San Cristobal Burning of Judas and Political Art

In much of Latin America, Easter is a week long celebration called Semana Santa. One of the traditions here in San Cristobal de las Casas is the burning of Judas on Easter eve. The burning of Judas tradition came to Mexico with the Spanish five hundred years ago. In San Cristobal that tradition has morphed into an artistic competition with a strong social and political message.

Art to be burned and blown up in Chiapas

All of the original artworks waiting for the burning later that night.

Burning of Judas Devil in San Cristobal MexicoIn the morning of the day before Easter, the large artworks of Paper Mache and paint are hung in the square behind San Cristobal’s municipal building. These works of art are also filled to the brim with fireworks that shoot like rockets, flare like roman candles and explode like dynamite.

This year the overwhelming theme seemed to be about the violence and narco trafficking currently plaguing much of Northern Mexico. The narco violence, fueled by American money and guns, is a national tragedy. I am ever grateful that here in the southern part of Mexico we are mostly spared from the headline grabbing events of the north.

Anti Narco Art in Chiapas In Chiapas and the Yucatan, living and travel is still fun and quite safe. No place in the world is perfect, but fear of violence is never in my mind here. Real social problems exist in this part of Mexico, but that should not stop anyone from experiencing this amazing part of the world.

I believe that one of the ideas of this event is to burn in effigy things that plague society. Much like the original Catholic tradition of the burning of Judas to rid the world of evil.

Art against Violence in ChiapasRightly or wrongly, the original Catholic tradition was often associated with anti-Semitic sentiments. I really like the way that San Cristobal de las Casas has transformed this old tradition into a modern competition of art and freedom of expression.

On the evening of the burning we were at a get together in the house of Beth and Hunter, our friends from Texas who had invited an eclectic and international group of folks and their kids over for some delicious food and adult beverages. They had actually made Mole from scratch for the occasion, it was incredible!

San Cristobal de las Casas Easter Eve Burning

Burning of Judas in Chiapas Easter Eve

We had heard that the Judas-Art was going to be burned at 9pm from one person, at 10pm by another and at 11 by a third. Not wanting to leave the party too soon, we waited until about 10pm to walk over to the square. As good luck would have it, they started the burning of Judas just as we walked up. We weren’t able to get too close, but that turned out to be a good thing.

Devils Burning in ChiapasThe crowd in the square was allowed to get pretty close to the artworks. The Fire Department of San Cristobal was there and had hoses at the ready, but that did not prevent several of the pyrotechnical devices from shooting straight into the crowd. Over the loudspeakers, the announcer kept telling people to be careful and watch out for their children. When you’re in the press of the crowd it can be a little difficult dodging a Roman candle. I didn’t actually see anyone get hurt, but I suspect a few people may have had some minor burns.

 

After all of the giant paper mache figures were fully burned and blown up, the prizes were announced. Surprisingly, the winner of the competition received twelve thousand pesos. I’m sure a tremendous amount of time, work and money goes into the construction of these pieces, but a thousand dollar prize seems pretty good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a short “highlights” video of some of the burning Judases.

 

By 11pm the whole thing was over. We walked back to our house on streets packed with people, past the Cathedral of San Cristobal and by way of the crowded Guadalupe Andador. Guadalupe is a walking street closed to auto traffic for the first four blocks coming from the zocalo. Everyone was having a great time out with friends and family at the many restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. We strolled with our friend Helen a bit more and were home by 11:30pm after having a great Easter eve. Once again Kelly and I felt truly blessed to be living in such an amazing and vibrant place.

Easter in San Cristobal de las Casas Mexico

The streets were packed, but the people were friendly and no one was pushing. Everyone was just enjoying another great evening here in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Fireworks in Mexico and Guatemala ~ No, The Revolution Hasn’t Started

When living in Guatemala or Chiapas, along with many other parts of Mexico and Latin America, one the first things a person needs to get accustomed to is the boom of rockets exploding. Generally they just shoot and explode without any actual colors or fancy pyrotechnics. I don’t know how many times new visitors have asked me about the explosions.

Fireworks in Mexico and Guatemala

Light fuse, hold high, let go, repeat.

Lighting fireworks in San Pedro La Laguna

Tzutujil man at Lake Atitlan lights the fuse.

 

Are they firing guns?  Is there a holiday?  Should we be concerned?  Is it the rapture?(OK, no one has asked me that one, yet.) Has a revolution started?

