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Festival of the Young Corn


ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

In Mexico fiestas keep life in balance. Feast days are essential in a country where everything is reduced to the first necessities. Corn and beans for diet, a single serape for coat and blanket, a hut of mud for house—somehow from this comfortless poverty there is a margin left for luxury.

There must be a margin. I doubt if any people can exist without occasional extravagance. Certainly not the Indians of Mexico, whose whole logic of culture for thousands of years has been tortillas and fiestas: tortillas thin, flat, niggardly; fiestas gay, luxurious, and intense. When there is poured into one celebration the festive impulse accumulated for months, the release is as violent as the transition from night cold to day heat on the central plateau. Even a visitor to Mexico feels the fiesta hunger. Cut off from the constant drumming of manufactured amusement, he is reduced, and very quickly, to the low monotone of Mexican life. He begins to long for fiestas, not so much from curiosity as from an inner necessity for change.

Feasts are rare in the summer. It is a busy time, and the warm sun gives confidence. When the year dies and spirits most need lifting, Mexico seethes with fiestas. It was late summer, but as we rode through Tarascan villages in the state of Michoacan we listened hopefully for the sound of drums. They might be celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin in Cheranazticurin on the top of the nearby mountain, we were told one night in Paracho. Nobody is definite about arrangements in Mexico because there are no arrangements. But the risk was worth taking, and the next morning we mounted and rode towards Cheranazticurin.

We caught the fiesta feeling from the rich country about us. In Mexico the landscape is often poorly composed and fretful, as if reflecting some lack of unity, some frustration, in the people themselves. But Michoacan appeased the eye. The land was disposed in great amphitheaters; the wooded mountains made arcs around fields white with thistle or russet with maize. The plains lay free, bound at the horizon by mountains, as plains should be if they are not to look lonely. Nothing disturbed the sense of earth, of the warm maternal plain.

The tall maize, higher than our horses, was just showing the silk in the ear. Michoacan corn is fine, because the Indians bury an idol in each field to guard the young plants and make the ears fat. The growing .season had been kind; it was a good year for a fiesta. A fiesta begins with the earth, with a kind season. Then the people can celebrate the importance of things growing, applauding the soil for a task well performed.

The plain ended, and we began to climb the mountain, up a steep cascade of rocks that on a rainy day would have been a watercourse. Our horses, burros by temperament, took the uncertain climb without a show of nerves. Halfway up, the black sheep of Cheranazticurin came bleating down to pasture, tended by a single shepherd, the first person we had seen for several miles. Above us hung the village, high and alone.

Before we reached Cheranazticurin the mutter of drums made us sigh with relief. A fiesta, certainly. And as we climbed the first street, color met us like gala flags. A little girl was perched on an adobe wall, a scarlet apron over her long skirt, her braids stiff with purple ribbons. From her dark kitchen hut, drawn by the rapping hoofs, came a pear-bosomed Tarascan girl, a fiesta in herself. She wore the classic chincuetl, an unhemmed black wool skirt so heavily pleated that the folds formed a ridge at the back of her waist. Her blouse was parrot yellow, and her apron a burning magenta; a cascade of rainbow ribbons covered her hair. She wore a necklace of many strings of red coral, and half-moon silver earrings, but her flat brown feet were bare.

The mean plaza where we tethered our horses had been transformed for the feast. Along two sides rough stalls had been put up for the vendors of chili and beans. The road was lined with women squatting behind little pyramids of oranges, mangoes, and alligator pears, or flat baskets of sweet bread. A red flag flew over the butcher’s stall, which was decorated with the head of a freshly slaughtered bull. The beef mesentery was stretched across the back wall like lace across an altar, animal lace in fibre and suet.

Hundreds of people were in the little plaza, but it was almost quiet. There was a steady vibration in the air that was not so much a sound of voices as a recurrent accent of nature, like water or wind, of hundreds of people talking Tarascan. Sound was pitched low as if to give color to the stage. Color shouted, it burned under the high bare sun. The men wore their white field drawers with blouses of orange, peacock, cerise, with their crimson serapes folded over one shoulder. The women, decked in coral necklaces and crescent silver earrings, all wore the pre-Conquest chincuetl, with gorgeous blouses and aprons. Claret with canary yellow, the violent Mexican pink with vermilion, turquoise with purple—excesses to shame a Rivera. And through it all, keeping the rampage of colors in perfect balance, the women’s rebozos gave the essential, harmonizing blue.

