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Of Wonders and Wise Men

Of Wonders and Wise Men
Religion and Popular Cultures in Southeast Mexico, 1800-1876

Religion and the popular cultures surrounding it form the lens through which Terry Rugeley focuses this cultural history of southeast Mexico from independence (1821) to the rise of the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1876.

January 2001
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365 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w photos, 4 maps |

In the tumultuous decades following Mexico's independence from Spain, religion provided a unifying force among the Mexican people, who otherwise varied greatly in ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Accordingly, religion and the popular cultures surrounding it form the lens through which Terry Rugeley focuses this cultural history of southeast Mexico from independence (1821) to the rise of the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1876.

Drawing on a wealth of previously unused archival material, Rugeley vividly reconstructs the folklore, beliefs, attitudes, and cultural practices of the Maya and Hispanic peoples of the Yucatán. In engagingly written chapters, he explores folklore and folk wisdom, urban piety, iconography, and anticlericalism. Interspersed among the chapters are detailed portraits of individual people, places, and institutions, that, with the archival evidence, offer a full and fascinating history of the outlooks, entertainments, and daily lives of the inhabitants of southeast Mexico in the nineteenth century. Rugeley also links this rich local history with larger events to show how macro changes in Mexico affected ordinary people.


2004 Harvey L. Johnson Award

Southwest Council of Latin American Studies

  • Acknowledgments
  • A Note on Orthography
  • Introduction: Strange Lights, Mysterious Crosses, and the Word of God Denied
  • Chapter 1: Geography, Misery, Agency, Remedy: The Unwritten Almanac of Folk Knowledge
  • Chapter 2: Rural Curas and the Erosion of Mexican Conservatism: The Life of Raymundo Pérez
  • Chapter 3: The Bourgeois Spiritual Path: A History of Urban Piety
  • Chapter 4: Spiritual Power, Worldly Possession: A History of Imágenes
  • Chapter 5: Official Cult and Peasant Protocol: Rural Cofradías and the History of San Antonio Xocneceh
  • Chapter 6: A Culture of Conflict: Anticlericalism, Parish Problems, and Alternative Beliefs
  • Chapter 7: "Burning the Torch of Revolution": Religion, Nationalism, and the Loss of the Petén
  • Conclusion: The Motives for Miracle
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Terry Rugeley is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma.


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Strange Lights, Mysterious Crosses, and the Word of God Denied

The year 1815 began much like any other in the Mexican port of Campeche. Fishermen hauled in their catches of bass and baby sharks, Maya peasants came from the countryside to sell corn and vegetables, soldiers trained in the plaza, the city's cannon factory churned out its wares, servants brewed cups of chocolate for their masters. Little did the citizens of this tranquil town suspect that a miracle was about to visit them.

It came, as scripture had prophesied, like a thief in the night. In January a servant was splitting wood in the Campeche home of a certain Arturo Alvarez when he discovered the image of "two perfect crosses" in a piece of kindling. This event sparked wonder throughout the town. Public excitement increased several nights later, when Alvarez and his wife awoke to discover the room filled with a strange, splendid glow "which did not cause them fear." Inevitably these miraculous occurrences brought an investigation by the church. From his cathedral in Mérida one hundred miles away, the Spanish-born Bishop Agustín Estévez y Ugarte appointed Padre Agusto de Solís, himself a native of Campeche, to investigate. But Solís was not impressed. Deciding that the images were a fraud, he confiscated the wood and sent it to the bishop, along with the following comments:

I greatly distrust the miracles of these people; the rabble of this city are highly prone to feign miracles around whatever appears mysterious; every day they are finding crosses to excite and interest the devotion of the vulgar. Many times they have brought me [the shapes of] palm leaves accidentally formed by the candles for the dead, and so forth . . . All things should be expected of the Almighty, but it is unlikely that He should make crosses appear in the house of a nobody.

The crosses disappeared into the bowels of the great cathedral. Estévez and Solís spoke no more of the matter and turned their hands to more worldly affairs. But for the people of Campeche, the investigation was a carpetazo, an official cover-up with sinister overtones. The crosses were obviously some immense and divine message to the people, yet the church, which was supposed to be the earthly hand of God, had chosen to conceal them.

In the distance of 180 years the wonder of the kindling crosses continues to open a nest of questions. Why here, and why in kindling wood? Was it significant that a servant found the crosses? Did masters and servants equally share the status of witnessing a miracle? How could Alvarez and his wife have felt so calm in the presence of otherworldly light? Did it matter that priest and parishioners came from significantly different socioeconomic levels? Was it germane that the peninsula had just emerged from a political crisis that had questioned the legitimacy of the church? Or that armed insurgents, as everyone knew, still roamed the interior of central Mexico, demanding independence and social change? Finally, why did the church insist on denying the people their moment with the Spiritual?

