By Julio Glockner with photographs and captions by Yael Martinez and Orlando Velazquez
Everything is Full of Spirits
In 1629 Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, a theologian born in Taxco in the Guerrero region of Mexico, wrote a Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain. The text was meant to combat what the clergy had deemed idolatry inspired by the devil. In it, the author describes a religious mindset and ritualistic practices that constitute a cosmovision that has, despite the Church’s efforts, endured into the present among the indigenous and farming communities of Guerrero.
In his Treatise Ruiz de Alarcòn wrote:
… because of their ignorance they had and have so many different gods and modes of worship, that coming to ascertain the foundation and what they all are, we find so little of what to lay hands on, as if we wanted to squeeze smoke or wind in our fist .
The truth is that almost all current forms of worship … and from what we can gather they are the same as what their ancestors took part in, have their root and foundation in the belief that clouds are angels and gods, capable of worship, and they surmise the same about the wind, thus believing that the spirits inhabit all parts of the earth, such as hills, mountains, valleys and ravines. They believe the same about rivers, lagoons and springs, as they offer wax and incense to all of the aforementioned. And what is revered the most, and almost all consider a god, is fire.
“As if we wanted to squeeze smoke or wind in our fist,” he says, surprised. It is clear that his Christian belief in one god already detached from the world prevented Ruiz de Alarcón from understanding the significance of the tradition’s attitude toward nature as it manifested in their indigenous rituals.
In large part, such customs have endured because people were able to adapt them to the Catholicism that had reached the region with the Spanish conquest. For example, some Christian saints were adopted and induced to fulfill the functions that ancient deities, nature spirits, and ancestral spirits fulfilled and still fulfill in the agricultural cycle. Their traditions continue to be practiced in many Mixteca, Nahua, and Tlapaneca communities of Guerrero.
In these communities Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Mark, St. Roch, St. John and St. Luke, among others, appear and work alongside nature spirits and the dead to seek good rains, abundant harvests, good health, and well-being in the villages. The celebration dates of Catholic saints are aligned with the agricultural work and the annual rainfall cycle of the different regions.
The Sacred Duality and the Saints
The old Mesoamerican cosmovision, which still nourishes the religious thought of the people today, holds that one principle governs the life of the universe and is at the origin of all things. That principle is Ometéotl, the sacred duality.
The world exists as a sort of unfolding of this primordial duality in which a masculine principle is recognized, Ometecuhtli, the Lord-two, and another, female, Omecíhuatl, the Lady-two. Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl were responsible for creating the other gods, mainly Quetzalcoatl “Feathered Serpent” and Tezcatlipoca “Smoky Mirror,” who were then in charge of creating the world where humans live.
The Nahua communities of Guerrero have an origin myth that explains how the earth was conceived like an immense monster, Tlaltecuhtli. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, in the form of cosmic serpents, caught the body of Tlaltecuhtli and split it in half, thus creating heaven and earth, which was to be fed with offerings and sacrifices in order to obtain from it everything necessary for human life. From the terrestrial body of Tlaltecuhtli came all the food; Her hair became trees and weeds; An infinite number of vegetables and flowers sprouted from her skin; From her eyes springs, fountains, and small caves arose; From her mouth rivers were born and the great caves; The great mountains and the valleys came from her nose. The myth also says that the goddess asked for hearts to feed upon and refused to bear fruit if they were not provided.
From the first moment of creation there has been a reciprocal relationship between the earth as a generator of life and the meteorological phenomena associated with the agricultural cycle. These phenomena are thought of not only in their natural form as winds, clouds, rays, springs, and rivers but also as forces inhabited by spiritual beings with whom it is possible to establish a ritual relationship. Believers obtain life sustaining material and spiritual goods from them using dreams, invocations, offerings, and prayers.
Anthropologist Catharine Good has written about the Nahua community’s concept of Chicahualiztli, which refers to the reciprocal force that circulates between humans, nature, and spirits. Chicahualiztli generates life and gives it to each person according to what one has contributed to the creation of material goods and to the vital energy that sustains the human, natural and spiritual worlds. “We eat the land and the land eats us,” the farmers in the region told Good. They explained that the land produces the Chicahualiztli force that nourishes both the maize and, thus, the animals that feed on it, so sustaining the humans who eat both the animals and the grain. Likewise, when humans and animals die, the earth feeds on their bodies, nourishing itself with that force and transforming it into plant food to start the cycle again. We see, therefore, a vision of humans relating to the world in terms of an holistic economy in which everything obtained from nature has to be ritually restored to it in order to maintain a beneficial balance for the humans, plants, and animals that live there.
