In villages and towns across Spain and its former New World colonies, local performers stage mock battles between Spanish Christians and Moors or Aztecs that range from brief sword dances to massive street theatre lasting several days. The festival tradition officially celebrates the triumph of Spanish Catholicism over its enemies, yet this does not explain its persistence for more than five hundred years nor its widespread diffusion.
In this insightful book, Max Harris seeks to understand Mexicans' "puzzling and enduring passion" for festivals of moros y cristianos. He begins by tracing the performances' roots in medieval Spain and showing how they came to be superimposed on the mock battles that had been a part of pre-contact Aztec calendar rituals. Then using James Scott's distinction between "public" and "hidden transcripts," he reveals how, in the hands of folk and indigenous performers, these spectacles of conquest became prophecies of the eventual reconquest of Mexico by the defeated Aztec peoples. Even today, as lively descriptions of current festivals make plain, they remain a remarkably sophisticated vehicle for the communal expression of dissent.
Each year in late August several thousand Moors and Christians invade Zacatecas. Dressed in brightly colored uniforms and armed with swords, scimitars, and arquebuses, warriors from European history clog the streets of a city that was once the silver-mining capital of colonial Mexico. Music from a dozen well-drilled drum and bugle corps orchestrates the invasion. In 1996, scurrying to and fro along side streets that intersected the main path of the parade, I saw the Twelve Peers of France battle their eighth-century Turkish counterparts in a massed sword fight that moved slowly across the sloped square of Santo Domingo. And I saw Moorish infantry from the naval battle of Lepanto (1571) fire arquebuses into the air as they passed the exuberantly detailed facade of Zacatecas's baroque cathedral. Above the caption "They'd said they wouldn't burn powder in the city center but in the end they did," a newspaper photograph the next day displayed the evidence: a crowd of Moors, raised arquebuses, and clouds of smoke.
The soldiers are members of the confraternity of Saint John the Baptist, whose unifying mission is the annual staging of an extraordinary theatrical spectacle known as the morismas de Bracho. Officially, the mock battles, religious processions, secular parades, fireworks displays, and saint plays tell three interwoven stories: the martyrdom of John the Baptist, commemorated by the church each year on 29 August; a legendary crusade of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France, said to have taken place in 770 and to have had as "its sole purpose the rescue of holy relics" captured by the Turks; and the historical battle of Lepanto (1571), in which a Christian fleet under the command of John of Austria decisively defeated the Ottoman navy at the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. The tradition of morismas, which has its roots in late medieval Spain, is believed to have arrived in the region of Zacatecas in the early seventeenth century.
At the physical heart of the morismas of Bracho is a small chapel, dedicated to John the Baptist and set in a scrubby basin of the hills of Bracho a couple of miles northeast of town. Behind the chapel, to the west, is a dusty parade ground or plaza, well over a hundred yards long and forty wide. From its center rises a single tree, at whose foot the climactic execution of the Moorish king takes place. On the western slope overlooking the square stands the stone facade of a castle. To the north of the chapel is an open area, joined to the parade ground by a small stone bridge over a dry stream bed ("We used to have a little water for the battle of Lepanto," one of the actors joked). Below the chapel, to the east, is a second parade ground, equally dusty but shorter than its companion. To the south, during the fiesta, is a makeshift market of food stalls and fairground booths. The chapel itself boasts a paved forecourt, enclosed on two sides by covered arcades. The hills rise most sharply, after a brief drop into a wooded valley, to the east. The action of the morismas spreads out from the several acres of open space around the chapel to the high peak of the eastern hill a mile away and two or three miles along the road into the center of the city. It is perhaps the largest "stage" I have ever seen.
When I first arrived at Bracho, merchants were erecting stalls, workmen making final repairs to the castle facade, and custodians cleaning the chapel. Inside the chapel were two statues of the Baptist, one above the altar and the other on a pedestal against the south wall. The latter's feet and calves were worn from the kisses of pilgrims. Hanging on the opposite wall was a carving of the crucified Christ, painted blood running down his pale limbs. Dominating a poster advertising the morismas was a picture of the martyred John the Baptist's head being presented to King Herod on a platter. Sacrifice and decapitation were to be the central motifs of the fiesta.
