Tarascan Religion

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TARASCAN RELIGION . The Tarascan Indians, speakers of a genetically unaffiliated language, created one of the major empires of pre-Conquest Mexico, rivaling and successfully repulsing the Aztec. Like the latter, they had a complex religious hierarchy, a priest-king, and a developed system of rites, myths, and religious legends. During and following the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, however, more than 90 percent of these people were destroyed in a holocaust of slaughter, disease, and slave labor. In the early twenty-first century about ninety thousand Indians (about two-thirds Tarascan speaking)surrounded by non-Tarascanslive on in the high, cool, green Sierra Tarasca, where they subsist by various combinations of lumbering, arts and crafts, fishing, farming (mainly maize), and raising livestock. Immediate to moderately extended families are grouped into villages of several hundred to several thousand persons. Factional rivalries within the villages are exceeded by the nearly ubiquitous intervillage hostilities, and both, like the rivalries between families, are balanced by a strong ethic of familial and communal solidarity and the integrative function of religious ritual.

Tarascan history is still reflected in today's religious culture. Prehistoric ritual groups such as the "moon maidens" and mythical symbols such as deer masks and "the tigers" figure in the fiestas. But the main historic source of Tarascan religion is Spain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuriesevident not only in "the Moors" and other ritual actors in Tarascan religious fiestas but also in the dogmatically simple focus on Saint Francis and the holy family brought to them by Franciscan missionaries, notably the great humanist Don Vasco de Quiroga. Tarascan religious practice, whatever its sources, is marked by aesthetic integration, perhaps above all in the music of its many bands, and the diagnostic Dance of the Little Old Men (hunched, red-masked figures who alternate between hobbling on canes and jigging with adolescent energy).

A major axis of Tarascan religion lies in individual rites of passage. Baptism, ideally, takes place a week after birth: A man and a woman, usually spouses, become the child's godparents and, more important, the ritual co-parents (Span., compadre; Tarascan, kúmpa ) of the child's parents. At two or three subsequent rites, notably that of confirmation, the parents acquire additional but less valued compadres who, in particular, help with obligations in religious ritual. The major individual rite, the wedding, includes a ceremony in a Roman Catholic church and a great deal of folk religious ritualconspicuously the climactic and widespread kúpera dance between the couple and their siblings and cousins, who successively dance up to each other, exchange drinks, and lightly scratch each others' faces with rose thorns. This wedding also invokes and creates ties of ritual kinship (kinship and religious ritual are largely thought of and acted out in terms of each other). Death is celebrated by a night-long wake, with much drinking, and a funeral procession through the entire village. (If the deceased was an infant or a child, the body is borne on a table.)

The main way the Tarascan relates to the supernatural, however (aside from individual sorcery and witchcraft), is through familial and communal ritual. Every town stages an annual fiesta for its patron saint; most towns organize four to six such affairs each year, each for a different saint; and at least one town, Ocumicho, puts on a fiesta every monthwith a correspondingly great expenditure of time and energy. These fiestas are run by elected officials or cargueros (Span., "load bearers"), who, with the support of dozens or even scores of kin or ritual kin, may spend huge amounts of pesos on the bands, elaborate fireworks, alcohol, ceremonial dishes, Catholic masses, livestock for slaughter, and other elements of the fiesta. While these expenses are often said to be ruinous, the average person is quite ready to incur them, or at least resigned to them because of the social status they imply. Also, the debts can be a source of prestige that links the carguero into a larger human network. In some of the more conservative towns the offices of the different saints are ranked in terms of prestige, forming a sort of "ceremonial ladder," in which the carguero who sponsors the associated fiestas gradually ascends a series of metaphorical rungs. Although most cargueros are men, women do most of the work of organizing and preparation. Some annual fiestasfor example, to Our Virgin of the Assumptionare purely religious, but the great majority involve commercial and market functions (these functions constitute the primary emphasis of some festivals).

Religious ritual is diagnostically regional. Some fiestas are essentially localfor example, that of Saint Cecilia in tiny San José, where many of the men actually are musicians. But people are aware of fiestas and practices in their entire region as well, and a large number of fiestas are pan-Tarascan, either because they attract many pilgrims or because the day is celebrated in the several villages where a given saint is patron, as in the cases of the popular San José and San Francisco. All Saints and All Souls days are observed in all towns by quiet vigils with flowers and bread figures at the graves of the recently deceased. In Janitzio, on the other hand, a thousand candle-bearing canoes hover around the island during the night of November 1. An individual whose personal saint coincides with that of a village often makes a pilgrimage, or at least says a special prayer. (Prayer generally focuses on help with practical, personal problems such as illness or jealousy and envy, and so is inextricably intertwined with the culture's pervasive witchcraft and sorcery.)

A notable feature is the great variation in the religious autonomy of a village, which is reticulated closely with its political orientation and economic standing. At one extreme the annual and personal rituals (baptism, confirmation, marriage, and the wake) are managed by local societies and religious specialists (who, for example, may know an oration by heart). A priest may come to a village once a month (or even less often), or the person or persons concerned may go to the county seat for the priest's ministrations. Some villages categorically refuse to allow a priest to participate in such sacred matters as the construction of a new church or the organization of a passion play because they realistically fear financial loss. At the other extreme a local priest may be active and highly influential not only in religious ritual but also in local politicsto the extent of controlling the external relations of the village. The grass-roots role of the priest is so important because the Tarascan do not in general own or read the Bible or other religious literature (with the exception of a few thousand Protestants, limited to a few pueblos, who do have a superb Tarascan translation of both Testaments). The Tarascan concern is not with doctrine, argument, theology, or texts, but with a costly ritual and its economic, social, and political implications.

Nevertheless, the Tarascan share a network of explicit and implicit understandings, symbols, and attitudes that have been synthesized and transmitted largely by word of mouth. Every village, family, and individual holds to a different subset of these beliefspagan, local, Catholic, and secularbut there is cohesion in the area as a whole. This is in large part due to the fiestas. "Because of the fiestas," modern industry has attracted few Tarascan; "because of the fiestas," Protestant missionaries have made few converts; agrarian reform has had to compromise with the fiestas; and work and the family are strongly motivated by their roots in the fiestas. Fiestas, not as symbols or surface phenomena only, but as vivid, primary experiences, are the basis of Tarascan religion.


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