Tag Archives: customs

Prayer Parties! Inducing Yawns since Colonial Times

25 Oct

Thanks to the extreme lack of stimulation that going to church brought about for me as a child, I learned that yawns were caused not just from sleepiness, but also from boredom. I hadn’t even realized I was bored per se, but I remember asking my mom why church always made me yawn when I swore I wasn’t tired. Bless my little heart; I was just not cut out for Catholicism.

I still feel the same irresistible urge to yawn when faced with participating in the rhythmic ritual of Catholic prayer. This is now a rare occurrence, since I don’t attend mass if I can possibly avoid it. Here in Mexico, however, the unique Mexican brand of Catholicism is so deeply entrenched into social life that I occasionally find myself obligated to attend a prayer party. The one at my neighbor’s house last weekend was so- ahem- relaxing that I went beyond yawning; I was semi-entranced, nearly asleep in my chair at 8pm.

I know, you’re thinking that a prayer party surely should be more exciting than church. To clarify, it’s not a party like a fiesta, in the grand style of Mexican parties where you save up money for ten years and invite everyone you’ve ever met. Perhaps “party” is a poor translation on my part, but there’s just no equivalent in my culture for this sort of phenomenon. It’s absolutely part of what makes Mexico so special. Where else can you turn prayer into an important social and cultural event? In Spanish, in Mexico, the event is called a rezo, and it literally just means a prayer. It comes from the verb rezar, to pray. So we could call it a prayer…. circle, theoretically, but that doesn’t fit, either. A prayer hang-out session? I don’t know. Let me tell you about it instead, and maybe you can help me give it a more apt name in English.

As far as I can tell in my 4 years of sociological investigation here, there are two main types of rezos. One type is part of the obligatory action that happens when someone dies. (which I mention in this big rant of a blog post about a string of bad luck). This is tradition, first and foremost, and legitimized as THE way to properly honor the dead. I can certainly respect that. Also, I suspect that it forces the grieving parties to continue to function and to have a social and religious backdrop for their grief. It seemed a bit appalling to me at first, to make recently bereaved folks cook for others, invite people to their homes, and serve them food and drink. I theorized that maybe they set it up like that so folks would be too busy working to fall apart entirely? Maybe that’s the only way to ensure that plenty of people will go visit with the grieving- create this custom of 9 evenings of prayers and food? I don’t really get my own country’s culture on this issue, either, so I am certainly not one to judge here.

Whatever the case, the prayers-for-the-dead rezos are not something I would ever scoff at, and I’m excluding that type of rezos from my intense sociological scrutiny in today’s blog (haha). The other type of rezo, however, is kind of beyond me. It’s a little prayer party- a party like the way we say it in the States- a gathering, a get-together,that takes place at someone’s house with a bunch of invited guests.  However, there’s no catching up, no card playing. The music is abysmal (because there is no music, unless you count the sad singing/chanting business.) Not a bit of dancing. The conversation is pretty much limited to basic, boring small talk, if there’s any talk at all.  And there’s no alcohol involved, unless it’s the last night of a funeral-based prayer session. But there’s food! Free food! And coffee or juice!

The food is not usually that great, for the record. I’m an expert on this because my mother-in-law went to rezos weekly in Juquila when we lived there, and she’d always bring the food home instead of eating it there (another weird Juquila custom). So I know all about what food is given. Something big like pozole or tamales is awesome. Often it’s something simpler, like a piece of sweet bread or (gag) some gelatin (this is another cultural puzzle for me, this love for and creativity with gelatin). Granted, I appreciate the gelatin-givers, because I’m sure if I were religious and inspired enough for this sort of party, I’d be giving out something equally low-maintenance. All in all, though, the food in itself is not sufficient motivation to get me to a prayer party.

Even when they happen outside, somehow the atmosphere becomes dim, perfect for a nap. People set up chairs in rows facing an altar, with candles, incense, and religious images- especially the particular Saint or Virgin that they’re praying to (yes, there’s only one famous Virgin in the Catholic faith, but there are different versions of her- the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Juquila, etc.). Folks come, sit down quietly, and pray this advanced, fancy version of the rosary all together in unison. There are readings from the Bible that correspond with it. When it’s over, the guests get a plate of food and a drink of something handed to them, and they either eat it there or leave with it.

Above: A guide to the rosary- this explains why they say “second mystery, third mystery,” etc. Thank you, Google, for giving me more information. 

These prayer parties are fairly commonplace, too; it’s not like only fanatics have rezos. Tons of people have them. Totally reasonable, lovely people. For example, every year Arturo and Paulina have a rezo for Saint Jude. Before any big neighborhood parties happen in Juquila, people pass around statues of the saint in question and take turns having rezos for him or her. Our favorite neighbors here- the ones across the street- just invited us to their special rezo– the same one we attended last year. I don’t even know what saint I was supposed to be praying over, but I figured since it was our neighbors and they were kind enough to invite us we could go and show our respects. These people are not crazy, by any stretch. This is just what many people do.

