Lourdes Baez Cubero, El juego de las alternancias: la vida y la muerte. Rituales del ciclo de vida entre los nahuas de la Sierra de puebla, México, Conaculta/ Programa de Desarrollo Cultural de la Huasteca, 2005.

DA380801The book is organized into four chapters, introduction and conclusion. This is a simple text with good structure and simple writing, so that the reader is lead by the hand to know the main ideas, proposals, hypotheses and conclusions without any tricks or major complications. It does not overwhelm us with the widespread use of specialized terminology, nor are we subjected to long sessions of theoretical lucubration, infertile and out of place. Rather, as if they were postcards, in a few paragraphs tells us the analytical tools to be used, or describes the environment, present and past of a community and the region that contains it.

In other words, this is book clear and easy to read. It is not scary case studies read, those who can be seen as a bequest, a punishment sent by the ancestors because we have chosen a particular group or region, there are no such infinite price lists, or those tedious descriptions of ritual bordering on immorality, that are actually transcripts of the field diary. Therefore, the book is simple, because the author has discriminated between the necessary and the accessory.

¿Why rite and not myth? This is the first question the author intends to respond to justify its study topic. For anthropology, and the analysis of the mythological discourse ritual have been considered key to unraveling the most intimate ways of thinking of a culture, no doubt because they are concentrated and expressed in different ways many of the beliefs that support and are apprehended the Universe. However, In the case of the Nahua of Naupan the mythological corpus is severely fragmented and in the power of a few elderly people, it was almost impossible to think about it in context.

Not so the ritual, which shows the life, vitality and dispersion sufficient to represent the forms of thought of the community that plays it. It is clear that rituals do not exist in isolation nor are all of the same class and therefore cannot all have the same force or represent the group on the same terms. Lourdes Baez therefore restricted her field of study to those whose purpose is to explain our existence, our way through life and in the case of the Nahua, the inevitable return to death.

The life-cycle rituals are of particular importance because the man can only think of the universe from itself, and hence the eternal anthropocentrism far and wide. Hence the tendency to project ourselves to everything around us, turning our development cycles similar to that of the stars, seasons, plants and animals, but above all, projecting what gives us sustenance and meaning in the world. This is the case of the Nahua and other indigenous groups of Mesoamerican tradition.

The indigenous cosmos is based on the body, its fluids, temperatures, gender and, of course, the life-death cycle. The sun, plants, moon, animals, everything seems to play this eternal course. It is so precisely because the death of a man is like the death of the sun and a newborn child is as the fresh corn. From the rituals of the life cycle can be read not only the different age categories and social values, but also the principles that govern the movement and progress of the universe.

The first chapter is devoted to the anthropological theory of the ritual, namely the authors of whom our author was inspired to shape her interpretations. The list is extensive and it would be inappropriate to try to summarize its content, therefore I would like to highlight some authors to influence the professional development of Lourdes Baez, and at first Arnold van Gennep, whom the discipline will be eternally indebted.

As we know, van Gennep suggested the existence of a special type of ritual known as rite of passage, whose property lies in the symbolic function as a bridge between two spaces or categories. Obviously, if the traffic can be carried out is necessary that the “insider”, what appears from socially defined who suffers a symbolic death and later be reborn in a new condition. However, this social transformation is not immediate, since among the symbolic death and rebirth there is a period in which the initiate does not belong to any category and remains at the threshold, in an uncomfortable limbo for society.

This period of margin, or introductory, was developed later by Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, who focused their efforts on understanding the nature, apparently antisocial and dangerous, which marks individuals who carry out such rituals. From these theoretical assumptions, Lourdes Baez suggests that the Nahua rituals of life cycle must be understood and approached as rites of passage and, therefore, pays particular attention to the emphasis that the Nahua give to each one of the ritual stages, that are of separation, margin or aggregation.

Of course, this chapter is not only about the phases of the ritual, it also discusses the elements or key objectives that appear to play a significant role during the staging of the ritual, and are, after all, that determine their intent. We must remember collective action is intentional, there is no chance in the ritual, and therefore all improvisation meets a predetermined logic that, while dynamic, ensure that the message is repeated.

Thus, our author takes up the concept of “focus element” proposed by Pierre Smith, for “allowing these key elements to consider in two dimensions: the social and symbolic, that is reflected in the social context in the same sense a social expression to induce action, and through the symbolic configuration to rebuild his world.” It should be mentioned that the choice of a focal point to guide interpretation that occurred after the authors contrast their relevance to the proposed “dominant symbol” (Turner), “molecules” (Galinier) and “symbol” (Vogt).

The second chapter, “The nahua universe”, although is not a theoretical section is the result of one of the most serious and powerful proposals for the interpretation of the indigenous symbolism of Mesoamerican tradition. Historical-ethnographical the Mesoamerican hard-core theory widely studied and defended by Alfredo Lopez Austin. Since it is almost impossible not to satisfy the obvious and sometimes overwhelming similarities, which still persist between the indigenous and the contemporary to the time of contact – particularly in the magical-religious area, and more when it comes to Nahua groups. Our author decided to rebuild broadly from sources and other historical studies the conceptions that the pre-Hispanic nahuas had regarding their place in the cosmos: what was the basic structure of their universe, their origins, the way they located them in time and of course, the ways they thought life and lived the death.

