Back to top

Adoring the Saints

Adoring the Saints
Fiestas in Central Mexico

A comprehensive study of two intimately linked patron saint fiestas in Central Mexico.

Series: The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

January 2009
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
219 pages | 6 x 9 | 40 b&w photos, 6 line drawings |

Mexico is famous for spectacular fiestas that embody its heart and soul. An expression of the cult of the saint, patron saint fiestas are the centerpiece of Mexican popular religion and of great importance to the lives and cultures of people and communities. These fiestas have their own language, objects, belief systems, and practices. They link Mexico's past and present, its indigenous and European populations, and its local and global relations.

This work provides a comprehensive study of two intimately linked patron saint fiestas in the state of Guanajuato, near San Miguel de Allende—the fiesta of the village of Cruz del Palmar and that of the town of San Luis de la Paz. These two fiestas are related to one another in very special ways involving both religious practices and their respective pre-Hispanic origins.

A mixture of secular and sacred, patron saint fiestas are multi-day affairs that include many events, ritual specialists, and performers, with the participation of the entire community. Fiestas take place in order to honor the saints, and they are the occasion for religious ceremonies, processions, musical performances, dances, and dance dramas. They feature spectacular costumes, enormous puppets, masked and cross-dressed individuals, dazzling fireworks, rodeos, food stands, competitions, and public dances. By encompassing all of these events and performances, this work displays the essence of Mexico, a lens through which this country's complex history, religion, ethnic mix, traditions, and magic can be viewed.

  • Introduction
  • 1. Setting the Stage
  • 2. Fiesta Leaders, Officials, and Saints (Mayordomos, cargueros, y santos)
  • 3. Vigils, Visits, and Ritual Meals (Velaciones, posadas, y reliquias)
  • 4. Processions, Encounters, Ceremonies, and Masses (Procesiones, encuentros, ceremonias, y misas)
  • 5. Dances, Dance Dramas, and Entertainments
  • 6. Toward Understanding the Patron Saint Fiesta
  • Appendices
  • Glossary
  • References

Yolanda Lastra is Professor of Linguistics at UNAM (National University of Mexico).

Joel Sherzer is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at University of Texas at Austin.

Dina Sherzer is Professor Emerita of French and Italian and Comparative Literature at University of Texas at Austin.


Latin America is well-known for its exuberant festivals and rituals. These include indigenous curing and puberty rites, Mardi Gras and carnivals, and town and village patron saint fiestas. While derived in part from ritual observances of the Catholic Church, Latin American fiestas typically commingle European, indigenous, and African elements. They are a centuries-old way of letting off steam, celebrations that are simultaneously sacred and profane, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic, serious and playful. They are an intense expression of identity and ethnicity, a celebration of historical and religious events, a release of personal and social energy, and a display of popular aesthetics. They are occasions for time off and time out from everyday behavior. Latin American fiestas are found in indigenous communities, ones of European origin, and African diasporic communities. They involve many modes of communication and sensory expression—verbal, nonverbal, visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory.

This book looks at a widespread type of fiesta, the fiesta in honor of the patron saint of a place. We study the Central Mexican patron saint fiestas of Holy Burial (Santo Entierro) in Cruz del Palmar and Saint Louis (San Luis Rey) in San Luis de la Paz. These two communities are both situated in the state of Guanajuato. Cruz del Palmar is a small village near San Miguel de Allende, and San Luis de la Paz is a medium-size town eighty miles away. Our decision to study these two communities was not a random one. We discovered that people living in them, descendants of two distinct indigenous groups, the Otomi in Cruz del Palmar and the Chichimecs in San Luis de la Paz (called Chichimeca Jonaz, or Jonaces in appendix A2), are linked ritually through the historical circumstances their fiestas celebrate. Each community honors the other's saints and each participates in the other's patron saint fiesta, even though they are not in the same parish. Their participation in each other's fiestas is more than a simple visit to the saints, common enough among neighboring communities in this region at fiesta time. The special link between Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz as manifested in their saint’s day celebrations is a central concern of this book, along with the specific activities, behaviors, and ritual objects that are customary to mandatory in the celebration of a patron saint.

