and European religious expressions are other Mesoamerican locales that have been fully integrated into the European cultural sphere. The capacity of a given town or region to avoid this type of integrationand similarly to maintain its customary local orientationhas often been a function of geographic or economic isolation.

In the early twenty-first century the dynamics of globalization are fully engaged in undermining that isolation. Diverse global forces, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), loss of land to agribusiness, massive internationally based missionization, and cable television mean that in the struggle between tradition and change, the defining currents are steeply slanted toward change. The capacity of local communities to maintain any sort of viable autonomy is being overwhelmed. As a result modern Mesoamerica has witnessed changes in the religious landscape not seen since the Conquest nearly five hundred years ago. As the traditional religious-based political hierarchies have lost their capacity to successfully negotiate with outside interests, the local citizenry has turned away from both those hierarchies and traditional religious beliefs as well. In some cases secular national political parties have replaced the customary indigenous hierarchies. In other cases new religious-based political movements have ascended to power. Notable in this regard has been the politics of Guatemalan Efraín Ríos Montt. Founding his politics on an overt platform of evangelical Protestantism, Ríos Montt reigned over an exceedingly violent military junta in the early 1980s. He remains perhaps the most influential politician in the country in the early twenty-first century.

Despite the success of recently introduced religions in contemporary Mesoamerica, especially Protestantism, aspects of the older religious forms are still evident. In fact the religious landscape of Mesoamerica is highly diverse. The range of religious identifications and behaviors exceeds just indigenous expressions with deep historical roots and recently introduced religions with unmistakable foreign characteristics but also includes such expressions as revitalization movements representing a backlash against outside intrusions.

Customary Religious Expressions

Before the arrival of the first Europeans to Mesoamerica, the region's indigenous inhabitants conceived of the cosmos as square. At its center was an axis mundi, typically in the form of a mountain, a tree, or a maize plant. There was a general consensus that the cosmos was layered and populated by multiple deities. Whereas the specifics of the configuration varied regionally, the subterranean realm(s) included an association with death and similarly with ancestors and the past. Although this realm seems to have evoked frightful emotionsto the K'iche' it was even called Fright Roadit was also understood by many of the region's inhabitants to be a source for the regeneration of the living present. Whether pertaining to humans, plants, or the vital life-nurturing rain, life was thought to come from death. Another widespread characteristic was a belief that religious ritual, typically performed by specialists, was needed to insure the recycling of death into life and ultimately back into death. These beliefs contributed to a ritual focus that was circular and repetitive in nature and all the while aimed backward to the ancestral past. This death to life cycle was sometimes expressed using vegetation metaphors, underscoring the centrality of agriculture in daily life.

In 1519 Hernan Cortés and the first large contingent of Spaniards arrived in Mesoamerica. While primarily motivated by the desire for wealth, these conquistadores also sought to convert the region's indigenous population to Catholicism. Although within a few decades newly built churchesoften constructed on the sites of pre-Conquest templeswere to be encountered in all but the most isolated areas of Mesoamerica, the Europeans soon discovered that the "spiritual conquest" of the region was far more difficult than its military subjugation. A general dearth of Spaniards and a preference for the company of their own countrymen, compounded by their attraction to areas rich in readily exploitable economic resources, insured a high degree of indigenous self-administration, particularly in peripheral rural areas. In his book Catholic Colonialism, Adriaan van Oss observes that "by approaching the conversion of Indian communities through their traditional leaders, missionaries insured that the persons who played an active role in the establishment of the new cult, for example as sacristans, acolytes, catechists, etc., would in many cases be exactly the same individuals who before the conversion had occupied comparable positions in the spiritual life of the community, with obvious implications for the kind of Christian observance which took root" (van Oss, 1986, p. 21). The effects of that situation are evident in the religious lives of many Mesoamericans even in the twenty-first century.


Central to the "Christianity" that took root in post-Conquest Mesoamerica is a shadowy construct known simply as costumbre. Costumbre, which can be defined as "old inherited ways of knowing and doing," is often employed in verb form, as in to "do costumbre." For most of the past five hundred years life in many Mesoamerica communities has been molded by it. To be a member of the community was to be a Costumbrista, a practitioner of costumbre. Costumbre can be performed in myriad forms, from praying to the gods to planting maize. This vastly important component of post-Conquest culture tends to be shrouded in secrecy. In Corn Is Our Blood the anthropologist Alan Sandstrom observes that the Nahua of Amatlán, Mexico, passively avoid revealing anything about costumbre to outsiders by simply never revealing where or when a ritual is held. He writes that "so effective is their method of concealment that I had spent almost five months in Amatlán before I was aware that there was any ritual activity in the village. I was beginning to wonder whether perhaps I had discovered the first human group without rituals or religion" (Sandstrom, 1991, p. 231). The stealth aspect of costumbre hints of a certain anti-Spanish underpinning to the construct.

The Fiesta System

A primary venue for the performance of costumbre, and certainly a key element in the understanding of the evolution of post-Conquest indigenous society, has been the fiesta system. Variously referred to in the literature as the "cargo system," "cofradía system," and "mayordomía system," the fiesta system is the institutionalized celebration of regularly occurring fiestas. Whereas there is strong evidence for pre-Hispanic antecedents, in its strict sense the fiesta system is Catholic. Most of the fiestas are celebrated in accordance with Catholic saints' days. In its modern form the fiesta system typically includes some form of "cargoes," nonpaying periodically rotated positions. This usage of the term cargo comes from Spanish and means position, duty, and responsibility. Attached to the cargo positions is a characteristic hierarchical structure. At some point the religious hierarchies in many Mesoamerican communities assumed political leadership duties as well. The resulting "civil-religious hierarchies" eventually shaped the subsequent cultural development of the communities over which they presided. The cultural forms, which emerged often, resembled pre-Hispanic forms, hence undermining the desires of the church and state alike.