Both Chicahualiztli’s balancing force and Ometéotl’s sacred duality are fundamental to the two seasons of patron saint festivities held in Guerrero each year. Generally speaking, the first great period of festivities takes place to propitiate, receive, and control the rains that descend on fields of crops planted for millennia with corn, squash and beans. During this period the male saints predominate: St. Mark (April 25); San Miguel (May 8); Saint Joseph (May 19); Saint John (June 24); Santiago (July 25); St. Michael (September 27-30) and St. Luke (October 18). On the other hand, during the dry season, different devotions of the Virgin Mary are worshiped: Virgin of the Nativity (September 8); Virgen del Rosario (October 6-7); Virgen de la Concepción (December 8) and Virgin of Guadalupe (the 12th of October, November, December, January, and February).
The alternation between the rains and the sun is the central axis for both the agricultural practices and the religious syncretism that has been grown over centuries in Guerrero’s indigenous and farming communities. As a result, the people there have formed a sacred geography around themselves. The places traditionally chosen to perform their religious rituals include caves, wells and springs (which refer to the underworld because of their connection with the underground dimension), the summits of hills and mountains (where there is evidence of a direct relationship with the sky, its astrological and meteorological conditions), as well as rivers, springs, plateaus, canyons, fields, crossroads, rocks, and significant trees, among other such landforms. All this is what the anthropologist Johanna Broda has called “the ritual landscape.” Within their ritual landscapes, each community goes to worship their deities and spirits according to their own mythology and their own local tradition. Taken together as a whole these myths and traditions form a complex framework which regulates communities’ relationships with each other, within themselves, and with the world as a whole.
Giving to the Deities
Ritual practices (such as smoking copal and offering food, drinks, music, dances, aromatic flowers, prayers, and songs) are intended to encourage, thank, and ensure the arrival, permanence, and return of the rains which sustain people.
Social and cosmic functions are fulfilled by placing offerings inside of churches and caves, or at springs, on top of hills, or at family altars. These acts set in motion, to greater and lesser extents, complex relationships that involve relatives, godparents, compadres, mayordomos, prosecutors, priests, prayers, singers, companions and guests, in a system of reciprocities that strengthen the bonds of different groups and the community. At the same time, they activate the forces and supernatural powers needed to satisfy the their requests, thereby reaffirming the mystical ties between individuals performing the offering in particular and the demanding community in general.
The recipients of the offerings, generally composed of tamales, tortillas, local stews, mezcal or aguardiente, coffee, bread, flowers, candles, and incense burned in copal, are both saints of the Catholic pantheon and “owners” of the places and the auxiliary spirits who work with the ritual specialists.
For example, in Zitlala an arch is constructed where the viscera of sacrificed animals are placed as an offering to the buzzards, because they are thought to carry the clouds.
Meanwhile, San Agustín Oapan is also a site of offerings because it is thought to be the place which feeds the wind which pushes the clouds towards the fields where corn grows in the shape of a vulture.
And in the Tlapaneca region, mice (inebriated with mezcal so that they don’t destroy the harvest) are offered and they paint painted a blue Water Cross which is, is fed “to bring rain and protect crops.”
In addition, according to anthropologist Samuel Villela, several communities perform ritual combats in accordance with a maize origin myth. They fight either hand-to-hand or with weapons, but always dressed as tigers, offering their pain and blood to the deities in order to bring good rains and good harvests.
According to the myth, in a situation of hunger and helplessness, Acatl and Cihuatzin breed a green and a yellow tiger, respectively. These tigers would be their nahuales (i.e., their animal alter egos). Determined to help these men, the tigers tried to enter the Tonacatépetl (a mythical hill that contains food, mainly maize) but it was guarded by the Tzicatanas (big ants). Using trickery, the green tiger distracted them while the yellow one removed the seeds from the food. But Tlalloc discovered them and sent them lightning, wind, and rain. The tigers rolled downhill to flee, but along the way they lost the seeds. The yellow tiger blamed the green and started a fight which lasted for several days. Meanwhile the people of the town realized that the seeds were germinating, so the gods forgave the men.