The first rezo I went to was one with Conan’s grown-up niece Lili (whom I love and adore), when I lived in Juquila. I successfully avoided the prayer party excitement for the better part of my year there, until Lili made me attend. For some reason, Lili had felt herself obligated to commit to paying for part of a really big rezo, so she asked me to go and support her. We walked through town setting off fireworks all along the path (so Juquila-style). Lucia was right at that age when she was just walking and refusing to be still, ever, so I spent the whole time chasing her around someone’s yard instead of praying (and let me tell you how grateful I was about it). I let my curiosity die down about it from there.

I was talking to my mother-in-law about it again, as she prepares to go to her and Arturo’s yearly rezo. She explained to me quite a bit more about the “mysteries” that they talk about during the prayer- because I’ve yet to understand how/why different people volunteer to read the first, or second, or third “mystery.” “Just what are these ‘mysteries’?” I asked her. She explained that it’s all about praying the rosary in honor of a saint (or a recently deceased person). The mysteries correspond with the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers on the Rosary, and…. that’s about as far as I got in my Catholicism class before one of my children faithfully distracted me.

Of course, the most interesting part of our discussion involved the origins of this ritual. Paulina was telling me that this is how they do it because this is how the Spanish supposedly taught the indigenous folks to pray the rosary. “Aha!” I said, “That’s why giving out food is obligatory. That was probably one of the strategies the Spanish used to lure indigenous folks to their religion.”  And that was all the progress that I made in my intense sociological scrutiny.

Paulina explained that people do it for what she laughingly named the “celestial benefits,” which I suppose I could theoretically understand. Seeing as how I’m not religious and also not Mexican, though, I’m still slightly baffled about why people feel compelled to host these events. I mean, I’m a really big fan of certain saints, despite disavowing Catholicism for myself. But it would never, ever occur to me to invite people over to honor that saint. And okay, I know I’ve been known to have parties partly just to motivate myself to clean the whole house, so I guess the saint motive is loftier than mine. And sure, I cook food for folks at my get-togethers, but then we all enjoy it together; people don’t leave with their untouched food in hand. I guess their party is just holier than mine (hehehe). It’s one of these cultural mysteries that I can respect- because it’s culture- but I cannot really comprehend it.

Meanwhile, I’m still yawning over Catholic prayer- whether it’s in party form or not. And pondering a better translation than “prayer party”- so share your stroke of brilliance if you have one! Love you, dear, colorful Mexico.

Till Death Do Us Part, Never Ever

17 May
church wedding

church wedding

It’s just a tiny bit heartbreaking when your dearly beloved goes around acting as if the mere idea of getting married were like hanging upside down strung up from your thumbs for the rest of your life. Granted, it’s not like he’s said “I’ll never ever marry you;” it’s more like, “I’ll never ever get married, even to you.” Still, acting as if the whole “till death do us part” thing were a fate worse than death is not exactly endearing.

I am not a huge fan of marriage myself, so it’s not like I’ve pressured him, or even actually asked him to marry me. But we have a kid together, we want to have more kids together, we regularly confirm to each other that we’d like to stay together “forever” (I have a hard time with that word, but forever works for him), AND it would make both of our immigration situations a million times simpler (still not simple, but simpler). So, would marriage be a practical and realistic thing for us, a couple who love each other and have a long-term committment- to do? Yes. Would it be nice to get together with family and some friends and publicly, formally, maybe slightly romantically, announce that we super mega extra love each other? For me, yes. For my sweet introvert Conan, not so much.

Neither of us feels a dire need for the church or the government to put their seal of approval on our relationship. But philosophy is not even the main problem for Conan. The problem is his incredible shyness. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention for a whole day. He hates to dance, he buckles under major social pressure. He doesn’t even like parties for other people, typically.

“Plus,” he says, eyeing me suspiciously, “have you seen how they embarrass the groom?” Once, long ago, he tried to describe to me some of the horrors that befall a groom on his wedding day, but that was before I even considered marriage with him, and I only giggled hysterically at his surely exaggerated details.

And then we went to a wedding here. First of all, the bride and groom don’t really get a chance to enjoy themselves, or at least not if what they are supposed to do isn’t what they want to do. They have the mass, then they walk through town to where the party is. A large part of the time they’re just sitting at a table, and people come up and give them gifts and congratulations.