One defining aspect of the emergent culture that echoes the pre-Hispanic era is the fiesta system's ritual focus on the ancestral past. In many locales, such as Tlayacapan, a town in Morelos, Mexico, the connection with the past is vestigial and faint. The focus on the ancestral past is more evident in the Day of the Dead ceremonies celebrated in many Mesoamerican communities, though in some regions, such as in the Purepecha area of Michoacán, Mexico, it is performed in a heavily Catholic infused milieu. In other cases the pre-Hispanic connection is far stronger. For instance, in the Tz'utujil town of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, the fiesta system (cofradía system) is directly associated with the ancestral World Tree, the axis mundi thought to exist at the center of a four-cornered world. For Costumbristas in that town, the ancestors are said to lie at the root of the Tree, and the people of the town are its leaves and flowers. The leader of the system is believed to be the trunk (he is literally called Trunk), and his ritual input is thought to be vital for the world's orderly functioning.

Although this type of belief can be traced to the pre-Conquest past, it would be incorrect to conclude that it represents some pristine form of ancient culture. Instead, even when having significant links to the past, the indigenous cultural expressions of post-Conquest Mesoamerica have been "reconstituted" in entirely new ethnic and class contexts. Clearly when the Spanish arrived and began their attempts to subdue and to control the indigenous inhabitantsto conquer themthat population's embrace of the ancestral past took on significant new political implications. While in the words of one scholar the foreigners sought to "put an end to everything indigenous, especially in the realm of ideas, even so far as to leave no sign of them," many Mesoamericans simply refused to cooperate (K. Garibay in Anderson, 1960, p. 33). By aiding and abetting the refusal of their own spiritual conquest, the embrace of the ancestral past assumed subversive ethnic dimensions that had not previously existed.

CofradÍa Barter and Barrier

The Catholic fiesta system was introduced into Mesoamerica within a decade of the Conquest with the importation of the first cofradías. Cofradías had long existed in Spain and Portugal as voluntary lay organizations whose primary purposes were the veneration of a particular saint and providing funerals and taking care of members' widows. The initial Mesoamerican cofradía prototype matched closely its European counterpart, including the provision of social services. However, the Spaniards' reasons for the institution's introduction had little to do with such altruism. Rather, it was intended that cofradías (1) provide for the collection of revenues and (2) further the indigenous population's integration into the church. Catholic priests, who were often poor, itinerant, and living in distant towns, came to be reliant on the funds paid by cofradías for the saying of mass on saints' days. Because they had neither direct control over the cofradía funds nor over the amount of the stipend, it is of little surprise that they were forced to concede to certain indigenous demands. Bluntly, in various parts of Mesoamerica the local population utilized cofradía revenues to buy off otherwise intrusive outsiders, particularly priests, and in that way to subsidize a degree of cultural autonomy. Although outsiders did manage to successfully exploit cofradías for personal economic gain, that success came at a significant cultural and theological price.

This "barter" aspect has allowed many communities to subvert the second Spanish motivation for the introduction of cofradías : the facilitation of the local population's integration into the church. Evading the scrutiny of their pious overlords living in distant towns, many communities have used the cofradía system to transfer aspects of pre-Conquest religious ritual, refabricating the institution in the process. Given that the cofradía system was ostensibly Catholic, as long as what the church looked upon as patently "idolatrous gear" was kept from sight, the system was on the whole at least minimally acceptable. (This is certainly not to say that "idolatry" disappeared. To the contrary: in some locales it has flourished, and in important ways the cofradía system has provided the platform for that survival.) Whereas enough of the accoutrements of Catholicism are generally present in the cofradías to deflect direct intervention, at the same time the system can constitute a "barrier," the occult side of which offers a venue for the celebrations of characteristically indigenous religious expressions.

The Saints

A particularly salient component of post-Conquest Mesoamerican religious expression is the cult of the Catholic saints. Whereas the role of the saints in the religious life of the region's inhabitants has changed considerably over time, in many cases they continue to resonate with what Nancy Farriss in Maya Society under Colonial Rule identifies as the "chameleon nature" of the pre-Hispanic gods. Writing about the Yucatecan Maya, she observes that the saints lining the walls and altars of the cofradías and parishes in many cases merely came to represent aspects of far more inclusive local deities. According to Farriss, "the addition of one more guise to the multiple permutations each deity already possessed would hardly have fazed the Maya theologians" (Farriss, 1984, p. 313). In some cases in the early twenty-first century the relation of pre-Hispanic deities with Catholic saints is only vaguely discernible. For instance, in Tlayacapan, Mexico, there is a faint relation of the central Mexican rain deity Tlaloc with John the Baptist. In other cases the conflation of ancient gods with Catholic saints is evident. In Santiago Atitlán, Saint Peter (called don Pedro) has a strong association with the ancient Mayan god Mam. In the town the "saint" is typically called Mam. Moreover both Mam and Saint Peter have associations with the uayeb, the five "delicate" days of the Mayan solar calendar.

Evident in these examples is the difference of interpretation in the significance of the saints encountered from community to community. This variation is further underscored in local understandings of the saints' origins. In many communities the saints are believed to have come from foreign lands, though they may now be thought to inhabit nearby mountains. Other accounts of the origins of the saints may be more ambivalent, with some interpretations citing a local indigenous pedigree and others (at times coming from the same informant) describing a foreign origin. The regional variation in the significance of the saints is also evident in the specific roles and importance attached to them. For instance, in one town (Santiago Atitlán) Saint John might be associated with wild animals, whereas in another town (Amatlán) he might be linked to water.

Mesoamerican saints commonly behave in humanlike fashion, which is to say that they do not always display "saintly" behavior. Karl Wipf observes that the saints "may lie, lose their composure, take revenge, have love affairs, and so on" (Wipf, 1987, p. 430).


