San Juan Huetziatl: Popular religiosity and the cult of saints in a communal stewardship of San Miguel Canoa, Puebla

Reception: June 23, 2020

Acceptance: October 2, 2020


The following work is a photographic essay that aims to reflect on the value of the photographic record to ethnographically analyze the expressions of popular religiosity in San Miguel Canoa, Puebla, where, based on the analysis of the festive ritual of San Juan Bosco, it is seeks to contribute to the reflection of the ethnographic construction and the use of photography in anthropological research.

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san juan huetziatl: popular religiosity and the cult to saints in a communal and stewardship in san miguel canoa, puebla

The following work is a photographic essay with the aim of reflecting on the value of photographic registration to ethnographically analyze the expressions of popular religiousity in San Miguel Canoa, Puebla, in which, from the analysis of the festive rituals of San Juan Bosco, we attempt to contribute to the ethnographic construction and the use of photography in anthropologic research.

Keywords: popular religiousity, stewardship, ritual spaces, religious images, incorporation, appropriation.

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The photographic series that accompanies this essay is the result of an ethnographic investigation that aims to document the celebrations around the saints in San Miguel Canoa, Puebla.1 In this sense, photography is considered a tool that, in addition to recording religious practices, allows observing and understanding the phenomenon from the perspective of established ritual guidelines, as Hermansen and Fernández (2018) point out. For the purposes of this work, the photographic record will be understood, in accordance with the provisions of Orobitg (2014: 5), as a form of communication that allows establishing an interlocution with people and producing stories different from those established from verbal interactions.

In this case, the feast of San Juan Bosco, or San Juan Huetziatl as it is also known, is the expression of a process of incorporation and appropriation in accordance with what was proposed by Bartolomé (2005). This celebration is divided into two different ritual moments and spaces: a) January 31 is celebrated in the parish and in the house of the butler2, within the town of Canoa. b) For the first week of February,3 the festival moves to the place called Huetziatl, located on the mountain of La Malinche, where the chapel dedicated to San Juan Bosco is located, next to a water fountain that supplies the towns of Canoa and San Isidro Buensuceso.

The photographs that serve as the basis for reflection were taken between 2016 and 2020. An attempt was made to frame them in a general plane to create a narrative and descriptive sequence so that the images could be used in the anthropological analysis of the party.

Photography as an ethnographic element in anthropology

Photography has been an element of ethnographic production since the time of Bronislaw Malinowski, who between 1915 and 1918 included it in his ethnographic works for illustrative purposes (Brandes, 1996: 56). However, the photographic technique remained in a secondary role in anthropology and was only conceived as a form of recording until in 1936 Margared Mead and Gregory Bateson explicitly used it as a technique and method for collecting ethnographic information during their fieldwork between the Balinese (Brandes, 1996: 56).

Later, in 1931 Marcel Griaule carried out an extensive and systematic photographic record in the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, as he was convinced that photography was an essential element in the observation process and considered the presence of the photographer-ethnographer in each part of the city to be necessary. research. Likewise, he believed that it was essential to develop the photographs in situ to review, observe and record the results (Flores, 2017: 176). It was not until 1960 that the term visual anthropology began to be used in academia, and was first published in 1967 Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method, by John and Malcom Collier, which quickly became a classic in their field (Flores, 2007: 66).

Today, the limits and scope of the field of visual anthropology are the subject of debates within anthropology in general. It should be noted that it is not disputed that the images obtained provide important information about other human groups, but rather the need to have truthful narrative and descriptive elements to construct the ethnographic data is underlined (Flores, 2007: 70). Therefore, it is advocated to create a dialogue relationship between the anthropologist and the social subjects to seek a more holistic approach, immersed in a collaborative exercise (Flores, 2007: 70), where rather than thinking about how to involve the subjects we must rethink how anthropologists are getting involved in the investigated social process.

San Miguel Canoa and San Juan Huetziatl: the photographic context

The community of San Miguel Canoa is an auxiliary board of the municipality of Puebla, located 10 km from the state capital, at an altitude of 2,680 m. above sea level, on the slopes of the La Malinche volcano. Its population, mostly Nahua,4 It depends mainly on economic activities carried out outside the community, where they are employed as laborers, bricklayers, domestic workers or guards in the cities of Puebla and Tlaxcala. However, commerce within the town and seasonal agriculture that produces corn, broad beans and beans also generate additional income for its inhabitants.