When we clattered into the plaza, blond foreigners in riding clothes, everything stopped dead for a moment. Then the hum of voices went on, pitched higher, and there were sudden giggles. We were probably the first foreigners ever | to climb up to Cheranazticurin. When we dismounted, the people came close, not asking questions, not saying a word, simply staring with bottomless black eyes, We apologized for our dress, but still they stared, even when the cacique we had brought along as courier from Paracho translated our Spanish into Tarascan. And when we retreated to the churchyard which flanked the plaza, they ran after us, nudging each other and softly giggling.

Home-made paper lanterns festooned the church facade. In the wide space before the church stood an ancient stone cross, and in front of it a far more ancient stone idol, its shape blurred by centuries of rain. There had been no priest in the village for a long time, but the church was lovingly cared for by the people. Spotless linen covered the altar. The rough floor had been freshly scrubbed, but there were no seats. The bare nave was hung with paper ribbons in blue and white, Mary’s colors. The altar, with its tall white candles and tinsel bouquets, was flanked by images in portable shrines. San Isidrio stood in a copse of young fruit trees and corn stalks; Mary, on the right of the altar, smiled out from a bower of red and yellow dahlias and mauve cosmos supported by pillars of corn leaves braided in an intricate design. Mary was dark and straight haired, and wore a multiple coral necklace like the village women. Over her outstretched hands was a woman’s blue rebozo.

The images, in their bowers of maize and fruit trees and blossoms, had been carried in procession through the village where the peaches and apples were forming on the trees and the ears in the corn, where the rains had made every courtyard gay with dahlias and cosmos. San Isidrio, who guards young plants against hail and snow, and Mary, the Great Corn Mother, were watching over their people and promising them a good harvest. For a thousand years, and perhaps other thousands, nothing had changed in Cheranazticurin except the names of the gods who make the corn grow and keep the hail away.

Men and women knelt, their full-moon Tarascan faces lit by the candles they held. Indians do not bow the head in prayer, they lift their faces to the image they address, and with an absolute concentration commune with it. The lifted candle-lit faces were drugged in dark communion. They prayed with a bottomless innocence that yet had a crafty patience. Patiently, craftily, they bargained with the powers.

Before the altar rail a woman knelt, both arms wide in supplication, her forefingers making circles with the tips of her thumbs. The baby bound to her back with the rebozo was as motionless as the mother, only its brown lids blinked slowly at the candles. A little boy rolled on the floor beside her with his dog. Finally the woman moved on her knees to the rail, took a candle from her bosom, lighted it, and left it in the row of other burning candles. Then she took her little boy by the hand and quietly left the church.

We too left the church and went toward the muttering drum that had never ceased since our arrival. A toothless old man, the only person in the village who was even slightly tipsy, careened down the road after us to the house where we had seen the first gorgeously dressed girl. The courtyard was packed with people watching a group of dancers eat their dinner. The artless band played, and the people watched, as the dancers, los Moros, had their meal. The Moors were village boys trained year after year to perform fiesta dances. Perhaps they would dance the Battle of the Moors and Christians which the Spanish brought, but Cheranazticurin was so remote that they would be more apt to dance something that belonged to this village alone. Just now the Moors had thrown off their sacerdotal role, and were five hungry boys enjoying a feast.

It was a good meal; the village saved up for fiestas. Twenty women had been busy since dawn preparing the food, and were still cooking for the crowd of onlookers from other villages. Under a roof to one side of the gate were the corn-grinders with their metates. Laughing and joking, the women ground the lime-softened kernels on their stones, as the Indians of Mexico have done for thousands of years without change. The metate is older than the God of Israel.

Laughing, happy to be together, the tortilla makers took the soft pats of meal from the grinders, slapped them with quick brown hands into thin disks, and tossed them on a flat earthenware plate to bake, while their babies pulled at their long breasts. Other women crouched in the kitchen hut, tending pots of beans and meat, redolent over a fire of pitch-pine confined in stones. Our gorgeous girl knelt near the door, her ribbon cascade bent over a great bowl of frying rice. In the one room of the living-hut there were only the straw mats for bed, and a loft for drying corn, where the Moors had put aside their elegant bonnets.

Earth is the only thing these Indians know about. It is chair and bed and shop. They sit flat on the ground to weave, to cook, to sell, to shape vessels out of the earth for water and food. They know nothing of metal cooking utensils, of knives or forks. Their houses and garden walls are made of baked earth; their beds of the reeds that grow out of the ground.

The Moors finished their dinner and put on their bonnets. Now they were shy and apart, and the people drew away and stopped joking with them. They would dance soon, and we hurried back to the plaza to be ready.