A tendency for Mesoamericans to interpret the "saints" in ways that differ from orthodox Catholicism is evident in understandings of Judas, again underscoring the church's limited success in regulating the ideological and social contexts of Mesoamerican religious expression. Although in many communities Judas is reviledjust as he is in most of Christianityin other communities he is venerated as a saint. These wide differences in interpretation notwithstanding, in various instances interpretations of Judas find common ground in their reflections of indigenous Mesoamericans' conflicts with the competing dominant national ethnic sector. In a classic study of Mayan passion plays, June Nash writes that in the Chiapas town of Amatenango del Valle, Judas is associated with the devil and the leader of the Jews. She adds that this disdained entity also prevents cornthe indigenous staff of lifefrom growing. Particularly significant is that in Amatenango "the Indians, with all the subtlety and intensity of the dominated, have transmogrified the despised villain of the anti-Semitic Christian passion into an icon of their own oppressor, the Christian Ladino" (Nash, 1968, p. 323). The fact is that in Amatenango Judas is unequivocally equated with Ladinos (non-Indians).

Starkly contrasting with Amatenango, in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, the local Judas figure is revered. Exemplifying the diversity of Mesoamerican Judas figures, in Atitlán Judas does not represent Ladinos but instead is said to have been created by local rain gods (nawals ) and is typically considered to be Mayan. Moreover the deity embodies various definitively ancient Mayan aspects, including calendric associations. Connections with the ancient Mayas notwithstanding, the deity clearly embodies an anti-Catholic dimension. By elevating the enemy of orthodox Catholicism to a deified status, the local Mayas reaffirm their separation from the dominant ethnic sector. These ethnic underpinnings of the Judas figure indicate that the local adoption and subsequent reworking of foreign cultural elements has been integral in mediating the external hegemonic threat, of which the adopted elements originally were a part.


Judas veneration in Guatemala is generally linked to the worship of a rum-chugging, cigar-puffing deity commonly called Maximón. In fact Judas is but one facet of Maximón, a complex deity who is worshipped in various cult centers around the country. The most important centers are located in Zunil, San Andrés Itzapa, and Santiago Atitlán. The god is addressed by a multitude of names, including San Judas, San Simón, don Pedro, Lord Skunk, and Lord Tobacco. Unlike virtually all other aspects of traditional indigenous religion in Guatemala, the Maximón cult may actually be growing. There is no central organization to the cult, explaining in part why the appearance and significance of the deity varies from town to town.

In customary usage the name Maximón is specific to the cult as it exists in the Tz'utujil town Santiago Atitlán. Only in the late twentieth century was the name adopted elsewhere. (Previously the other shrines generally employed the name San Simón.) Indicative of the deity's complexity, the name Maximón has multiple meanings. It is a conflation of Mam, an ancient Mayan god and one of Maximón's primary names, with the biblical Simon. Additionally in Tz'utujil the name means Mr. Knotted, this in reference to the deity's manner of construction. While the exact nature of Maximón's construction is a secret, it is widely known that the figure is made of tied tz'ajtel wood sticks. Its mask is carved from the same wood, accounting for another of its names, Lord Tz'ajtel. The god, who stands about four feet tall, wears two Stetson hats, one atop the other, and is draped in scarves, hence the name Lord Scarves. Varying from the other centers, where the deity is depicted as a seated Ladino (non-Mayan) wearing European-style clothing and dark glasses, in Atitlán it stands, wears the local style of handwoven dress, is Mayan, and never wears dark glasses.

Devotees in Atitlán recognize Maximón as the Lord of Looking Good. This is related to the deity's fancy garb but also pertains to sexual aspects. According to some scholars, this dimension may have its roots in an antecedent deity: the cigar smoking, lecherous ancient Mayan god L. Sexuality certainly underscores Maximón's creation. According to myth, Maximón was created in the primordial past by rain deitiesnawals to watch over their unfaithful wives. Contrary to plan, Maximón displayed unbridled hypersexuality, forcing the nawals to break the deity's neck to curb its behavior and power. Maximón nonetheless retained a capacity to transform into unworldly beautiful women or men. However, should one succumb to Maximón's sexual temptations, the price is insanity and death.

The ambivalent gender of Maximón reflects one of the god's more esoteric dimensions. Mayan cosmology has long emphasized binary opposition, including the world's never-ending transformations of male into female aspects, of dry into wet, and of life into death. As Lord of the Center, Maximón occupies the space between opposites and is the power that attracts one to the other. This underscores Maximón's Judas aspect, which devotees understand to be requisite to Christ's resurrection, hence the world's transformation of death into life and similarly of the dry into the rainy season.

Sun, Moon, and Earth

Whereas Maximón is recognized and worshipped in numerous Guatemalan towns, other deities of unquestioned pre-Hispanic origin have even wider representation in Mesoamerica. Central among those deities are the sun, the moon, and the earth. Like the Maximón cult, specific interpretations of these deities tend to vary from region to region. In fact in the primary Maximón cult center, Santiago Atitlán, Maximón includes the sun among his attributes. In that town the annual solar cycle is equated with waxing and waning of sexual "heat" and the evolution of Maximón (Mam) from his young to old forms. Local residents often refer to the sun as father. The sun is also called father by the Nahuas of Amatlán, Mexico, where it is considered to be the most powerful of the spirits. In marked contrast to Santiago Atitlán, where the sun is associated with Maximón-Judas, in Amatlán it is associated with Jesus. A pairing of Jesus and the sun is also found in the Tzotzil town of Chamula and elsewhere.

In numerous Mesoamerican towns the moon is equated with Mary. This association is found in communities that are generally thought of as traditional, such as Chamula, and also in those that are highly acculturated, such as Tlayacapan. No doubt one reason for the salience of this association is that in Catholic iconography the Virgin of Guadalupe is generally depicted standing on a crescent moon. Not all towns that recognize a moon goddess pair her with Mary. In Santiago Atitlán, the moon, who is revered as "Grandmother," is not linked with Mary. In that town, the moon goddess' association with childbirth and weaving points to an origin in the ancient Mayan deity Ix Chel, who was also a moon goddess and associated with birth and weaving. For the Nahua of Amatlán, the moon is related to the revered goddess Tonantsij, Our Honored Mother, but is also associated with the feared Tlahuelilo, "Wrathful One." This ambivalent understanding reflects both the moon's relationship to birth and fertility but also to the feared underworld and hence death.