Then we find that “the Nahua universe was conceived from the body model” so that “man must be almost perfect, like the gods, to be considered as center of the world. However, man is imperfect, and to achieve full face value needs to follow the rules of social behavior dictated by the gods, as only fulfilling their duties to society, that is nothing but the gods themselves, ensured the progress of the cosmos.

However, gods and men will never be equal and therefore may not share the world, at least not the same space. Thus the birth of the fifth sun, our sun movement, marks both the beginning of human time as the death of the deities. The sacrifice of the gods down the balance, which is nothing but an eternal game of alternations where the night will follow day, like death to life, the underworld to heaven, women to men at a time recidivist .

Thus, “the man thought of his nature as unstable” and the permanent goal was to achieve the perfect balance. This, paradoxically, never fully achieved, because there was always a struggle of opposing and complementary forces, as expressed among Quetzalcoaltl and Tezcatlipoca, who represent one side opposing forces but on the other the principle of duality. “In this sense, it concludes, life and death are, after all, two aspects of one reality. Hence, it is believed that babies came from the world of the dead, while the deceased began a long journey to it, according to the kind of death they have had.

The third chapter brings us back to the present and introduces us to Naupan. Located in a territory originally totonacan, this nahua community is faced with two cultural regions that, even when they have the coast of the Gulf of Mexico as fundamental geographical and symbolic reference, remain different: the Huasteca and Sierra Norte of Puebla. The region of Huauchinango, Villa, Pahuatlán and other communities seem to be a transit area for the Totonacas and the Western-South Nahuas, and the Nahuas, totonacos and tepehuas and otomies of the North-West.

Therefore, its location turns out to be strategic from an anthropologic point of view. So some day, thanks to works as that of Lourdes Baez, we will be in conditions to understand the cultural dynamics that differ and bring together the cores of nahuas, totonacos, tepehuas and otomíes that live together in the Huasteca of the South and the Sierra Northe of Puebla.

This chapter raises the general context of the municipality, from its history to indicators referring to recent phenomena such as migration, whose impact on the traditional forms of social reproduction we can not still Gage. Subsequently nahua kinship, which seems to fit in the general model governing throughout the North Sierra and much of Mesoamerica, and inbreeding Community system, are described in broad terms

Immediately later, she approaches two types of relation that along her work they will be fundamental: the figurative kinship and the ritual kinship, both considered by Pitt Rivers as pseudo kinships. In addition, their importance takes root in the fact that they allow establishing important networks of alliance beyond the parental area defined largely by the marriage. With regard to the first one of them, the figurative one emphasizes the case of the midwives, to whom the term is applied of tocitzin, which is translated as grandmothers. However, this goes beyond the terminological plane, since besides being much respected, they play a central role in the rituals of birth and death, that is to say, they are fundamental for the good transit towards the supernatural world.

With regard to kinship ritual it is important to repeat the great importance it has in the structuring of the indigenous communities of our country. For example, there are fourteen different types of “Compadrazgo” (Fellowship) in Naupan, of varying importance and highlight its importance of baptism, marriage, takes mass, and the one established with the midwife and the deceased. All of them closely linked with the life cycle.

Finally, to give unity to the whole body and social relationships described, Baez discusses the principle of reciprocity that prevails in Naupan. Then she proposes a model of exchange of the Nahua of the Sierra, where the greeting between “compadres” (Godparents), highly ritualized, should be regarded “as the first aspect of this system of benefits and tradeoffs,” but in fact, this model of trade potentiates the most important moments in the life cycle: birth, marriage and death.

“The symbolic action: the rituals of the life cycle” is a chapter that integrates the content of the first two, since it addresses the contemporary rituals from the various analysis tools raised in chapter one, and the main ideas about the cosmos, the body, life and death that had pre-Hispanic Nahua, as were described in chapter two. All this in the context of the municipality of Naupan, but attending to the various terms of trade generated depending on the type of relationship or kinship, and the obligation to keep the ear open to abundant ethnographic information that holds its interpretative apparatus.

Like their ancestors the Central Highlands, the Nahua of Naupan understand life and death as part of the same process that “every man should meet in the land in a given time and metaphorically reproducing the way that follows the sun, this as the keeper of the cosmic movement. Hence, death is not an end but simply a transition, a stage in the eternal struggle of opposites. However, as Van Gennep noted, this passage from one state to another, from life to death or vice versa, is never immediate, there is an intermediate state and so ambiguous that, being devoid of certainty threatens the social order.

This explains why both the mother that has just given birth and her newborn child should be kept away from the everyday world for fifteen days. This is until the various ritual acts and offerings take away the dim essence of which they are permeated: the woman because she died metaphorically and was reborn thru the delivery, considered as an agony. And the infant because it comes from the world of the dead. Throughout this period, they remain in a state where life and death merge. The same happens with the dead, who roam in our world long after they were buried, and whom we must convince, through certain rituals such as the raising of the cross, crossing the river and the after a year-to leave the world that is not theirs anymore.