We can learn a lot from this myth. First, we see how the eternal persistence of duality represented in the green and yellow tigers, whose colors evoke vegetation and aridity in the fields. But the story also accounts for the imbalance caused by the theft of seeds, since all appropriation must be accompanied by a payment that maintains the balance and harmony of the holistic economy, based on reciprocity, as I mentioned at the outset.
Tláloc, the god of rain, punishes this robbery and sends lightning bolts, winds and rain which trigger a favorable season for agriculture by sowing field such than they can then grow the food they need to repay the gods. Consequently the deities forgive the men. But this cycle would not have been carried out without the tigers’ fight, which caused them to fall and drop the seeds that would ultimately redeem them. The ritual combat is, therefore, of prime importance in the rituals of requesting rains in the Mountain of Guerrero.
Through these rituals, people stage and update a set of myths that give them a complete and complex view of the world they live in. The environment so many call “natural” and consider uninhabited, devoid of intelligence and intentionality, for them is populated with beings with whom they can establish links and foster personal and collective well-being for their traditional cultures. Even four hundred years after Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón’s Treatise, what vanished like smoke in the wind was not the native deities but the failed idea that they were evil demons.
 Good, Catharine “La vida ceremonial en la construcción de la cultura: procesos de identidad entre los nahuas de Guerrero” in Historia y vida ceremonial en las comunidades mesoamericanas and “La circulación de la fuerza en el ritual: las ofrendas nahuas y sus implicaciones para analizar las prácticas religiosas mesoamericanas” Convocar a las dioses: Ofrendas mesoamericanas, 2013.
 Samuel Villela “Ídolos en los altares. La religiosidad indígena en la Montaña de Guerrero,” Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. XIV, Número 82, Noviembre-diciembre-2006 and “El culto a las deidades de la lluvia en la Montaña de Guerrero,” Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. XVI, Número 96, marzo-abril-2009.
Work, Spirits, and Rain was written by Julio Glockner as part of a collaboration with photographer Yael Martinez and artist Orlando Velazquez with support from the Magnum Foundation’s “On Religion” project.
To read more about this project see “The Blood and The Rain” by Yael Martinez.
Julio Glockner es antropólogo egresado de la enah. Co-fundador del Colegio de Antropología Social de la uap. Autor de Los volcanes sagrados, Mitos y rituales en el Popocatépetl y la Iztaccíhuatl: Así en la tierra como en el cielo, Pedidores de lluvia del volcán, Mirando el paraíso y La realidad alterada, Drogas enteógenos y cultura. Investigador del Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades de la uap.
Yael Martinez explores the connections between poverty and organized crime in his community of Guerrero in Southern Mexico. He often works symbolically to evoke a sense of emptiness, absence, and pain suffered by those affected by narcotrafficking in the region. Martinez is a grantee of the Magnum Foundation, and was named one of PDN’s 30 new and emerging photographers to watch in 2017. In 2015 he was selected for the Joop Swart Master Class of Latin America. He was a finalist for the Eugene Smith memorial grant in 2015 and 2016, and was nominated to the Paul Huf Award, the Prix Pictet, and the ICP Infinity Awards.
Orlando Velazquez has a Bachelor’s degree in Arts (Centro Morelense de las Artes del estado de Morelos 2010-2014) Diploma in Visual Arts (Centro Morelense de las Artes) Diploma in painting from The National School of Plastic Arts (ENAP). He has received the Fonca’s Jóvenes Creadores Grant in Grafic Art 2016 – 2017 Aquisition Prize in XXXIV Encuentro Nacional de Arte Jóven 2014 Aguascalientes, México, honorable Mention at the 9th Biennial of painting and engraving Paul Gauguin 2015 and was selected in the II International Biennial of Engraving Jose Guadalupe Posada and the fifth-national biennial Shinzaburo Takeda. His work has participated in group exhibitions in Mexico, Chicago and Canada ; He has exhibited individually at the Institute of Fine Arts Potosino, San Luis Potosi Mexico; and the Gallery of Centro Morelense de las Artes Cuernavaca Morelos.