Then they do the waltz. The good side to the waltz is that most people give the newlyweds money while they’re dancing the waltz. The downside is that it is an eternal and awkward dance. The newlyweds don’t dance it together, they dance it with every family member on earth, including every distant cousin and great aunt on both sides of the family. They call them up two by two, for example: Paulina Lopez and spouse. Then the 2 people called dance for a minute or two and then they call the next couple. Even Conan had to dance in place of someone else at this one wedding, since they called out the name of the bride’s brother who’s currently in the U.S. (oops).

paulina and me dancing at a wedding

paulina and me dancing at a wedding

The bride and groom also have to dance nearly every single other dance so that the guests feel good about dancing. And they don’t get to end the party at any reasonable hour. It’s not over till the guests decide it’s over, which surely leads to a slow start to a honeymoon. In general, it’s a lot of stress, there are a lot of strict social rules, and it is exhausting, I’m sure. In many ways, I imagine weddings in the U.S. are very similar. But that’s not all Conan warned me about, wide-eyed and weary.

I have to admit, Conan had to elbow me at one point because my face was doing that thing where one eyebrow is raised and my mouth is hanging open- not a very appropriate look for a wedding. I think that was when the bride and the groom were standing on chairs about tie-length apart, and a few people stand around each of them to protect them. From what, you might ask? From a congo-line of first women, then men, who “dance” around and try to knock them- really just him- over. Inevitably the congo line of men knock the groom over and then hoist him up and take him off somewhere to dunk him in a tank of water. “Don’t they have bachelor party’s there?” you might ask, and I would agree that this sounds more like behavior for a party than for the wedding! (They do have bachelor parties and I can’t imagine what goes on there) To each culture their own, though….

The groom returned from that debacle wet and without shoes and then they borrowed somebody’s baby and a bottle. That’s for the dance where the bride and groom walk/dance around in a circle, the groom holding the baby and the bottle and the bride “hitting” him with a belt from behind. I don’t even want to know what face I was making at that point. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for some consensual kinkiness with belts or whatever else they might be into, but maybe not so much at their wedding, and surely not with a baby in arms.

And then, the more I thought about it, it actually irritated me. The song they play for the baby/belt spectacle talks about the guy being a “mandilon”- which loosely translates to something like “(male) apron-wearer”. As I read it, the idea is that this is the day for the bride, so we’re gonna act like now she’s domesticated this man via holy matrimony, and he’ll have to cook the food, give the (future) baby a bottle, and sweep the floor or something. (There’s also a dance with the groom holding a broom for further “humiliation”). But just to be sure it’s clear that there’s no pride in that role or those activities, the bride is cast not even in a masculine role, but in an abusive, machista role, hitting him with a belt.

“I think that after going through this on the wedding day, men here spend the rest of their married lives taking their anger out on their wives” I told Conan, sort of joking, but not. And indeed, the bride looked more uncomfortable than the groom, who grinned through it all. Maybe he agrees, that he’s about to make her pay for this moment for the rest of her life. Too bad I don’t know the newlyweds well enough to inquire politely about it.

We left the wedding long before it was over. For one, Lucia has an early bedtime. For another, it was imperative to get Conan away before they made him drink more tequila. This is another facet of weddings and other parties here that I loathe. The brand of binge drinking that happens I imagine to be akin to what goes on at frat parties, minus the keg stands and such. (Although I admit I’ve never actually been to a frat party.) The social pressure to drink yourself stupid, even among some normally responsible adults, is astounding. At a birthday party once, I observed how those who tried not to accept shot after shot after shot of tequila were called rude and other ugly things, how those who tried to not finish their shot or pass it to someone else were then “punished” to drink double, how one woman got a shot poured over her head because she refused to drink more. (I escaped all this thanks to nursing Lucia, but even if I weren’t nursing I could not have gotten plastered and taken care of my kid. I haven’t come up with a socially acceptable refusal tactic for post-nursing yet, but I’m working on it.)

The behavior from that birthday party is pretty much normal drinking behavior for any celebration here in this town- not the whole country or even the whole state, mind you. And somebody Conan knew was kindly sharing his bottle of tequila (these things get handed out at parties), so that meant polite refusal was out of the question. Hence we had another reason to leave early, although I missed out on seeing the other supposed horrors that Conan promised about weddings.

As we left, I told Conan that I am almost ready to forgive him for repeatedly telling me he’ll never ever marry me. But not quite, since he should know better than to think if we did get married that he and I would do anything traditional, especially if it involves one of both of us being miserable on a day that’s supposed to be for us. At the end of the day, that’s one of the best things about our multicultural family; we get to reject all kinds of stuff and incorporate the stuff we like and make up new stuff all our own, tending and crafting and creating our own family culture. Sure, other people can reject parts of their culture as well, but we have better excuses than they do!

So maybe we’re never ever getting married, since over time Conan has offended me enough with the never ever getting married thing. Now I’m the one who looks doubtful and scathing when he mentions marriage. But if we ever convince each other, it’s sure to be a fabulously unique event. We’ll be sure to invite you, too. And don’t worry, it’ll never ever be traditional.