Women in Usos y Costumbres Governments III: The Fiesta for the Virgen de Asunción

As part of the fieldwork for my thesis on the role of women in traditional indigenous usos y costumbres-style governments in Oaxaca, Mexico, I had the opportunity to flex my participant-observation skills and attend the fiesta for the Virgen de Asunción in Santa Catarina Lachatao. Lachatao is a small town with few educational or job opportunities in the Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca state, but community members have a fierce loyalty towards their hometown. Many of those who have migrated to Oaxaca City or Mexico City for school or work return for the fiesta on August 15th.

Kempf - Mexico - LachataoThe fiesta highlights how the usos y costumbres system is based on giving or donating services for the common good. It is planned by a special August 15th party committee in conjunction with the Temple Committee whose members are named through the municipal government and work for free. Every community household is asked to donate $300 pesos to cover the costs of the event, and a member of the Temple Committee told me that everyone does. Some households volunteer to provide food for the band or donate a particular part of the event, such as the band fees, on top of giving $300 pesos.

The fiesta is for the patron saint of one of Lachatao’s neighborhoods, Asunción. While August 15th is the date of the main celebration, it actually starts nine days prior in Lachatao’s temple with recitations of the rosary every successive morning at 5 am. After the rosary, coffee, hot chocolate, and even mezcal or tepache (both traditional alcoholic beverages from Oaxaca) are served. Two days before August 15th, the main festivities kick off with an evening mass at the chapel to the Virgen de la Asunción, a welcome to the band that will play throughout the fiesta, and a calenda. Calendas are a Oaxacan tradition; they are parades with music and dancing. In this case, the calenda visits every house that donated to the fiesta. One of the members of the party committee announces the name of the family that lives in each house and the band plays a song while dancers in traditional clothing, men wearing large paper mâché dolls called monos, and the locals show off their moves. In some houses, families offer candy, mezcal, ponche (a traditional fruit tea), and even food to the visitors. The calenda runs from the evening until it has stopped at every house in Lachatao, which can take until 5 AM the next morning.

The day before August 15th, there are two masses—one at 11 am, and another in the evening. The evening mass is followed by a dance directly in front of the chapel to the Virgen de la Asunción. A DJ plays cumbia, banda, and traditional Oaxacan folk songs until 3 am, and whole families are out and on the dance floor despite the rainy, cold mountain weather.

August 15th begins with a procession at 4 am. The town sings the traditional Mexican birthday song, Las mañanitas, to the Virgen de la Asunción in front of the chapel and then marches with images of the virgin through the neighborhood. The main mass is at 12 pm, followed by lunch for the community in front of the chapel. Lunch is followed by entertainment. This year, a children’s dance group came from a neighboring town to present traditional Oaxacan dances, along with presentations by Lachatao’s own dance group. In the evening, there was another dance, but this time with live music—the band played, and a cumbia group performed. Dinner and coffee were offered to attendees, and the celebration lasted until 2 am.

The fiesta draws to a close the day after August 15th with a final mass at 12 pm followed by a procession where the images of the Virgen de Asunción are returned to Lachatao’s cathedral from the chapel. There’s another lunch for the community, and then the party ends with a good-bye ceremony for the band.

The fiesta of the Virgen de Asunción is a smaller celebration, I was told by the locals, compared to the celebration of Lachatao’s patron saint, Santa Catarina, on November 25th.

Posted by Katharina Kempf – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU

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