This ambivalence about fertility and life on the one hand and death on the other stems from a Mesoamerican understanding of the earth in general. Writing about Amatlán, Sandstrom notes that "people are considered to sprout from the earth like the corn plant, and they are placed back in the earth when they die. The earth is the womb and tomb, the provider of nourishment and all wealth, home to the ancestors, and the daily sustainer of human life" (Sandstrom, 1991, p. 241). The idea of the earth as "womb and tomb" is also widespread in highland Guatemala, as is the association of the human body with corn. So important is the earth in this regard that it is deified. In several Mayan languages the word for earth is ruchiliew, "face of the land," which to Costumbristas refers to an understanding that the surface of the earth is the literal face of the deity. The Mixe of Oaxaca believe that the earth deity is female and call her Na·swi·ñ, or "earth surface." In some parts of Mesoamerica the earth deity is called simply Dios Mundo, World God.

Local Gods

The local orientation of traditional Mesoamerican culture and religion translates into a certain local orientation for all the gods, even those such as the sun and moon that have wide regional recognition. This orientation is even more pronounced in a diverse set of gods explicit to individual Mesoamerican towns and subregions. For instance, many Mesoamericans believe deities inhabit local mountains. In Zinacantan these important deities are called Father-Mothers and are linked with ancestors. For the Tz'utujil of Santiago Atitlán, the primary surrounding mountains are thought to be the abodes of rain deities identified by a variety of names, including nawales and achijab (warriors). In Atitlán these deities, who are often conflated with the New Testament apostles, are believed to have wives, variously called the Marias and ixok ajauwa (lady lords). Several of the Marias are believed to be deified parts of the back-strap loom. Mountain gods and goddesses in the Q'eqchi' region of Guatemala are generically called tzuultaq'a, from the word tzuul (mountain) and taq'a (valley). The tzuultaq'a, who may be equated with saints and are thought to have a human form, live deep inside the mountain in a "house" (a cave). At the same time, a given mountain is thought to be the physical body of the god. Citing a Q'eqchi' informant, Richard Wilson writes that "a tzuultaq'a feels pain when we clear the brush with machetes and jab the planting sticks into the earth" (Wilson, 1995, p. 54). Wilson adds that a given mountain is believed to have a face, a head, a body, and a cave that is either its mouth or womb. In various Mesoamerican towns the local mountain gods are said to be the "owners" of a particular mountain or volcano.


Numerous published studies of contemporary Mesoamerican towns cite the presence of "shamans," sometimes including the indigenous term for the specific type of practitioner and sometimes not. A careful reading of this literature shows that the activities of the different practitioners vary significantly. This wide range of practices is at the basis of fierce scholarly debate about the use of the term shaman for ritual practitioners in Mesoamerica and elsewhere. One camp in this debate argues vehemently that shamanism is a viable concept that refers to an identifiable human activity. Others counter that it is really just a "made-up, modern, Western category." Critics contend that the literature stereotypes a vast array of religious specialists and behaviors from widely differing cultural, historical, and class backgrounds when it presents those specialists under the tidy rubric "shaman."

Whereas it may be useful and accurate to have a single term shaman, there is no doubt that in reference to Mesoamerica the category combines a wide range of differing ritual specialists. Among the different types of Mesoamerican specialists often labeled as shamans are herbalists, indigenous calendar specialists, bonesetters, midwives, snake and spider bite healers, and spirit mediums. Further underscoring these differences is that shamans in communities such as Amatlán and Momostenango are generally respected, whereas in other communities, such as Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio Ilotenango, they are not. A primary reason for the negative association, where it exists, is suspicion of witchcraft.

Syncretism and Transculturation

Over most of the past five centuries a defining characteristic of Mesoamerica has been what one scholar describes as "radically asymmetrical relations of power" (Pratt, 1992, p. 7). Since the Conquest the region's indigenous inhabitants have been subordinate to Spaniards and later to Ladinos. In this environment temples were sacked and churches built in their places. The indigenous inhabitants had to watch as the Spaniards brought in the cult of the saints and cofradías, as they introduced new artistic styles, even new forms of clothing. Over time few aspects of indigenous cultural expression were left untouched by European contact. In the wake of this contact many indigenous societies were completely integrated into the European cultural sphere.

Yet a survey of Mesoamerican religious practices and behaviors demonstrates that the region's inhabitants have not been passive witnesses to their own history. Reflecting cultural resilience and transformative capacity, in many generally rural areas significant cultural aspects could be traced to the pre-European past. Evident in the Mesoamerican cult of the saintsor the fiesta systemis that defining aspects of the post-Conquest cultures commonly have a European outer form but retain an identifiably indigenous meaning. In fact the Mesoamerican cultural landscape presents a textbook example of syncretism, the blending of two formerly discrete cultural traditions leading to the formation of new one. A simple observation of syncretism, however, leaves an important question unanswered. To what extent did Mesoamericans purposefully hold on to their pre-European traditions and in that way attempt to subvert the agendas of their would-be overlords?

Syncretism can be the natural outcome of subconscious thought processes and need not indicate purposeful intent. All people tend to interpret novelty according to preexisting understandings. In that light it is not surprising that Mesoamericans understandings of the saints, for instance, came to closely resemble those of their traditional gods. Whereas this sort of subconscious dynamic helps to explain Mesoamerican religious beliefs, it cannot account fully for the situation in towns where purposeful attempts to retain pre-European beliefs have occurred. In places like Amatlan, Momostenango, and Santiago Atitlán, traditionalists are aware that their costumbres differ from church teachings. An element of antichurch sentiment may also be apparent, as is evident in the Maximón cult or in the phenomenon of cofradía barter. These types of situations are explained by transculturation, the process in which marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture. In Imperial Eyes, a book about transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt points out that "while subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own and what they use it for" (Pratt, 1992, p. 6). Mesoamericans may have had to watch as the Spaniards brought in the saints. Yet far from converting the Mesoamericans to Catholicism, Mesoamericans converted the saints to their own identifiably Native American religion.

