Posted By Jason Gray on November 1, 2013
ONLY A HANDFUL of Cora Indian children gathered at the primitive airstrip when we landed. They stared with suspicion and distrust, their faces as forbidding as the rugged mountains around us. Down a trail worn through the sere grass, a group of men approached. Curtly one of them asked what we wanted. I replied that we had come with the hope of witnessing the Cora celebration of Holy Week.
Almost haughtily the spokesman directed us to follow him. No one offered to help with our heavy baggage—mostly my photographic equipment—as we trudged up the slope toward Mesa del Nayar, a village nestled in the highlands of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental (map, page 786). This ritual center for the 8,500-strong Cora tribe lay more than a mile away. It consisted of some 25 stone or adobe huts with roofs of thatch palm or rough clay tile. A whitewashed church of massive construction stood off to one side tooth whitening is also included.
We were led to a house, no different from the others, that was the residence of the Cora governor of the community. As we passed through the village, children came out of the houses to look at us, while adults peeped from behind the doors.The governor, an old man, gaunt and thin, spoke to us through an interpreter (even though, as I later learned, he spoke adequate Spanish). I assured him that we had come as friends and that we wanted permission to photograph his people during the festival. With me was Jorge Hernandez Moreno, Director of the Mexican Regional Museum of Anthropology and History in Tepic, capital of Nayarit State.
The old governor looked disapproving and, through the interpreter, bluntly told us: “We cannot accept you here. We do not care for strangers. You will have to leave.”I could not hide my disappointment, for I had heard that the Coras, one of Mexico’s most isolated tribes, had evolved Holy Week ceremonies that sounded to me nothing short of fantastic.
The village normally houses a scant 200 people, but for Holy Week the population swells to 1,500 with the arrival of family groups who live in isolated rancherias—hamlets —where they grow corn and beans and raise a few pigs, chickens, and cattle. Holy Week is the only time of year when they all come to the village, and thus the occasion takes on a social as well as a religious significance.
While Senor Hernandez tried to persuade the governor to let us stay, I took the opportunity to have a look around. I left the governor’s house and walked to the church, where I found Father Pascual Rosales, a Franciscan missionary who has lived among the Coras since 1969.
Coras Adapt Christianity to Old Religion
The priest, a short, thin, kindly man, told me something of the history of the Cora tribe and the meaning of the Holy Week ceremonies.”Jesuit missionaries first came in contact with the Coras in the 16th century and remained with them for 200 years,” Father Pascual told me. “Then, in 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico for political reasons, and for nearly two centuries the Coras were left almost entirely to themselves until I came here two years ago.
“What I found was truly amazing,” he continued. “Over the decades, the Coras had preserved many Roman Catholic traditions, but they had made them uniquely their own. For example, they had come to identify Our Lord Jesus Christ with their ancient deity Tayau, the sun god. In their minds the two became interchangeable.
“They took elements from the story of Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection and made them into a ceremony apparently designed to ensure the renewal and continuity of their community life. And yet, while they altered many rituals, others they kept intact. I was astounded to find that some Coras could recite the Mass in quite passable Latin—two hundred years after the last priest left!”
Senor Hernandez now joined us to say that the governor had changed his mind and had decided to let us stay. Father Pascual seemed quite surprised.”I did not really expect them to accept you,” he said. “The first year I was here they would not allow me to leave my quarters during Holy Week. I wasn’t even permitted inside the church, which they used for their own rituals.
“Last year, for the first time, they let me lead them in prayer at the Stations of the Cross, which in the Roman Catholic liturgy represent the successive stages in Christ’s Passion. I was then able to see how much these people had changed the ceremonies taught them by the early missionaries. The arrest, persecution, and Crucifixion of Christ came to represent the triumph of the powers of death and darkness; the Resurrection became the renewal of life and the victory of good over evil.
“In their Passion play a young boy represents Christ, but there is no Pilate; there are Apostles, but no Judas. And a new element has been added, a group called the `borrados’ who represent the Judeans.”
“Borrados?” I asked, surprised. The word means “erased ones” in Spanish. “You see,” Senor Hernandez broke in, “centuries ago, church teachings blamed the people of Judea for the Crucifixion. You remember how Pilate ‘washed his hands’ of responsibility when the Judean mob refused to allow him to release Jesus and demanded that he spare Barabbas instead. When Spanish priests brought the story of Jesus into these mountains, the Coras identified the Judeans with the forces of evil. They still do.
“For three days, starting tomorrow—Holy Thursday—all authority, civil and religious, passes to a man called the Captain of the Judeans. He and his borrados—young men of the region—will darken themselves with soot and mud and thus ‘erase’ their own personalities and their personal responsibility for whatever they do.
“They will run around the town day and night to prove their strength and endurance, for being a borrado is not only a part of the religious observance of Holy Week but also an initiation into manhood. On Holy Thursday the borrados capture a boy who plays the role of Christ. The next day, Good Friday, they symbolically crucify him. And on Saturday an official called the Centurion—actually the village governor—will defeat the borrados in battle, thus marking Christ’s Resurrection and the triumph of good.”
As Senor Hernandez spoke, I noticed that in the courtyard of the church a group of Coras were building a strange dome-shaped structure of bamboo. We watched them decorate this with elaborate rosettes made of cactus leaves. When I took pictures, the Indians gave me surly glances. Then they carried the dome into the church and placed it on four spindly bamboo columns above the altar (left).
People streamed into the church and brought offerings of fruits and flowers to their dual deity, Christ-Tayau. The pungent smoke of burning incense permeated the air, mingling with the smell of flowers and fruits—truly a rainbow of scents. Father Pascual told us that the next day he would be permitted to celebrate a Mass —not at the main altar but in a small chapel to one side of the nave. I had the impression that in his missionary work the priest was proceeding very slowly and with great care, in the hope that the Coras would gradually accept more orthodox ways.