In their daily lives, it is possible to observe a combination between the dynamics of rural and urban life, which is the result of the conurbation process to which the Nahua communities of San Pablo del Monte, San Isidro Buensuceso and San Aparicio are also subjected, with the sharing cultural traits including shared economic activities, regional inbreeding5 and religious interrelation in the supervisory celebrations.

The place called Huetziatl is located at 3 638 m. above sea level (Acocal, 2009: 60), in a plain adjacent to the great ravine of the La Malinche volcano. Its name means "falling water", because in the place there are three waterfalls, from where it is channeled through a hydraulic structure that supplies Canoa and San Isidro Buensuceso. Next to this construction, embedded in the wall of the ravine, the chapel of San Juan Bosco was built, where the festival takes place in the first week of February.

It should be considered that the historical evidence points to the holding of cults in sacred spaces of the La Malinche volcano (at least since the post-classic period) in honor of a deity related to water and rain known as Matlalcuéyetl or Malinche (Acocal, 2009: 53- 56).6 Likewise, near the place and next to one of the waterfalls there is a humid cave with mud walls where offerings to the Malintzin are deposited.7 in order to promote rain and fertility of crops.

In this context, it is estimated that the image of San Juan Bosco was implanted in the place in the 1960s, when the construction of a cistern began and the pipes were placed to supply water to the Canoa community.8 Once the work was finished, it was decided to build the chapel and dedicate it to Saint John Bosco (patron saint of young people, celebrated on January 31). The festivity in the place brings together the inhabitants of Canoa, San Isidro Buensuceso, San Aparicio and San Pablo del Monte, since, as Acocal (2009) suggests, there is an order: first the seeds are blessed on February 2, the day of La Candelaria, and then ask for the arrival of water in Huetziatl.

In this way, it can be pointed out that a process of incorporation and adaptation was established in the place, such as that suggested by Bartolomé (2005: 50-51), where by means of the inclusion of foreign entities within the own system, the legitimizing sense of experience to reinforce the cosmic order of society rather than displace or abolish it. Thus, an official ritual presided over by the Catholic image was implemented to continue with the sense of request and gratitude for water. However, the cult of the deity Malintzin endures, as it is possible to observe offerings in his cave for the same purposes.

Photography as a means of analyzing expressions of popular religiosity

Popular religiosity must be understood as a reformulation of religion and not as a disreputable vision. Its influence can be seen in religious rituals that fulfill the function of integration, solidarity and social cohesion (Fernández, 2009: 93). In this sense, Renée de la Torre (2013) proposes to understand this concept not in the field of official religion or in the proposals of the new individualized forms of spirituality, but as a threshold or space in between (in-between), where the practicality of religion is reinterpreted through creative negotiations. Popular religiosity, as the author points out, occurs between colonial syncretisms and postcolonial hybridisms, which is why it is also considered a syncretic religion that is governed by practical knowledge and symbolic efficacy. Likewise, it generates a mixture between various religious systems such as indigenous worldviews, Catholicism articulating devotion to the saints and invocations of the Virgin, the miracle, ritualism, among others (De la Torre, 2013: 6-8).

In this sense, the cult of the saints in Mexico should be understood as an expression of popular religiosity, a product of the evangelization process that began in the 20th century. xvi, where we can distinguish the appropriation of canonical saints, who in some cases are treated the same as secular saints and are considered miraculous, which endorses the deinstitutionalization of popular worship (De la Torre, 2013: 17). In the case of Canoa, these expressions involve community ritual practices that are anchored in a territory that is signified from a communal or collective perspective, articulated in the beliefs around these divinities, with a certain autonomy from ecclesiastical institutions.

It is then proposed that photography can account for the expressions of popular religiosity, because thanks to this instrument we can capture the interaction between sacred agents and symbols in specific spaces where ritual is performed, in addition to recording the social organization that practice religious raises, both in the place and in the community, to make an analysis of the details that due to the movement of the subjects could go unnoticed at the time.

Drawing 1: Stewardship of San Juan Huetziatl. Elaboration: Ana Isabel Castillo Espinosa.

The mayordomia of San Juan Huetziatl is made up of a wide network of people that includes the towns of Canoa, San Isidro Buensuceso, San Aparicio and San Pablo del Monte, who are asked for a fixed fee to carry out the saint's feast. In turn, the ex-mayordomos and the applicant mayordomos support whoever is in turn with the hiring of mariachis or sounds to liven up the festivity. At the end of the mass in the place, the incoming butlers and the outgoing butlers invite the attendees to join the butlership, in order to obtain the financing for the celebration of the following year.