 

Bombas or exploding sky rockets have been part of the fabric of life in this part of the world for a very long time. In Anne Maudslay’s book, “A Glimpse of Guatemala and some notes on the Ancient Monuments of Central America,” she says, “To anyone not already used to the ways of the Spanish peasantry, one of the first things that strikes one as curious in Central America is this constant firing of rockets in the daytime.”

 

 

Fireworks launch in Mexico and Guatemala

This is just the bomba shooting up out of the morter tube.

She wrote these words in the 1890’s and had no intention of being what might be considered slightly derogatory, nor do I.  Here is the rest of that short story.

"No ceremony is complete until the swish 
and report of a rocket have been heard. The pilgrim when he reaches his 
native village fires a rocket to announce his arrival. It is the expression of 
joy at a fiesta, and it is the last rite necessary for the repose of the dead. A 
story is told of an Indian cacique who was taken to Spain to the Court of 
Charles V. As the emperor passed through the corridor after the morning 
levee, he caught sight of the cacique and addressed him with a few words of 
welcome, and then added : " Tell me, my friend, what would your countrymen 
be doing at your own home at this hour in the morning." Now, it had been 
most strongly impressed upon the cacique that should the Emperor ask him 
any questions he should say nothing in reply which was not strictly and 
accurately true. This oft-repeated counsel had sunk deep into his mind, so 
after a pause he raised his head and said, "Senor, mis paisanos estan tirando 
cohetes" ("at this hour my countrymen are firing rockets"). The Emperor 
smiled and passed on, but meeting the cacique again at midday he repeated 
the question and received the same answer. Again in the evening he called 
the Indian to him and said, "Now that the sun has set and the work of the 
day is done, how are your countrymen amusing themselves? " " Senor," 
replied the cacique, "my countrymen are still firing rockets." "

The book is a fantastic travelogue and commentary from the perspective of a traveler in 1894. She travels with her husband Alfred Maudslay, one of my archaeological heroes, through Chiapas and Guatemala. Here is a link to this book on line at the Internet Archive.

Pyrotechnics at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

Boom, swoosh!

So, back to bombas, they are just a part of life around here. Even though I love things that go boom, my first few months in Guatemala I was constantly getting jarred by the random explosions at random hours of the day or night. Now I barely notice them. They are most commonly used for birthdays, church holidays, anniversaries, neighborhood celebrations, saints days(of which there are hundreds), religious rites, parades, store openings, home christenings, christenings in general and any event worth marking. They are also used on the days leading up to these events.

I have two short videos I made during the Festival of Guadalupe just before Christmas. The month of December is one of the most active for the use of anything that goes boom or bang.

The first video was shot in San Pedro La Laguna on the night of the Festival of Guadalupe, December 12th, about five years ago. For this holiday in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, they go all out. Each neighborhood seems to try and out do the next neighborhood by lighting more, larger and louder fireworks than the block before. One of the traditions there is also for men to put on a half barrel shaped bull costume thing that is covered on the outside with fireworks that shoot out into the crowd as he runs through it. It’s a loud and insane night of pyrotechnical excess and one of my very favorite things in the entire world. I’m sure people are injured, but I have never actually seen it happen. If they did this in the USA, the lawsuits and emergency room visits would keep lawyers and insurance companies busy for a year.

The second video is from San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas Mexico. I shot this in early December of 2010 at the Church of Guadalupe in the neighborhood, or barrio, of Guadalupe as it was just gearing up for the Festival of Guadalupe a few weeks later. In this video they have lain a trail of gunpowder down the middle of the street for about 4 long blocks and placed what are essentially quarter sticks of dynamite every few feet. This is all done without any police or fire department supervision. There are no ropes or signs of caution, yet amazingly no one gets hurt and everyone has a blast, literally.

These are some extreme examples of the noise and rocketry. Generally the rockets and bombas are more the size of really big bottle rockets.

Merida’s Cathedral of San Ildefonso and Church of the Third Order of Jesus in Mexico ~ Photos and History

The city of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula is home to the second oldest Cathedral in the New World, the Cathedral of San Ildefonso. Merida’s cathedral is built on top of the Mayan city of T’ho. Many of the stones used in the construction of the cathedral and other old structures in Merida were taken from the Mayan temples of this ancient city. Using the Maya as slaves, the Spanish forced them to destroy their own city and religious center to build a new one for their conquerors.

