Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Migration and Cultural Syncretism: Patron Saint Day in Todos Santos Cuchumatán

Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
November 1st, 2009.
Issues: Culture & Migration

“We understand cultural syncretism as a process of acculturation, or mixing of different cultures. In general terms, it basically refers to the process by which Europe, and particularly Spain and Portugal, blended with the so-called ‘New Continent’”. (1)

Nevertheless, it is impossible not to perceive the new syncretism that continually embeds itself in our territories due to the complex links arising from the South-to-North migration phenomenon.

The Cuchumatanes sierra is Central America’s highest mountain range. Entrenched in its summits, the municipality of Todos Santos Cuchumatan rises 2,470 meters above sea level. Maya Mam communities have inhabited these cold, dense, and hostile peaks for generations. Mexico is only a few crests in the distance.


As Catholic traditions prevail in Guatemala, each town carries out its largest annual festival on its patron saint day. Todos Santos (Spanish for all saints) celebrates its yearly fair on November 1st, All-Saints Day. It is customary in Guatemala, Mexico, and most countries in the region to commemorate the deceased on that date, and well into the 2nd, by visiting cemeteries, decorating graves and placing offerings to those who have passed on. Here in Todos Santos, a jovial spirit from the annual fair reigns above all.

“It is not customary in Guatemala for Mayan men to wear their traditional clothing. But in Todos Santos the men are very proud to do so, as the design and colors were adapted to their worldview in relation to the sacred Mayan calendar – as part of the syncretism found throughout Guatemala.” (2)

“Without a doubt, the horse races are the center of attention in the todosantero festival. Their meaning and origins are vague. One interpretation views them as a recreation of a triumphant escape by [Maya] Mam warriors from Spanish forces. A different opinion sees the event as tied with symbolism relating to the cleansing of the land, as the participants sacrifice a rooster before galloping.” (3)

“In the end, there is no race or competition. The riders, decorated with feathers, woven sashes, and capes, dash along a hundred meter course at the sound of a whistle. Once done, they turn around, and again – over and over, from one end to the other, for hours.” (4)


“The migratory phenomenon [is] a product of factors that immerse the population in a generalized feeling of despair and an absence of opportunities to live in their country. The lack of governance, combined with the [high] incidence of violence and criminality faced by Guatemalan society, have created a state of extreme insecurity for its citizens.

In addition, the high levels of exclusion and discrimination that the indigenous population is subjected to, strengthen the correlation between indigenous background and poverty in Guatemala. As a result, domestic and international migration becomes the only alternatives to improve their chances in life and to meet subsistence needs." (5)

“Maya Mam peasants, experts in crossing frontiers, have crossed international boundaries between Mexico and Guatemala, identity borders between mestizo and Mam cultures, religious adherence from Catholicism to Protestantism, and, once again, risk their lives to cross international borders as they migrate toward the Unites States.” (6)


“Culture is the collection of symbols with which humans relate to their environment and through which they explain and recreate that relation. Identity is a manifestation of culture, one that results in the selective and distinctive internalization of certain elements and traits by social subjects.” (7)

“Indigenous cultures are dynamic. Their knowledge and traditions display characteristics of continuity from the past, but they also incorporate modernization processes. Emigration causes changes in life: the community, region, and country are left behind. It affects cultural models and notions about the world that reflect in daily choices involving eating habits, housing, clothing, as well as in collective and public activities. This does not necessarily involve a complete tear with the past, but rather a cultural reconfiguration.” (8)

Young nine-year-old Daniel tells us that he “loves Barcelona!” – reflected by the cap he wears with the football club’s symbol. His traditional outfit also includes a belt that at first seems commonplace. Upon further scrutiny, the belt reveals motifs from a well known animated Hollywood film.