Emerging Religious Expressions

On March 15, 1873, Guatemalan president Justo Rufino Barrios signed the Freedom of Worship Act, eliminating Catholicism as the state religion and opening the country to Protestant missionization. A few years later the president went to New York, where he successfully petitioned the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church to commence a presence in Guatemala. Barrios's petition had little to do with his personal religious conviction. Instead, Barrios, a Catholic, sought to attract foreign entrepreneurs otherwise ill-disposed toward Catholic countries. Although the early decades of the twentieth century did see a significant increase in the number of foreign entrepreneurs, it is not possible to determine how much of that was due to Barrios's strategy on religion. What is clear is that the strategy had little impact on conversion to Protestantism. Fully a half century later, in 1940, less than 2 percent of Guatemalans identified themselves as Protestant. Guatemala remained solidly Catholic, though often with a substantial infusion of the costumbres. That situation has now changed.


Contemporary Mesoamerica is experiencing a surge in Protestant growth. In Mesoamerica, as elsewhere in Latin America, the category Protestant, evangélico in Spanish, lumps a diverse group of religious identities, including Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Pentecostal, and mainline denominations (predominantly Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran). Since the 1970s Guatemala has witnessed particularly impressive Protestant growth, mostly among Pentecostal denominations. As many as one in three Guatemalans now identify themselves as Protestant. In fact three of the past seven heads of state have been Protestant. While the number is far lower in neighboring Mexicoaround 5 percent of the country's roughly 100 million peoplethat country is now also witnessing significant Protestant growth, especially among the indigenous population. This growth is in part explained by conversions from Catholicism. Yet a Catholic migration explanation may be oversimplified, particularly when Costumbristas are lumped with orthodox Catholics. A different picture emerges when these groups with scant mutual resemblance are treated separately. In Santiago Atitlán, the town for which the best data are available, growth in orthodox Catholicism has actually outpaced the otherwise impressive Protestant growth. In both cases the growth has come at the expense of the Costumbristas, whose numbers declined precipitously in the late twentieth century.

There are multiple reasons for the surge in new religious identities and similarly for the abandonment of the costumbres. Where Protestant converts typically point to the Holy Spirit as the cause, scholars tend to look to an interplay of local, national, and international socioeconomic variables. The complexity of the situation, even on just the local level, is evident in consideration of population dynamics. Studies in Guatemala indicate that explosive local population growth has contributed to land scarcity, with catastrophic implications for religious systems founded on agriculture. In contrast, an analysis of the abandonment of the costumbres in the area in and around Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo, Mexico, by anthropologist James Dow, shows that an actual decline in the number of males, and hence of potential candidates to assume positions in the cargo system, has been a factor. In her book Protestantism in Guatemala, Virginia Garrard-Burnett observes that new religious identities held little appeal as long the so-called "traditional community" remained in tact. "But when the center began to give, through the erosive processes of 'development,' migration, and war, many beliefs, practices, and institutions that shaped identity gave way with it. It is, at least in part, the attempt to re-create some sense of order, identity, and belonging that has caused so many to turn to Protestantism in recent years" (Garrard-Burnett, 1998, p. xiii). Other factors, which may add to the local appeal of Protestantism, can be its opposition to the sometimes excessive alcohol consumption associated with the costumbres. Additionally the relative quickness and efficiency of the Protestant seminary track has allowed a widespread network of local churches staffed by local ministers. This is in contrast to a severe shortage of Catholic priests.

Economic Underpinnings of Conversion

Various Mesoamerican scholars have written about a correlation between social and economic marginalization and religious conversion. Sandstrom's observation in Amatlán is typical in this regard. Sandstrom notes that early converts were from the most impoverished households in the village and included three alcoholics, one suspected thief, and another who was a "deadbeat" that refused to pay his debts. All were villagers who had lost hope that they could succeed in the prevailing socioeconomic environment. Similar dynamics are also evident in the Kaqchikel town San Antonio Aguascalientes, Guatemala. Sheldon Annis writes in God and Production in a Guatemalan Town that "to those who are economically marginalized by an abject poverty or socially marginalized by increased entrepreneurial activity, Protestantism says: Come to me" (Annis, 1987, p. 141). The attraction of Protestantism to the poor may be enhanced by "prosperity gospel," a message conveyed by some missionaries that conversion will bring concrete material gain. Sandstrom writes about statements by missionaries in Amatlán that local residents are poor because the costumbre religion is of the devil and conversely that all people of the United States are Protestants and "it is because of their religion that God has rewarded them with such great wealth" (Sandstrom, 1991, p. 352).

Whereas it might seem logical to simply dismiss any economic validity to prosperity gospel, there is evidence of a relation between Protestant conversion and economic advantage. Arguments for such advantagewhat mission theorists sometimes call "redemption and lift"usually point out that the cargoes attached to the traditional fiesta system are expensive and entail a trade of significant personal wealth for political power and prestige. Although this sort of economic redistribution and leveling may be socially stabilizing in a functioning subsistence-based agricultural society, it is anathema to entrepreneurship and the market economy. In his study on San Antonio Aguascalientes, Annis argues that ecological crisis, made worse by inequitable distribution of land, has pushed local residents toward Protestantism and its largely pro-entrepreneurial ethic. He observes that Protestants dominate a successful capitalist stratum in the town.