Merida Cathedral of San Ildefonso

Merida's Cathedral, the power of the church crowned with the coat of arms of the state.

Merida was established in 1542 and construction of the San Ildefonso Cathedral was started nineteen years later in 1561. The Cathedral was commissioned by Pope Pius IV and constructed by the builder Juan Miguel de Aguero. Aguero also built the fortifications of Havana Cuba and the Cathedral of Mexico City.

Giant crucifix inside Merida's cathedral.

Christ of the Unification or Cristo de Unidad in Merida.

Merida’s cathedral is a huge and imposing building in the center of the city. The inside, with it’s vaulted ceilings and grand columns, is not highly decorated but does feature a huge crucifix. The crucifix, Cristo de la Unidad, is a twenty five foot tall birch wood sculpture by the contemporary Spanish artist Ramón Lapayese del Río. It is supposed to represent unification of the Mayas and the Catholic Church, an idea I am both bothered by and unconvinced of.

Grave stones on the floor

Sickle and bones on a tombstone.

Merida’s Cathedral was more highly decorated before the Mexican revolution. In 1915 General Salvador Alvarado arrived in Mérida, he had been appointed as the military Governor of Yucatan. He was credited with many social reforms, but one of his first acts was the sacking and destruction of the inside of the cathedral. He even used the cathedral as a stable for his horses. He was a socialist reformer and eliminating the political power of the church was obviously one of his priorities. Like so many of the people associated with the revolution, he was executed shortly thereafter.

Merida Cathedral in Yucatan

At night the outside of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso is beautifully illuminated.

On the floor of the Cathedral are a large number of grave stones. I am unclear whether these are from a cemetery or are grave markers of wealthy church goers who could afford to pay for the space. The tradition is that the more wealthy benefactors of the Cathedral could be buried within its confines, but the way the stones are arranged makes it seem like they have been put there from somewhere else.

I found this Cathedral cold and impersonal. Any giant structure can install a kind of awe, as this one does, but it did not leave me feeling the least bit inspired. The whole place seemed more like a monument to the power of the Church and State and their unholy alliance. A warning to anyone who would dare question the dominance and might of the institutions of the Catholic church or Crown of Spain. The image of the giant crucifix as a symbol of unification, when considered against the crimes of the church during The Conquest, seems in bad taste, at best.

The Church of Jesus or Church of the Third Order of Jesus, just a block away from the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, is very different in style and feel from its imposing neighbor. This church was built in 1618 by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church.

The church of the third order of Jesus in Merida Yucatan

Church of Jesus or Church of the Third Order of Jesus in Merida.

Merida church interior

Fine stained glass windows, chandeliers and paintings adorn the interior.

In researching this post I found out some interesting things about the Jesuits and The Franciscans. The Jesuit order was started by a Spanish soldier who dedicated himself and his followers to Pope Paul III in 1537. During his rehabilitation from a cannon ball injury he read about the lives of the Saints of the Catholic Church and was inspired to follow their lead.  The Jesuits did not take vows of poverty, nor did they dedicate themselves to the service of the poor, like their Franciscan brothers. Because of this the Jesuits were more frequently associated with seeing to the religious needs of the wealthy and powerful members of the church.

 

Jesus stained glass

All of the stained glass windows are very colorful.

 

Due to their more wealthy followers, churches of the Jesuits tend to be more ornately decorated than those of other orders. The Church of Jesus in Merida is most certainly a highly decorated church. The Jesuits were forced out of all Spanish dominions in 1767. After that the church passed the Third Order of the Franciscans.

One thing I didn’t find out until after I started researching, is that like so many other old structures in Merida, this church is constructed from the stones of Mayan temples.  Mayan carvings can still be seen in the stones on one of the sides of the church.

 

Masonic stained glass window in Merida

The all seeing eye in stained glass at the Church of Jesus. I have noticed a lot of Masonic imagery in churches around Mexico and Guatemala.

Window of Church of Jesus in Merida Yucatan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The inside of the church is ornate and speaks of wealth. In modern times the church is used for elaborate weddings and it is still where the wealthy Catholics of Merida come to worship. I know all old churches in the new world were built with slave labor, under brutal conditions, however I did find the interior of this church both peaceful and beautiful. I realize that this is a contradiction.

Merida church alter in Yucatan

Merida is filled with old churches and chapels. I just scratched the surface with these two.