It is mainly because they represent marginal states that “the birth and death in Naupan are events that generate more attention, for the same thing they are spending more rituals.” Similarly, because of the danger they pose to social order, not everyone can reintegrate their respective worlds of the living and the dead, so the figures of the midwife and gravedigger are essential for the ritual. As Baez describes in her book, “In Naupan, considering that only the gravedigger and the midwife are in no danger of contamination in such events as funerals, in part because of their link with the sacred.”

But these rituals are not confined to a state of liminality where a set of actors meet specific functions, while others seem to submit to his will, and therefore need to be repaired on those elements that direct the meaning, ie in as focal points. Among the most important and essential we have the copal, which is considered as a communicator with the divinities, the flowers of male character and considered the more precious “gift” that men can offer to their gods. The liquor has to be present, of undeniable healing properties and hot nature. Cigars have also to be there. They help ward off the bad air and their owners; and candles to communicate with the gods. Water and fire are also present; the first clearly vital, also serves to clean the impurities of the sexual act; the second, maximum agent of transformation and equally indispensable for human existence. Finally, the pleas and numbers, which are not just words and quantities, but power receptacles sent to gods or beneficial or adverse qualities.

Who are these deities to whom they offering and try to communicate with during a ritual? According to Baéz, the nahua world of Naupan is plagued with entities engaged in the life cycle of men in one way or another. The most important include the Sun, associated with the tortilla and maize; San Francisco, considered the owner of maize; the Cihuapipiltin, owner of children and patron of the midwives, that among the pre-Hispanic nahuas, were women killed in their first birth and accompanied the Sun in its journey toward the sunset. Santa Martha is a deity closely associated with Cihuapipiltin because it is believed that owns the “Temazcal”, metaphorically viewed as the womb of the Earth. Finally San Marcos, patron of the community and considered the owner of the naguals. Clear that to these deities were added a significant number of owners who roam and live in the environment.

Once we have all the elements necessary to understand, Baez describes the symbolic actions, which perhaps could be considered as ritual in themselves, linked to birth and death. It is not useful to summarize each of them, since the idea is to invite you to read the book so I will just list them, but not without realizing that each description is a valuable source of data, either for comparison with other regions and groups or to understand the universe around the Nahuas of Huauchinago.

After the birth, a person must meet six actions that will allow him enter to the community. These rituals are the “lifting of the child”, whose purpose is to ask the cihuapipiltin for protection for the newborn child, “burying the navel” a part of the new being is restored to its original source, ie, land. The “temazcal bath,” the “cleaning” of the mother and the “way to throw the ocopetate in the mountains” are related actions. Ocopetate is a type of fern used to cover the floor of the temazcal, and is aimed at removing the dirt that the mother and child brought into the world after birth.

The last of these actions related to the birth is the “hand washing” a very interesting ritual sequence that involves the presence of the child’s godparents, and the midwife. This time there is dancing and partying and, as its name implies, marks the end of the period of dirt and danger of the child to all who hold a ritual link with the child or family. This ceremony marks the social birth of the child.

With regard to the rituals of death in Naupan are five: “the funeral”, “burial”, “cross the river”, “novena” and “the raising of the cross.” Of these it is worth highlighting the third, since the idea of crossing the River does remind us of the widespread belief of the dead were aided by dogs to cross the effluent that separates both worlds. This ritual takes place after the funeral and involves the gravedigger, the deceased’s family and godparents of the cross. In this action is very clear the social need to transcend the threshold of elimination of the areas of ambiguity against the order established. In this regard, the author notes that the ritual “aims to facilitate the crossing of the first obstacle to the deceased.”

Toward the end of the chapter are devoted several pages to the feast of All Saints, stressing the syncretism nature of this undeniable indigenous celebration, and its coincidence with the end of rain fed maize cycle. This situation concludes at a Thanksgiving feast, where the living make offerings to the dead for their annual visit to earth, the fruits that they give away annually at the same time celebrate their “compadres”, who, as we have seen, are essential to these life-cycle rituals.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that for people of Naupan not all the deceased come to the feast of All Saints, for some, particularly those who have not completed the year of death, are out there, lurking, since 4 October, the day of San Francisco, considered the owner of the corn. There is also the belief that all the dead remain in town until Nov. 30. So actually, they stay for an entire month around the living, although the offerings and the celebration takes place on November 1 and 2, as the tradition of the rest of the groups in the region.

It is also interesting to know that not all the altars are installed indoors, since those who were killed, or women who die as a result of an abortion, are not invited to pass and is offering them outdoors. This immediately refers to the Mesoamerican logic, by virtue of which is not the behavior of life which defined the last abode, but the type of death, as depicted in the author in the case of the murdered, the dead by lighting and young ones.

Finally, as it is not good to anticipate the conclusions of a book, I invite the persons interested in Ethnography to read and judge The alternating game.

Leopoldo Trejo, Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH.
Translation by Carmen Martí Cotarelo.

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