Conversion as Social Backlash

One key factor benefiting Protestant entrepreneurs in San Antonio Aguascalientes has been convenient access to markets in the bustling nearby city Antigua. Much of rural Mesoamerica does not have that sort of economic advantage. One town that does not is San Antonio Ilotenango, Guatemala, as described by Ricardo Falla in his book Quiché Rebelde. Although Falla, who is both a Jesuit priest and an anthropologist, notes that some early converts in the 1970s did experience upward economic mobility, he points out that not all did. Hence Falla's study underscores both the possibilities and the limitations of religious conversion in effecting economic change. His study is also notable because the converts he describes are primarily orthodox Catholics. Large-scale religious conversions often represent a backlash against existing power structures. In San Antonio Ilotenango, as in much of Mesoamerica, that power structure has not been orthodox Catholic so much as the costumbre -based indigenous religion and its civil-religious hierarchies. It should be recalled that in Mesoamerica the customary religion has often included a steadfast embrace of the ancestral past. That embrace elevated traditionalityand thus an emphasis on nonchangeto the level of religious dogma. Yet the undermining of traditional cultural forms, including subsistence based agricultural economies, now demands change. In what one scholar has called a "revolt against the dead," as the traditional forms have eroded, many Mesoamericans have converted to new religious beliefs and identities (Brintnall, 1979).

Emergent Catholic Identities

As the word catholic implies, the Catholic Church has always included a wide range of religious behaviors and identities. In the aftermath of the reign of the costumbres in rural Mesoamerica, several primary identities have emerged as dominant. One particularly salient expression, charismatic renewal, is the subject of considerable ambiguity in Catholic ranks. Mesoamerican carismáticos de-emphasize the saints and sometimes the central role of the Virgin Mary as well. Similarly they de-emphasize priestly liturgical participation, at times even refusing to conduct their religious services in the church building. Like their charismatic counterparts in other regions and countries, Mesoamerican carismáticos emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit and the reception of divine gifts, charisma. Given the similarities to Protestantism, particularly Pentecostal, some critics suggest that charismatic renewal represents a "Trojan horse" to the church, that it is a grave danger to legitimate Catholic belief and ritual. Others contend that carismáticos are really just Protestants-in-becoming. Whereas it is certain that some carismáticos may gravitate to Protestant Churches, for those that do not it may provide a bulwark to Protestant expansion. Charismatic worship may also help to "recapture" former Catholics.

An emphasis on the reception of divine gifts helps to explain charismatic renewal's near total disregard of social and political issues. That disregard contrasts with another emergent Catholic group in Mesoamerica, Catholic Action. Although originally established by Pope Pius XI (r. 19221939) to be a nonpolitical lay organization, Catholic Action has generally worn the mantle of politics. This has been particularly evident in Guatemala, where, following on the heals of the organization's role of attempting to stem the tide of communism and secularism in Franco's Spain, it was employed in 1935. Largely confined to Guatemala City in its early years, the scope of the movement increased significantly in 1944, when a revolutionary regime with secular leftist tendencies assumed the Guatemalan presidency. Additionally that year the church took particular notice of its deteriorating state, as evidenced by the fact that a mere 120 priests attempted to serve the entire country. Under the direction of Bishop Rossel y Arellano, Catholic Action was introduced throughout the countryside. Newly formed lay groups were instructed in Catholic orthodoxy and in the sins of nonsanctioned religious ritual. In this way the Guatemalan architects of Catholic Action intended that it serve both as a defense against Protestantism and communism and that it target the cofradías and shamans.

Although by the time of the introduction of Catholic Action into the countryside the efficacy of the traditional civil-religious hierarchies was already eroded, that introduction did cause considerable social turmoil and backlash in communities such as San Andrés Semetebaj and San Antonio Ilotenango. Perhaps most notable in that regard was Santiago Atitlán, where in 1950 leading members of Catholic Action were involved in the stealing of the head of Maximón and the temporary outlawing of the god's cult. Ironically it was the intercession of town Protestants on the side of the Costumbristas and against the Catholics that restored the legal status of the cult. The occasional Costumbrista triumph such as this notwithstanding, Catholic Action has become a dominant social and religious force in rural Mesoamerica.

Liberation Theology

Augmenting the strategic introduction of Catholic Action in the fight against secularism, communism, and Protestantism, the Catholic Church began to aggressively place new priests in the indigenous countryside. Of particular note in Guatemala was the introduction in the late 1940s and 1950s of number of Maryknolls, based in the United States, and Belgian Sacred Heart brothers, who arrived a year after the church-supported overthrow of the leftist government in 1954. In Mexico the appointment in 1949 of Samuel Ruiz to be bishop of the heavily Mayan diocese of Chiapas proved significant. On his arrival to San Cristobal de las Casas, where the diocese is centered, Ruiz was shocked to find that the indigenous peoples were prohibited even from walking on the sidewalks. The Maryknolls and Sacred Heart brothers were equally shocked by the poverty and squalor in the indigenous communities to which they were sent and the inhumane treatment of the population by some in the dominant Ladino sector.

Because of the crisis state of the local economies in both Guatemala and Chiapas, including an increasingly critical shortage of available agricultural land, many residents were forced into seasonal plantation work. In that highly exploitative environment, people from all over intermingled and talked. Gradually they became aware of national social and political issues. Some even learned that the plantation land now owned by international agribusiness was former Indian land that had earlier been expropriated. Many of these migrant workers were catechists, members of Catholic Action. Garrard-Burnett notes that, in stark contrast to the local orientation of the Costumbrista civil-religious hierarchies, "catechists were outwardly focused leaders informed by contemporary ideas of development and, more recently, by concepts of social justice as defined by liberationist Catholicism as introduced by the foreign priests" (Garrard-Burnett, 1998, p. 129).

Beginning in the 1960s and gaining full momentum with the 1971 publication of A Theology of Liberation by the Peruvian Catholic priest Gustavo Gutierrez, many Latin American priests embraced liberation theology. In Mexico, Bishop Ruiz became probably the leading figure in the movement. At the forefront of that trend in Guatemala were the Maryknoll and Sacred Heart orders. Ironically, though it had originally been intended that those orders be a firewall against communism, liberation theology is founded on a Marxist substrate. In particular liberation theology fully embraced the notion of dependency theory and its argument that the economic development of the core developed countries entailed the subsequent underdevelopment of the Third World. The radical clergy aggressively sought to break the ties of that dependency. Finding a particularly receptive base within their newly activist parishioners, the liberationist priests embarked on program of conscientización (consciousness raising) and economic development. Central to the liberationist strategy was the establishment of base ecclesial communities (CEBs), which were groups of twenty to thirty lay members who regularly met with a nun or priest to discuss issues of philosophy and religion and to initiate strategies for liberation.