There is no doubt in my mind that the last day of the morismas of Bracho enacts in barely veiled form a pre-Hispanic ritual of human sacrifice. Unlike the Aztec rites, however, the morismas of Bracho retain the critical distinction between mimesis and reality. No human blood is intentionally shed, and the Red Cross is on hand to care for any real wounds. After all, the Catholic mass is also a reenactment of human sacrifice, whose prototype Christians believe to have been ordained by God, and the morismas are no more a real human sacrifice than is the mass. (I leave aside the vexed question of transubstantiation.) Do the morismas, then, bear a similar relationship to pre-Hispanic human sacrifice as the Catholic mass is said to bear to Calvary? Are they both believed to perpetuate, without the actual shedding of blood, the effectiveness of a distant blood sacrifice? I think not. Nor do I believe that the morismas bespeak some kind of hankering after a reintroduction of indigenous religion. The members of the confraternity are devout Catholics. Thousands turned out when Pope John Paul II visited Bracho in May 1990.
Rather, I think that the morismas have a political significance. In a colonial or postcolonial situation, indigenous practices suppressed by the colonial power take on a new meaning. What was once dominant becomes subversive. Such practices can therefore be used, without any necessary adherence to the cultural and religious values that they once expressed, as potent symbols of resistance to present subjugation. Those in Mexico who now feel marginalized by the national government, by the rapid process of urbanization, and by market forces that seem to benefit only the wealthy might well identify with indigenous predecessors who were conquered by forces they neither invited nor understood. To join a confraternity, elect your own president, create your own world, subdue (albeit in raucous play) the nearest urban center of government, and finally enact a sacrifice long forbidden by colonial and ecclesiastical authority is to enjoy a moment in which the balance of power seems to have shifted in your favor. Unless I am much mistaken, the morismas of Bracho do not express any nostalgia for Aztec religion. Rather, the members of the Catholic confraternity draw, consciously or unconsciously, on a mixed lexicon of Aztec calendar ritual, Catholic devotional practices, and European mythic history to enact a powerful challenge to the dominant structures of the world in which they live. To play at being Aztecs is not to renounce Catholicism but to recall an imagined time of freedom from control by outside forces. The result, in the case of the morismas of Bracho, is one of the world's most powerful theatrical events.
"Harris stands virtually alone in this field. This book more than anything else he has yet done makes that field not only accessible to those of us who work on strictly English and 'Continental' drama, but indeed forces us (and indeed folks in other fields as well, and not only scholars) into a continental drift of sorts, making this 'foreign' material both familiar and crucial.... Archival work, politics, literary and sociological theory, performance research, and a great deal more come together here. And Harris writes exceedingly well. This is a book that is difficult to put down, and few scholars—especially those who work on obscure or ancient material—can ever lay claim to writing such. Harris has done us all a great service."
—Garrett Epp, Professor of English, University of Alberta
"My favorite thing about this book is the way in which it synthesizes past and present, history and theatre, folklore and political commentary. It is detailed, readable, and covers an area not touched upon by most (any?) other writers. Therefore its importance cannot be overstated."
—Shirley Carnahan, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Colorado, Boulder
"Max Harris's Aztecs, Moors, and Christians is a work of extraordinary historical and geographic scope, tracing the performance of mock battles between Moors and Christians from the late medieval period to the 1990s and from Spain to the New World. What's most fascinating about Harris's study is his suggestion, based on his own experience as well as on textual study, that the continued vitality of the performances depends in large part on the resilience of the materials. The dances and mock battles can be seen to provide counter-texts in which the historical 'losers' can reassert their cultural and political identities through performances that seem the celebrate the victors."
—Michael O'Connell, Professor of English, University of California, Santa Barbara
"This is a major contribution to the rich and fascinating cultural history of colonial-era Mexico and to the tumultuous clash of European and Native American values, institutions, and technologies.... It is beautifully written and makes compelling reading."
—Robert Potter, Professor of Dramatic Art, University of California, Santa Barbara