In a Mexican fiesta there is no set program: everything unfolds in its own good time, but the people have a common impulse that makes them know what is coming next. Quietly the plaza was emptying, and the people were flowing into the churchyard. The bells in the tower began, in a pulse-beat like the drums which answered them in a quick, provocative rhythm. The procession came up the street: first the Moors, one mounted on a beribboned white horse, then the band, then the villagers. All passed into the churchyard, and the Moors went alone into the church to salute the Virgin.

The people arranged themselves before the church. The men drifted to the right, where the band waited under ragged cypresses, and the women to the left, their rebozos making a lovely blue line along the church wall. Other women grouped themselves around the stone cross and the idol, sheltering their children from the sun under their rebozos. The men stood, their sombreros in their hands, and the women squatted, their heads covered. We realized that this was like being in church.

The Moors stepped into the empty space left in the center. They were very splendid in the costumes hoarded from year to year, the only precious possessions of the village. Their shirts were cerise or yellow, their crimson trousers were slashed at the knee and covered with embroidery and little bells. They wore red damask chasubles and linen stoles, like priests. Their shoes, the only ones in the village, were spurred. Magnificence burned in their bonnets of gold tissue, rimmed with paper dahlias and crowned with a little forest of tinsel trees in ruby, green, gold, and silver. A series of thin silk handkerchiefs in brilliant colors covered their faces except for a half moon left for the eyes. The masks suggested Moors, and the spurs their battle; otherwise they were priests.

They stood in a row, their arms down at their sides. The band piped, and they clicked their heels smartly three times. Then the row moved sideways with a weaving step, their knees bent in the Indian fashion, the little bells tinkling with their sideways tread.

The leader wove forward and turned to face the other four. All clicked their spurs; then the leader, with the same subtle movement of the feet, wove back and forth to each of the four in turn. There were no gestures; their arms remained tight at their sides; they danced with their feet, the knees bent. The leader rejoined the line, and the second dancer repeated the back-and-forth pattern, then the others. Finally, all clicked their spurs three times, and they moved away. The dance was over. The parody of the chanted mass was over, and the priests retired, having performed their mystery.

But there was a second group of Moors with its own band. The fresh dancers came up and repeated the ritual without the slightest variation. Then everybody melted away from the churchyard.

Twenty minutes later another procession came up to the plaza—the two bands and the dancers, then the men of the village, then the women. A corn field moved up the hill. The men held green stalks of corn in their left hands, and the women carried in their right hands little baskets covered with a clean embroidered cloth, with flowers laid on top. This time the women were dancing. In a long snake-line they shuttled back and forth between the rows of men, trotting on their toes with the whole body leaning forward, towards the earth. The line of women wove in and out of the rows of men, like wind rippling a field of corn. All down the hill the green stalks trembled as if a wind were stirring a growing field.

What was in the baskets so decently covered? A woman who had paused near me smiled so intimately that I murmured “Con permiso?” and lifted a corner of the cloth. Little green peaches and apples, the young ears of corn— first fruits under the home-loomed linen and the flowers.

The people did not go to the church; they were back in a time when there were no churches. They went through the whole village, down between the adobe walls, the bands piping, the women weaving through the rows of corn. They passed every house, each set in its own little field and garden, blessing it with the first fruits set apart. They were tender and shy, as they were in the church, only this was so much older, so much more important, than praying to an image.

Here were confessed their tenderness and innocence, their vulnerability. They were asking for food, directly asking the maternal earth to feed them for another year, to clothe and shelter them.

When the milpas had all been blessed the men went into one courtyard and the women into another. The gates were shut. We went back to the empty plaza, lonely outsiders who eat our corn from cans and never weave a charm to make it grow. We had lost our birthright, we could not share in the mystery which every man and woman once understood.

Three times a day we eat and never once think of the earth that feeds us, never make a prayer to the earth, or give it thanks . . ..

Presently men arrived and began work on a bull ring. There was to be a bull fight for the Virgin—that is, when the ring was finished. One day would do as well as another. The sun was aslant now. Soon there would be sudden cold and darkness, and the people would go behind their walls and build their little fires of pitch pine in the kitchen huts. They would wrap themselves in their serapes and huddle together on the earth floor until morning.

Comfortless night, and tomorrow the bare sun would stand over the fields and the people would come out into the streets for the fiesta that went on and on. And in the church, Santissima Maria, the Great Corn Mother, would hear the prayers of her children.

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