The paucity of documentation prevents concrete answers in this instance. But these questions capture all the dilemmas and contradictions of religion as a cultural field, a symbolic framework for life, in early nineteenth-century Mexico. While presiding over the great medieval spectrum of wondrous beliefs and entities and the many imperatives that this spiritual world created, the church also assumed the role of enlightened skeptic, reviewing and proscribing accounts of visitations that rose spontaneously among the people. While asserting the limitlessness of divine power, the church also had to confine that power to a realm of possibilities acceptable to Yucatán's social hierarchy. In this episode, part of a larger dialogue over the meaning and use of religion, Padre Solís found himself opposing the faithful. He knew them not as people (gente) or parishioners (feligreses), but rather as the rabble (populacho). He remembered the townsfolk by the endless series of apparitions they had witnessed, apparitions that threatened to overturn social convention by arousing "the devotion of the vulgar." Underscoring the tensions was the investigator's contradictory perception of a visitation's effects, the calm, glowing light that served to agitate (alborotar) the populace. As its conservative proponents always insisted, the Catholic religion did help unify a nation connected by little else, but the kindling crosses remind us that religion also served as an arena for contentions and differences among the faithful themselves, and it is precisely the tension generated by ambiguities of unity and difference that invite the curiosity of the late-twentieth-century observer.

This is a book about nineteenth-century Mexicans and their religion. What I have tried to uncover are the popular cultures behind wonders like the kindling crosses--the enormous and often hidden context of roles, beliefs, folkways, popular piety, and religious practices. My approach is a simple one, perhaps even obvious, but I think it opens doors to subtleties and historical scenes that we, in our rush to sketch out the political economy of rural society, have tended to ignore. Put simply, the popular cultures of these people mattered, and religion formed a major strand of those cultures.

This book grew out of material that I began to accumulate during an earlier study on the origins of the Caste War of Yucatán. While writing on the more concrete issues of taxes, land, social mobility, political alliance, and revolution, I realized that we knew little about the people who lived within these structures, the men and women who wore generic socioeconomic masks but seldom revealed their thoughts, their private triumphs and failures, or their dreams of how things should be. The question was how to get into the more intimate corners of a folk now dead for over a century. Things that interested them included their love lives, music, jokes and stories, political views, ambitions, their personal pride and petty vendettas. All of these appear in varying degrees in the archival documents. Ultimately, however, one cultural dimension stood out above the others: religion. Religious culture has the distinct advantage of being well documented, since the church was the best organized and most stable bureaucracy of its day, while its members composed the most educated and literate sector of the population. Religion was also broadly encompassing. Religious culture cut across class and ethnic lines; it held many meanings and many voices. At times it papered over conflicts but at others became the vehicle of their expression. It offered a path for exploring how human beings lived and thought beyond the familiar descriptions of land, taxes, haciendas, and peons.

The essays of this book spin out of several related questions. The first concerns the social context behind rural Mexico's apparitions and oracles--the mysterious crosses of Campeche, Jalisco's Virgin of the Maguey plant, or any of a thousand others. Yucatán has what is arguably the most extraordinary and successful of all of Mexico's many apparitions: the Speaking Cross. In 1847, tensions involving taxes, growing political violence, land pressures, and the declining social position of the indigenous elite sparked a massive rural rebellion known as the Caste War. The rebel ranks consisted mostly of Maya peasants; they enjoyed initial success, but after the spring of 1848 the state regained the upper hand and began to beat rebels back into the forests of the southeast. Manipulated and probably created by the generals, the oracular cross preached war to the death. It rallied the rebels in their hour of need, and its cult survived to become a folk religion still prevalent in rural areas of Quintana Roo.

Meanwhile, apparitions continue to punctuate the region's recent history. What nineteenth-century persons, places, and practices lie behind these? While Farriss's important 1984 study concentrates on the deep past of Maya peasant religion, I have chosen to reconstruct the period of 1800 to 1870, the seven decades of historical experience that surrounded the Speaking Cross, to see what tendencies and meanings were current at the time of the cult's formation. I have also tried to explore diverse parts of the social spectrum because I am convinced that classes and ethnic groups were more interactive than we have tended to portray them. This is not to say that such separations did not exist, but as contemporary experience teaches, it is possible for different ethnicities to borrow and imitate without becoming a single people or even necessarily liking one another. What I have found is that although certainly eye-catching, apparitions that we might term wondrous or miraculous were merely a small part of a far greater canvas of popular religious culture.