The use of the camera in festive rituality

In this vein, the use of photographic equipment during field work days has allowed me to get closer to the ritualism of Canoa, because thanks to this I have been able to attend the celebrations of the festive and life cycle of its inhabitants. Some people have approached and asked to be photographed in specific situations such as the dance, the procession and with their family or religious images. This situation makes me evaluate and value the approach that I am achieving through the use of this instrument,9 which is complemented when I deliver the printed photos, since I can talk with people to know their testimonies and increase my understanding of the ritualism that I investigate.

Fundamentally, my concentration is aimed at capturing ritual situations that allow me to understand abstract elements such as social organization, social groups and the cultural processes of the practices that I observe. It motivates me to seek a moment of articulation with people and ritual action, which I consider occurs when they forget my presence with the camera and focus their attention on the activities they carry out.

In addition, I consider that the photographs must be consensual. This became clear to me thanks to a difficult experience I had at a stewardship party in 2011. On that occasion, “it was easy for me” to photograph some men while they danced, but they realized it. A lady rebuked me and demanded: "Why are you taking photos of me?" At this, I had to apologize, erase the image and leave the party so as not to increase his displeasure. This fact produced some uncertainty for later photographic records, but I was able to overcome it and join the ritual scene with this instrument.

Constructing ethnographic photography on the feast of San Juan Huetziatl

The first time I went to the Huetziatl festival in 2012 I had the intention of documenting the entire festival. At times like the procession and the change of mayordomías there were no problems, but when I approached people to request an individual photo or accompanied by their families while they lived together, the answer was a resounding no. Until gradually the attendees got used to seeing me every year taking photographs and also handing out the images of the previous festivities, which encouraged their confidence to allow me to photograph them.

For the 2020 party, the approach with the Huetziatl butlers was generated without intending to do so in November 2019, when I was documenting another celebration in the village church. At that moment, a lady approached me and said: “You always go to Huetziatl. I invite her this year. I am the steward ”. I thanked and accepted the invitation. When the date arrived, I went first to the party in the town and then to the place.

From these two moments I obtained precise images about the organization of the stewardship. I acknowledge that the invitation of the butler was fundamental to achieve this documentation, as she was the one who guided me in some significant moments where I could take photographs, such as the arrival of the applicants to the position, when she told me: “If you are going to take photos, now the steward came and we are going to receive her. Join us ”(see illustration 8).

For this reason, it seems important to me to point out that the use of this tool is not limited only to capturing the image, since its greatest wealth is that of being an instrument of communication with the interlocutors, a photo-elicitation in the words of Orobitg (2014), where a stronger interaction with the interlocutors is generated from the ethnographic situation captured in the photograph that can enrich the anthropologist's perception of reality.

The photographs show us the role that the saints play in the community, but also the place they occupy for the interlocutors and the links they establish with each other. For example, in the request and change of stewardship, a hierarchical and subordinate relationship is established before the divinity, since it is the only one that can validate these practices (see illustration 9). It also allows us to observe a feeling of gratitude and supplication in front of the saint, expressed when “arriving safely” at the place and when requesting his protection to return to the town (see illustration 14). For this reason, the cult of San Juan Bosco allows the objectification of social roles within the stewardship and it is endorsed that the saints are more than an image, since they have influence on the social organization of Canoa and the peoples of the region.

In addition, the photographs show the effort made by the Church to institutionalize this type of religious experience through the saint and the mass in the place, where people gather around the chapel to participate in the liturgy, although some attendees do not take communion. , so they do not fully participate in the institutional ritual10 (see illustration 17).

Illustration 8: The arrival of the incoming butlers. San Miguel Canoa, Puebla, January 31, 2020.

The outgoing mayordomos receive at their domicile the next holders of the position, when they attend the formal request of the saint during the feast of January 31.

Illustration 9: The saint's request. San Miguel Canoa, Puebla, January 31, 2020.

The placement and lighting of the wax for the saint marks the formal request for the office of steward before the deity. San Miguel Canoa, Puebla, January 31, 2020.

Illustration 14: Arrival at Huetziatl. Paraje de Huetziatl, Tlaxcala, February 3, 2020.