Scholars have studied several aspects of patron saint fiestas in the region around Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz. These aspects include the spectacular dances and dance dramas, patterns of dances and costumes, and certain historical information. Other scholars have examined the social function of patron saint fiestas and their place in popular religion. While these studies are informative, there exists no published, comprehensive description of all the components of a fiesta. Through detailed observation of and participation in numerous patron saint fiestas, we came to realize that many specific elements are necessary for their conduct. In fact, a rigorous protocol is usually followed. There must be vigils (velaciones), masses, ritual blessings and cleansings (limpias), processions, dances or dance dramas, music, fireworks, ritual meals, and the ritual handling of special objects and flowers, all organized by confraternities consisting of specialists and officials (cargueros), led by ritual leaders (mayordomos), and with the participation of men, women, and children of all ages. Thus, a major contribution of this book is the detailed description, from an ethnographic perspective, of all activities, aspects, and moments of fiestas and the relationships among them. It is only through these descriptions that the significance and importance of the patron saint fiesta for the community and its culture can be broached. Moreover, it became evident that elements of Otomi, Chichimec, Aztec, and Apache cultures are juxtaposed and intertwined with Spanish and Mediterranean practices.

The various activities of patron saint fiestas are performances, and we study them as such. We have observed all of the special occasions on which people perform specific acts, such as speechmaking, singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments, reciting blessings, and cleansings, in particular contexts and places. During these performances individuals carry out assigned roles according to ritual kinship, knowledge, age, and gender. They wear special clothing and costumes and construct and display objects used only on the occasion of patron saint fiestas. They use their own language, a version of local, rural Spanish, with its own specialized and ritual forms of discourse and vocabulary and its own rhetorical and poetic features. Patron saint fiestas involve elaborate stagings, rituals, and theatricality, each with its own intrinsic aesthetics. These performances are sometimes private and intimate, sometimes public and collective. They vary widely in purpose and tone. They may be performances of religiosity and spirituality. They may involve boisterous movements of crowds. Often they are displays of ethnicity and of the memory and history of the community as the participants imagine it. We have recorded the actions and voices of participants in their own setting and language, and these appear in the book, transcribed, translated, and photographed.

Thus, our aim is a scholarly ethnographic study that renders the dynamism and creativity of patron saint fiestas, their visual, aural, kinetic, and verbal features, to convey the flavor and taste of these fiestas. In large view, we examine Mexican popular Catholicism through the lens of the fiesta and the fiesta through the lens of Mexican popular Catholicism. We describe each moment of the two fiestas in detail in order to capture their spirit, atmosphere, and purpose, but also to convey the rich sensory experience, the ritual performances, the texts used, and the beliefs that contribute to the simultaneously religious and profane mood of these events.

Along with this descriptive focus we offer an interpretation of fiesta activities in terms of the social, cultural, religious, and symbolic systems at work in them. We discuss the significance of the fiesta for the people and communities involved. We explore whether the fiesta activities are expressions of resistance, subversion, or affirmation of the participants’ culture, beliefs, and identity. We examine what this popular religion represents and its relationship to official religion. We raise the question of whether fiestas involve a fusion of the Catholic and the indigenous religions, with a gradual diminution of the indigenous influence, or whether fiestas are Catholic interpretations of Indian rituals or indigenous interpretations of Catholic rituals. And we ask, who conquered whom? Did the Spanish Catholics conquer the Indians or did the indigenous forms win out and, in a sense, conquer the Catholic ones?

There is a specific aesthetic to the fiesta that has been barely mentioned by observers. For us, this popular and religious aesthetic, characterized by loudness, boisterousness, color, movement, and uncanny juxtapositions, is an essential element of the fiesta, and we spend some time on it. We also argue that the fiestas are traditions that were originally invented and now are reinvented and transformed, in a continuous process of creation, and that they have much to say about the identity of their participants in terms of their origins, their present-day situation, and Indian nation-state relationships in Mexico today.

Our understanding of fiestas draws on the extensive theoretical, methodological, and descriptive literature on fiestas and rituals and popular religion. We have benefited from reading studies in anthropology, history and ethnohistory, folklore, ethnomusicology, dance, religion, and Mexican national and popular culture. These studies include the following:

    • The anthropology, history, and ethnohistory of Mexico and religion in Mexico, including notions of hybridity, syncretism, and mestizaje (racial and cultural mixture).
    • Studies of indigenous religions in Mesoamerica, in particular in Central Mexico.
    • National culture studies, which examine the expression of the Mexican national character as manifested in various phenomena, such as fiestas.
    • Functionalist studies, which describe in socioeconomic terms the function of fiestas (and popular religion more generally) for particular communities, the nation, and the world.
    • Symbolic and interpretive anthropology, which aims at a thick and deep description of cultural phenomena in the language of symbols, actions, and events.
    • Studies that see cultural phenomena such as fiestas as the locus of the continual construction, invention, and reinvention of traditions.
    • Studies of resistance, which see in fiestas and popular religion hidden transcripts of resistance to official, orthodox religion, conquest and conversion, Spaniards, the Mexican nation-state, and the global world system.
    • The discourse-centered approach to culture, which considers forms of discourse and communication—speeches, talking, gestures, music, dance, other performance forms—in relation to their social and cultural context.
    • A regional comparative approach, which examines other patron saint fiestas in Mexico for the light they may shed on the Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz fiestas.


    One of the many pleasures we have had carrying out the research for this book has been reading the wonderful scholarship on patron saint fiestas.

      Each of these various perspectives sheds a different light on patron saint fiestas and gives us a different angle from which to interpret their complex meanings. Indeed, the complexity of fiestas requires multifaceted theoretical approaches. A single theoretical approach, no matter how pertinent, could only result in an impoverished and superficial description of complex, multilayered phenomena.

        Central Mexico, and Mexico more generally, have attracted, fascinated, and challenged historians, philosophers, artists, writers, and anthropologists because of the rich complexity of culture, religion, and history and the intriguing question of how this complexity emerged and continues. We are contributing to this tradition and feel that this book about patron saint fiestas will be of interest to people wanting to know about popular culture and religion in Mexico, and about the fashioning and display of ethnicity and the invention and reinvention of traditions that take place in the fiestas.

          With their prehistoric and historic, ethnic, religious, and sociocultural complexity, the patron saint fiestas of Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz reflect in many ways the heart and the symbolic and deep expression of Latin America. These fiestas are elaborate, expensive, complicated, comprehensive, local, national, international, traditional, constructed, and imagined. There is something for everyone. They are cultural performances and forms of communication. As Latin America becomes more and more industrialized and globalized, patron saint fiestas become more and more the sites for local and individual expressions of opposition and resistance to all this and adherence to more traditional, sometimes ancient (if still evolving) forms of symbolism and play. In all their varied moments, patron saint fiestas are an expression of the philosophy, theology, wisdom, vision of history, and perception of the Spanish conquest that participants have, presented in their own way and through their eyes, ears, and voices.

            The collaborative fieldwork to document these two fiestas began in 1997. Yolanda Lastra, who had been carrying out linguistic research on the Otomi language in Cruz del Palmar and the Chichimec language in San Luis de la Paz, became aware of the two fiestas and the mutual participation of the communities. She invited Dina and Joel Sherzer to join her in the study of these multiday, multi-event fiestas, when men, women, and children work together to honor their patron saints. This research has been a fascinating and thought-provoking experience, taking us centuries back in time and providing us with a new understanding of the present and of the heart of “deep Mexico” (México profundo).

              Over the years of our involvement in the patron saint fiestas of Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz, as well as other fiestas and religious activities in the region, we have come to know and appreciate the people, their rich lives, and their cultural practices, in particular their religious practices and celebrations. We have learned from their intellectual acumen and articulateness, their self-estimation, and their knowledge of their traditions. We have established wonderful relationships with many talented individuals. Those persons whom we came into contact with, those whom we interviewed, those with whom we spent days and nights observing and participating in their activities always greeted us with open arms, made us feel welcome, and were forthcoming in explaining what they were doing. They encouraged, indeed expected, us to record their fiestas on audiotape, videotape, and film. They clearly viewed themselves as collaborators in a project to document and interpret their fiestas.

                Since 1997 the three of us, together or separately, have observed different moments of both these fiestas. In addition, we were able to observe patron saint and related fiestas in surrounding villages and towns, including El Pueblito, La Ciénaga, La Cieneguita, Pantoja, Querétero, and San Miguel de Allende and its neighborhoods of Valle del Maiz, La Palmita, Guadiana, and Las Cuevitas, which share many features with those of Cruz del Palmar and San Luis de la Paz, as well as with fiestas elsewhere in Latin America and in Europe, particularly Italy and Spain. The cult of the saints, which was introduced to the New World from Mediterranean Europe, where it is still very much alive, flourished and is highly significant in the lives of the people who believe in it and practice it today. The vitality and continuity of these practices are the subject of the rest of the book.