A second and related point that impressed me was the dual orientation of the people. While revering an idealized past, a time of virtue and devotion, Yucatecans were busily working to bring that age to an end. Their project was not the invention of tradition (that is, a tendentious doctoring of the past) that Eric Hobsbawm and others have described for modern Britain, although at selected moments, such as with the organizations of urban piety described in Chapter 3, that analysis does apply. Rather, it was a prolonged ambivalence toward the old and the familiar. With the exception of certain comecuras--literally "priest eaters," or rabid anticlerics--most people claimed to be devout Catholics. And yet Yucatecans, in their quest for economic growth and state formation, were busily curtailing the powers and privileges of that ancient institution. Consistent with William B. Taylor's analysis of eighteenth-century Mexico, priests here were losing their power to tax, their old privileged access to peasant labor, their near monopoly on education, and their supervision of life passages such as birth, marriage, and death. Property owners launched a sustained attack against religious restraints on exploiting indigenous peasant labor. Urban intellectuals began to assert the right to think and speak for themselves. Peasants, too, changed their world, if only by growing in number; beyond that, many of them took advantage of larger changes in the society since 1750 in order to carve out a cultural and economic independence from the padres. Most Yucatecans participated inadvertently in these changes, just as most people today make hundreds of small, daily decisions that ultimately help to uproot their old ways. But participate they did. The situation was thus often the opposite of Hobsbawm's invented traditions. People acted one way, while a persistent past lived on in their thoughts, attitudes, and cultural decor.

As a corollary to the above, the tensions between innovation and older culture are worth studying for the ambiguity of their results. In some ways, at least, the new secular tendencies prevailed. Particularly since the 1910 Revolution, the nation-state wields final power; priests have lost both their privileged access to property and their ideological monopoly. Old-time Catholicism now faces stiff competition from the evangelical sects that have exploded throughout Latin America since the 1970s. Perhaps more debilitating from the believer's view is the creeping dry-rot of consumer materialism. In Mérida, the centros comerciales, or shopping malls, are now becoming the new cathedrals, while those searching for a modern-day Garden of Earthly Delights need look no further than Cancún. At the same time, however, the old ways have proven remarkably durable; approximately 86 percent of peninsulars are still at least nominally Catholic. Most of the features explored in the following pages--processions, fiestas, the cult of saints, the prestige of priests, and even the old antireligion of anticlericalism--have their modern counterparts, and throughout the book I have taken care to note those continuities when appropriate. Folkways enjoy special strength in the countryside. Indeed, Redfield's prediction of the rural community's modernist transformation has, along with Christ's return and the global revolution, suffered from repeated rescheduling. There is nothing unusual about this, since peasantries and ethnicities have proven remarkably stubborn everywhere. But Yucatán's modernization has been particularly ambivalent, partly because of its isolation, partly for its ongoing underdevelopment. Hence this study of a persistent past and its nineteenth-century advocates and adversaries.

Questions regarding both the motive for miracle and the persistent past lead to a larger issue of how multiple beliefs, interests, and worldviews can function together with the same, ostensibly monolithic cultural system. When viewed from below, the Mexican Catholicism of the early nineteenth century emerges as something more than a hierarchy and a set of doctrines. Rather, its inclusivity allowed for an enormous amount of discussion and change, a polyvocal cultural field that internalized all voices of the society, even the dissident and diametrically opposed. In this mansion there were indeed many rooms, and in the course of the book I hope to enter as many as possible.

Finally, I hope that such an approach can help counterbalance what I think has been a stubborn bias in the historical literature on Mexico's southeast region. Here the publicity has been not only bad but superlatively bad: Mexico's most prolonged conquest, the cruelest auto-de-fé, the largest peasant uprising, the worst labor conditions, the most decadent planter class, the most radical socialists, the hardest of hard-shelled reactionaries, the most cynically exploited ejidos. These profoundly somber tones give little hint of the joy that people took in their world, or the at-times zany quality of life that prevailed in the rural villages. The darker version fails to explain what gave people such a sense of belonging to a place, much less of being the elegidos de dios, God's chosen. Of Wonders and Wise Men will, I hope, contribute toward a more finely developed picture of daily life in a moment of Mexican history, something that thus far I have been able to find only in Luis González's excellent recreation of rural Michoacán, or more recently in Paul Vanderwood's study of the Tomóchic conflict of the Chihuahua sierra. To find this other Yucatán I have followed the suggestion of Murdo MacLeod, who, in an essay on Mexico's colonial violence, urged for "a return to the most obscure colonial documentation," with the hope that little-known documents of nineteenth-century Yucatán hold keys to understanding how things really were, and why.


“This is a major new work on nineteenth-century Mexico that contributes to our understanding of popular religion, the nature of political conservatism, and the nature of local politics.... It represents the most innovative and creative scholarship now being undertaken in Mexican history...and will be widely used in classes and discussed by scholars.”
William H. Beezley, Professor of History, University of Arizona