The New Jerusalem

On March 23, 1982, a military coup established General Efraín Ríos Montt as the head of state in a Guatemala embroiled in a lengthy civil war. That night on national television the born-again Protestant proclaimed, "I am trusting my Lord and King, that He shall guide me." A week later Ríos Montt appeared on The 700 Club, where the host Pat Robertson appealed to viewers to pray around the clock for the general and pledged $1 billion for Guatemala's reconstruction. With Guatemala now firmly established in the holy war against godless communism, Ríos Montt oversaw what one scholar has called "total war at the grassroots" (Jonas, 1991, p. 148). In sanctioning this campaign the "born-again" general time and again noted Guatemala's central role in divine providence. "We are the chosen people of the New Testament," Ríos Montt said. "We are the new Israelites of Central America" (Annis, 1987, p. 4). Deflecting charges that his policies, which ultimately led to the total destruction of more than four hundred Maya communities, amounted to a "scorched earth" campaign, the dictator replied that it was in fact a "scorched communist" campaign.

The great majority of those "scorched" were Maya living in the countryside. Particularly hard-hit was the Department of El Quiché, the primary area served by the Maryknoll and the Sacred Heart orders. Suspected as being communist, the nuns and priests and their parishioners in the base ecclesial communities were common targets for state-sponsored violence, though many Protestant Maya were also killed or displaced. Garrard-Burnett notes that for Ríos Montt, "communism represented the ultimate rejection of morality and God-given authority; it had to be countermanded by his divinely sanctioned 'final battle against subversion,' which he conceptualized in nearly apocalyptic terms" (Garrard-Burnett, 1998, p. 145). The dictator talked of the "rottenness of mankind," which he said had a name "communism, or the Antichrist, and all means must be used to exterminate it" (Garrard-Burnett, 1998, p. 148). Although Ríos Montt was only in power for seventeen months before being toppled in another military coup, the number of people killed during his regime far eclipsed any other head of state in Guatemala's thirty-year civil war.

The Zapatista Uprising

On New Year's Day 1994 the world awoke to the surprising news of a massive revolt in Chiapas, Mexico. As stunning as the "Zapatista" uprising itself was its coincidence, to the day, with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In hindsight the uprising perhaps should have come as no surprise. Amid incessant heralding of the widespread benefits that free trade must inevitably bring, even proponents of NAFTA confessed that its implementation would entail certain "adjustments" for some of those involved. Simply put, those that took to arms in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas believed that they themselves were in danger of being adjusted. Of particular concern was NAFTA's dismantling of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution. That article, which grew out of the Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) rally cry of Emiliano Zapata's followers in the Mexican Civil War, is a constitutional guarantee of land for all Mexican citizens.

For some years prior to the uprising, displaced peasants from highland Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico began forming communities in the sparsely populated jungle areas of eastern Chiapas. Included in the population were thousands of Protestant Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya who had been expelled from their towns because of their religious beliefs. One town, Chamula, has expelled more than thirty-two thousand mostly Presbyterian evangelicals in the previous twenty years. The 1990 census showed that Protestants numbered between 20 and 51 percent of the population in the municipios (towns) of eastern Chiapas. Included in the population is a mix of Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons. In part to counter the growth of Protestantism, the Catholic Church ramped up its community building efforts in the region, concentrating much of their efforts in a group of settlements lying in the Lacandón rain forest near the border with Guatemala.

The anthropologist George Collier, perhaps the leading authority on the Zapatista rebellion, argues that the social mix of eastern Chiapas provided fertile ground for the rise of the EZLN, the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Because most of the residents were recent immigrants, there were few established power structures to limit the emergence of participatory democratic communities. Moreover the newly arrived religious groups established functioning networks for building those communities. Another key factor in the incipient peasant movement was the input of liberationist dialogue, mostly coming from Bishop Ruiz and his colleagues. Of particular significance was the church-sponsored 1974 Chiapas Indigenous Congress. Collier observes that the demands issued at the conference on issues of land, food, education, and health were almost identical (suspiciously so) to those the EZLN issued twenty years later.

The catechist delegates took the lessons of the Indigenous Congress with them when they returned to their communities in eastern Chiapas. Ultimately they were stymied in getting their message out by the region's religious pluralism. Collier observes that only truly secular movement appealing to pluralism and democracy could unite the peasant communities across the chasm of religious diversity. Ultimately the EZLN filled that role. Although the level of direct involvement of Bishop Ruiz and his catechist colleagues in the formation of the EZLN remains unclear, some level of involvement is certain. Critics have charged the bishop with being a primary architect of the movement. Others claim that his lessons were merely an inspiration. For its part the EZLN declares that "we have no links to Catholic religious authorities, nor with those of any other creed . Among the ranks, the majority are Catholic, but there are also other creeds and religions" (Collier, 1999, p. 65).

Fully a decade after first seizing the world's attention, the EZLN steadfastly declares that "land is for the Indians and peasants who work it, not for the large landlords. We demand that the copious lands in the hands of ranchers, foreign and national landlords, and other non-peasants be turned over to our communities" (Collier, 1999, p. 64).

Pan-Mayanist Activism

Activist demands for land and human rights in Mesoamerica are not limited to those emanating out of the Zapatista communities in eastern Chiapas. Of particular note in this regard is Pan-Mayanism, a coordinated activism bringing together Maya from far-flung locales. Whereas there are indications that this movement may be starting to take hold in Mexico, it is primarily associated with Guatemala. In fact in many ways it was the social turmoil created by the civil war and aggravated by such factors as globalization and ecological crisis that provided the impetus for Maya to unite in demands for the halt of racism, ethnocide, poverty, and violence. Joining in that demand has been a loosely knit group of foreign intellectuals and scholars who have provided organizational and technical support to the movement. A challenge for those involved has been to refocus Maya culture and ethnic identity from its customary local orientation to a national level of identity. Stated differently, the challenge has been to create a sense of Maya nationalism. It has been helpful that various key indigenous leaders of the movement have been educated in urban universities, where they could share perspectives and kindle their activism. The outgrowth of the Pan-Mayanism can be seen in dozens of indigenous organizations dedicated to the preservation of Maya languages, cultural research, publishing, and civil rights. The movement was also influential in the inclusion of a plank recognizing Maya culture and indigenous rights in the peace accord ending Guatemala's civil war.