Nevertheless, “how far does the resistance against the hegemonic culture really go and, along with it, a return to the origins, traditions, purity, fundamentalisms? Is it more appropriate to talk about cultural hybridism? Or syncretism? Or pastiche? Those who return, do they bring back only a strong influence of mass culture, of consumerism, of meat and cars, of alcohol, of laziness, of hygienism? Arguments and realities exist for all tastes; the only thing we can be sure of is that all different life modes are constantly in transformation. As a consequence, so is culture, as the guide that helps us wade between trials and errors, between traditions and innovations, between recreations and technologies, the new challenges we all face.” (9)

“The [United States] flag is in itself another marketing symbol, a good, a merchandise that generates profits and is available to whomever wants to purchase it. The expansion of the flag as an icon beyond US borders demonstrates the capacity of the capitalism and cultural hegemony managed by the United States. But it is also a sign of its own weakness. Users of all walks of life – immigrants, youth, rockers, middle-class folk – assign their own meanings and experiences [to the flag]… And, in our case, it reaches out to immigrants and their families, creating a sense of belonging that sometimes surpasses that which their home country has offered them – even if this weighs heavily on northerners and southerners alike.” (10)

“In the cities as in the countryside, we cannot help but notice the most kitsch homes – as if the architecture produced by remittances was just that… The truth is that these improved products are modifying their agents’ landscape. Bordering between mixtures and mestizajes, these products make the changes that migration is bringing to the urban and rural areas evident. These homes reflect that, among other dynamics, migration brings social differentiation. We must always keep this in mind. But, at the same time, these houses represent the search for an improved quality of life and the enjoyment of certain comforts, such as added light, and more private spaces. All in all, a different habitation concept.” (11)

“This brings us to the idea that these people have reached a certain level of development on their own; one that the State has never facilitated for them and that is infinitely more costly for rural than for urban populations. It is a shame that dignified housing and minimal conditions of comfort must be achieved through such extraordinary efforts. Under this view, [migrant] architecture is a monument to the indifferent governments and elites from Central American nations who have not known how to channel these people’s energies other than to overexploit them.” (12)

“All of this becomes increasingly complex when we realize that there is recognition for the immigrants who head north only if their venture is successful. If so, there is an increase in remittances, improved housing, and gold teeth. But no one ever hears about those who disappear, or simply the “failed” ones who could not reach their dreams in physical and economic terms.” (13)

“Alcoholism is a negative cultural factor that is aggravated with the migratory experience – both in the departing and receiving communities.” (14)

“Those who stay build a wall against the failed ones who return, and condemn them to public derision, ostracism, and oblivion. The force behind the ideology of the return – those who leave must do so always believing they will return better off than when he or she left – is expressed throughout Central America and fuels migrants’ efforts. It is a necessary force in order to gather the strength and courage required for the departure, especially considering how brutal and dangerous the journey north can be.

This ideology, however, boasts serious limitations if one does not return triumphantly surrounded by material goods: those who fail earn the branding of a “leper”. Hence, a deep feeling of frustration and the urge to try the journey again pervades among those returnees viewed as failures. This cruel wall of disdain is built by all of us, and as such, it is our responsibility to dismantle it.” (15)

Even on All-Saints day, when families visit their dead, the tombs of those who triumphed in El Norte continue to cast the shadow of disdain on those who failed or never left.

By James Rodrí­guez -...
Please follow the link above to preview the 40-page book version of Migration and Cultural Syncretism: Patron Saint Day in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Available in soft or hard cover, the book includes 80 full color photographs. All proceeds help fund the production of the photo-essays found in MiMundo.org.

Versión en español aquí.

1 http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sincretismo_cultural
2 http://www.tuaventura.org/node/276
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Bezáres Cóbar, Patricia. “Aproximaciones para el análisis y estudio sobre la situación de las mujeres indígenas y migración en Guatemala”. Migraciones indígenas en las Américas. Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos. 2007, San José, Costa Rica. P. 115.
6 Hernández Castillo, Rosalía Aída (2004), in International Colloquium Chiapas, ten years later. Ciesas. San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México.
7 Duarte, Rolando y Teresa Coello. La Decisión de Marcharse: Los pueblos indígenas migrantes de Guatemala y Chiapas. Consejería en Proyectos (PCS). Guatemala, 2007. Pp. 97.
8 Ibid. Pp. 97-8.
9 Cazali, Rosina. Conversation with Manuela Camus and Santiago Bastos. “Mirando desde el Sur”. Migraciones: Mirando al Sur. Centro Cultural de España en México. México, 2009. P. 64.
10 Ibid. P. 60.
11 Ibid. Pp. 62-3.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid. P. 61.
14 Op. Cit. Duarte & Coello. P. 101.
15 Op. Cit. Cazali. P. 61.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

thanks for this story, and again your pictures are amazing - I feel I am almost there at the horse race. Some cultures no matter the influence of others will always survive, sometimes though at great cost.