Time for disruption, time for chaos: the carnival in a Nahua community of the Sierra Norte of Puebla

Lourdes Báez1

To Marie-Odile Marion

In Memoriam

For the Nahuas of Naupan, municipality of the Sierra Norte of Puebla, the carnival –unlike others that take place in important cities and which are mostly ostentatious spectacles- is presented as the first link of a ritual chain that begins with Lent and, 2 at the same time, rushes into the community to cause its time and space transformation, since disruption of limits between sacred and profane become evident.

Even if this celebration may go unnoticed to a foreign visitor, since daily activities go on unchanged, the appearance of the huehues3 on the community stage indicates disruption of peace, leaving place for the chaos that will become evident during the four days prior to the start of Lent.

The ritual that takes place on these days of symbolic chaos is inscribed in what van Gennep4 defined as rites of passage. For this author, during their existence all men find themselves subjected to constant changes, such as changes of state, place and social position; he emphasizes that “Every change in a person’s life involves actions and reactions between sacred and profane –actions and reactions to be regulated and guarded so that society as a whole will suffer no discomfort or injury”.5

However, not only do these changes affect men, but also nature itself, and the universe where nature stirs, and they are all subjected to the rhythms marked by season cycles, cosmic transitions, etcetera. In this sense, these elements also have their parallel actions to ensure their optimal development; van Gennep refers to actions performed by society to describe these changes as seasonal rites of passage.6

There are three phases in these rites of passage: the first phase is the separation expressed by means of a symbolic action when the individual or group is detached from an earlier fixed point in the social structure; in the second phase, the margin phase, which is intermediate or liminal, the individual or group assumes an ambiguous behavior because the cultural realm has none or few of the attributes of the past or coming state; finally in the third phase, known as reaggregation or incorporation, the individual or group is incorporated again to the original state.7 As to the situations in which liminality has a central position, Turner emphasized that it is precisely during these stages that societies have the possibility of periodically restating and reclassifying their reality and their relationships towards society itself, towards nature and the universe that surround them; in this sense, liminality induces men to reflection and action.8

In this work I specifically focus on the second phase, the liminal phase, from the ritual actions that appear during carnival week in the Nahua community of Naupan, in the Sierra Norte of Puebla. In fact, the phase that becomes more evident at the beginning of the ritual cycle which ends with Lent is the liminal phase, because during it the series of ritual dramatizations appear as moments

“in and out of time”, and in and out of secular social structure which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.9

Smith10 notes that every ritual practice is related to a circumstance that regulates its juncture; in the same way, these circumstances may be periodic or sporadic and may affect either the life of the collectivity or that of individuals in particular. When rites respond to a series of periodical circumstances, they establish a system according to a syntagmatic axis, where each rite related to a given series will be preceded by another one according to a given order which will repeat itself in each reoccurrence of the cycle.11 As to the collectivity, for instance, seasons determine in many societies a rite cycle whose periodicity may be annual or of a shorter duration; that is, it will elapse “as an ordered series of eternal beginnings and repetitions”.12 In this sense, the ritual actions undertaken by a society constitute global responses to the series of circumstances that determine their manifestation, always considering that each society adopts a particular form to explain and arrange its symbolic universe. As expressed by Mary Douglas, “each community adopts a dominant form of explanation”13 to reach the ideal order established by its system of representations, which is threatened by various dangers, many of which are derived from superhuman forces.

Mary Douglas14 notes two ways of dealing with these threats: the first would be “negatively”; it mostly refers to ignoring the threats; the second way would be “positively”, and it implies facing the anomalies trying to create a new configuration of reality in which these anomalies are acceptable. Obviously, every society establishes in its network of classification a variety of anomalies, and therefore the right mechanisms to face them.15

One of the moments in which anomalies are produced is precisely when states of transition occur, and they are believed to be “dangerous” because -as the author wisely expresses-, “transition is not one state or the other; it is indefinable”.16

Among the most evident characteristics attributed to the states of transition situated at the margins, we find ambiguity. Turner17 defines these states as liminal, and the persons in this phase as “threshold people”. This means that these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that regulates community life; that is, they cannot be placed within “the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial”.18 This means that in liminality considered as a transition phenomenon, there is a marginalization of the social order. In societies such as the Indigenous where there is segmentation based on prestige, roles are established from a process in which whoever is structurally superior could not be so without there being someone structurally inferior, and in this liminal phase there is a temporary inversion of status, in which we see “the low high and the high low”.19

During this process, we see the introduction -next to the liminal state- of what Turner calls communitas20 and which “has an existential aspect; it implies man in his totality, in his relationship to other men also considered in their totality”. In this phase, time seems to stop in the present, in the now. On the contrary, communitas emerges where there is no social structure.21 Turner suggests that the idea of communitas is not related to a concrete territorial framework, hence the insistence on showing among its main characteristics those of homogeneity and fraternity. As a consequence, communitas may be associated to spontaneous, concrete and immediate nature, which opposes to nature that is ruled by standards, to what is institutionalized and abstract, and these are characteristics of social structure. However, even when we consider communitas and structure as two apparently different phenomena, as affirmed by Turner “communitas can only be understood when somehow related to structure”.22

Therefore, communitas takes place inside and outside the social structure; that is, standards around it are transgressed or eliminated but at the same time this enriches the experience of the community in order to evidence the recognition that there is a social bond, which is determined by the reigning atmosphere of comradeship.23

This process takes place in the rites of passage, where men find themselves free from structure to pass to the communitas and afterwards go back to the time of structure; Turner notes that this dialectic is necessary for the proper functioning of society.

In fact, in the cyclic rituals marked by the calendar, and preferably those which are collective like the carnival, this process of “status inversion” becomes visible, because we witness a removal from the normal processes of the social action