The settlers have a very solid connection with the saints and an obligation to venerate them. For this reason, upon arrival at Huetziatl, they go to the altar, where they cross themselves before the image to thank him for allowing them to arrive safely. Upon their departure, they do so again to request their protection on the way back to town.

Illustration 17: The beginning of the mass. Paraje de Huetziatl, Tlaxcala, February 7, 2017.

During the homily it is expressed that the intention of the Mass is to thank God for the water that supplies the people, the natural resources that the mountain provides and the maintenance that the land provides. In addition, it is requested that the rain be favorable for the crops. Mentions of Saint John Bosco by the priest relate specifically to his role as a saint of youth.

Photography manages to capture the great distance that exists between the Catholic institution and this communal practice (see illustration 20); For example, the priest can be seen presiding over the mass, the procession and the change of mayordomías, but at the end of the religious celebration he returns to the town (see illustration 22). However, people take advantage of the occasion to live together and carry out playful practices, such as dances and tours of caves and waterfalls, where photos are also taken with the cell phone (see illustration 26).

Illustration 20: The priest during the procession of San Juan Huetziatl. Paraje de Huetziatl, Tlaxcala, February 3, 2020.

The priest's participation in the ritual is essential. In the event that the parish priest or vicar of Canoa cannot attend, the priests of San Aparicio or San Pablo del Monte are called upon to come to the place to officiate mass. This accounts for the nature of the celebration and the role of the Church as an institution in indigenous communities.

Illustration 22: The change of stewardships. Paraje de Huetziatl, Tlaxcala, February 3, 2020.

The delivery of the images of Saint John Bosco legitimizes the ownership of the position and highlights the role of the saint as an objectifier of social roles within the organization. In addition, it allows us to observe the symbolic role that is given to these entities within the collective.

Illustration 26: The dance of the stewardship of San Juan Huetziatl. Paraje de Huetziatl, Tlaxcala, February 3, 2020.

The established ritual protocol ends with a dance that strengthens the group cohesion of the organization, since only those involved in the celebration of the party participate as thanks for the support provided for its realization.

For this reason, photography, when used as a tool to document the expressions of popular religiosity, allows us to analyze the decentralization of institutional devotional practices and understand the active role of social subjects who become agents who live differently from those of the people. dogmas instituted by the official religion (De la Torre, 2013: 19). In this way, photography in relation to the images it frames and the relationship with the themes it raises supposes another way, different from verbal interaction, which guides the understanding and analysis of the reality that is being investigated and places the anthropologist in a proactive role within the ethnographic situation (Orobitg, 2014: 12).

Final thoughts

In this essay the relationship established between the inhabitants of Canoa and the figure of Saint John Bosco has been shown, which is inscribed as an expression of popular religiosity that materializes on the feast of Saint John Huetziatl. This manifestation is considered to be the result of a colonial and post-colonial process, which is presented as a mixture between indigenous worldviews and institutional Catholicism.

When photographing the rituality of San Juan Huetziatl, I wanted to account for the process of incorporation and appropriation of religious images to contextualize the symbolic relationships that are generated through the ritual and that involve both the inhabitants of Canoa and those of San Isidro Buensuceso, San Aparicio and San Pablo del Monte. In this sense, the link with the saints must be understood as a hierarchical correlation, which comes out in the photographs, especially with regard to the ritual moments of stewardship such as the request for office and the change of stewards, where it is confirmed that the image of Saint John Bosco is not an inanimate object, but rather an objectivator of social roles within this social organization.

Finally, photography allows us to capture fragments of both ritual expression and implicit social organization. For this reason, it is committed to its use as an instrument of communication with the interlocutors and an option to approach the understanding of specific social relationships. I believe that we should not limit our approach, but it is important not to generate invasive documentation. Therefore, we must establish a dialogue with the subjects in the first instance and assume our obligation to capture the facts from a perspective that reflects the link between the actors found in the research context.


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Ana Isabel Castillo Espinosa She has a degree in social anthropology from the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla; He is currently pursuing a master's degree at the same institution, where he is conducting research on the devotion of the saints and the cult of blessed souls in San Miguel Canoa, Puebla. His lines of research are the anthropology of religion, funeral rituals and indigenous worldviews. He has collaborated in the projects “San Miguel Canoa: urban town. Sociocultural diagnosis ”(casbuap) and “M68: citizenships on the move” (unam/ccu-Tlatelolco).


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