This activist substrate to Pan-Mayanism is explained in part by its having built on the Catholic Action pattern of leadership. Given the original anti-costumbre agenda of Catholic Action, it might seem curious that many Pan-Mayanists embrace a "decolonized" form of the costumbres. In a classic display of revitalization, they have attempted to remove all traces of Christianity. Yet revitalization movements never fully succeed in purifying themselves, and they typically include new beliefs and behaviors. This is evident in the use of laptop computers to calculate Maya calendar dates by the movement's "Maya priests" or in their embrace of New Age concepts. Ironically, in the attempt to recreate the original form of Mesoamerican religion, Pan-Mayanism may actually have created its newest form. In any case apparent is the agency, creativity, tragedy, and sense of hope that has always characterized religion in Mesoamerica.

See Also

Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Mesoamerican Religions; Roman Catholicism; Shamanism, article on South American Shamanism; Syncretism; Transculturation and Religion, overview article.


Anderson, Arthur J. O. "Sahagun's Nahuatl Texts as Indigenist Documents." Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 2 (1960): 33.

Annis, Sheldon. God and Production in a Guatemalan Town. Austin, Tex., 1987. Analysis of religious conversion and economic performance in San Antonio Aguascalientes, Guatemala.

Brintnall, Douglas E., Revolt against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala. New York, 1979. Study of the abandonment of the costumbres in Aguacatán, Guatemala.

Carlsen, Robert S. The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town. Austin, Tex., 1997. Survey of religious continuity and change in Santiago Atitlán, including considerable discussion of the Maximón cult and cofradías.

Collier, George A., and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello. Basta!: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. 2d ed. Oakland, Calif., 1999. Comprehensive study of the Zapatista uprising, including consideration of the role of religion.

Dow, James W., and Alan R. Sandstrom, eds. Holy Saints and Fiery Preachers: The Anthopology of Protestantism in Mexico and Central America. Westport, Conn., 2001. Quantitatively based analysis of Protestant growth.

Falla, Ricardo. Quiché Rebelde: Religious Conversion, Politics, and Ethnic Identity in Guatemala. Austin, Tex., 2001. Analysis of the rise of Catholic Action in San Antonio Ilotenango, Guatemala.

Farriss, Nancy M. Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton, N.J., 1984. History of the post-Conquest Maya in Yucatán.

Garrard-Burnett, Virginia. Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in the New Jerusalem. Austin, Tex., 1998. Comprehensive historical survey of Protestantism in Guatemala.

Garrard-Burnett, Virginia, and David Stoll, eds. Rethinking Protestantism in Latin America. Philadelphia, 1993. Theoretic and historic analysis, with considerable attention given to Mesoamerica.

Gossen, Gary H. Chamulas in the World of the Sun: Time and Space in a Maya Oral Tradition. Prospect Heights, Ill., 1974. Anthropological analysis of traditional beliefs in Chamula, Mexico.

Ingham, John M. Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico. Austin, Tex., 1986. Analysis of the history and beliefs of an acculturated Tlayacapan, Mexico.

Jonas, Suzanne. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder, Colo., 1991.

Klein, Cecilia, Eulogio Guzman, Elisa C. Mandell, and Maya Stanfield-Mazzi. "Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: A Reassessment." Current Anthropology 43 (2002): 383401. Contribution to the critical literature on the category "shamanism."

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Nash, June. "The Passion Play in Maya Indian Communities." Comparative Studies in Society and History 10 (1968): 318327. A classic study that focuses on Judas in Mesoamerican passion plays.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York, 1992. A definitive study on transculturation.

Sandstrom, Alan R. Corn Is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman, Okla., 1991. Cultural analysis of Amatlán, Mexico, a traditional Nahua community.

Stanzione, Vincent. Rituals of Sacrifice: Walking the Face of the Earth on the Sacred Path of the Sun. Albuquerque, 2003. Comprehensive study of the Maximón cult in Santiago Atitlán, with a focus on the Holy Week pilgrimage.

Stoll, David. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. Berkeley, Calif., 1990. A definitive study on religious change in contemporary Latin American, with considerable attention given to Ríos Montt.

Tarn, Nathaniel. Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán. New York, 1998. A comprehensive source on Maximón.

Tedlock, Barbara. Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque, N.M., 1982. In-depth study of the continued use of the traditional Maya calendar in Momostenango, Guatemala.

Van Oss, Adriaan C. Catholic Colonialism: A Parish History of Guatemala, 1524-1821. Cambridge, Mass., 1986. Detailed historical survey of Catholicism in Guatemala.

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Warren, Kay B. The Symbolism of Subordination: Indian Identity in a Guatemalan Town. 2d ed., Austin, Tex., 1989. Theoretically rich study of ethnic and religious identity in San Andrés Semetebaj, Guatemala.

Warren, Kay B. Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala. Princeton, N.J., 1998. A comprehensive analysis of Pan-Mayanism.

Watanabe, John M. Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World. Austin, Tex., 1992. Sensitive treatment of the cult of the saints in Santiago Chimaltenango, Guatemala.

Wilson, Richard. Maya Resurgence in Guatemala: Q'eqchi' Experiences. Norman, Okla., 1995. Political violence and religion among the Q'eqchi' of eastern Guatemala.

Wipf, Karl A. "Mesoamerican Religions: Contemporary Cultures." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade. New York, 1987. The antecedent article to the present treatment of contemporary Mesoamerican religion.

Robert S. Carlsen (2005)