Friday, December 29, 2017

Queering Religious Danzas

Growing up Catholic in Mexico was magical: I was surrounded by images of Saints and figurines of Mary’s various apparitions; templos (churches) were smoky with the cleansing scent of copal incense; and there was always an occasion to tell someone “felicidadez” (congratulations) since my familia celebrated each family member’s Patron Saint in addition to their birthdays. Even today my mamá pleasantly surprises me with a “felicidadez!” text message in mid-October in honor of my Patron Saint—the Saint after whom I’m named.

But Catholicism in Mexico is also magical because it is an amalgam of Santería, folkloric practices dating to pre-Hispanic times, and official church doctrine. Today, many Catholic Mexicanos devoutly venerate unofficial Saints, like La Santa Muerte, Malverde, or el Niño Fidencio, alongside canonized Saints. Yet, nothing comes close to the love and reverence that Catholic Mexicanos have for Our Lady of Guadalupe, who first appeared to Juan Diego, a native peasant, in December of 1531. Since them, Catholic Mexicanos have found ways to honor La Morenita (a term of endearment for Our Lady of Guadalupe) for Her divine intercession in human affairs.

As a child, my mamá would dress me up like Juan Diego every evening from December first through the twelve in honor of La Morenita. We would also join the daily peregrinación (pilgrimage) from the town’s main entrance to the templo in the town square. There, in a 18th century baroque templo, fit for royal coronations, we paid tribute to La Morenita.

As I got older, I stopped dressing up like Juan Diego and instead partook in some danzas (folkloric dances) to honor Her. Today, I’m no longer religious but I still identify as Catholic because Catholicism is an important part of my mestizo heritage. Indeed, I doubt any other symbol facilitated the cultural colonization of Mexico’s indigenous peoples through the “gospel” of mestizaje than La Morenita's image. [Mestizaje is analogous to the US’s metaphor of the “melting pot.”] Still, I continue to revel in rituals honoring La Morenita, especially the queer elements that pervade the spectacle of danzas.

I was delighted to discover that the growing immigrant population from Copándaro, Mexico, brought their regional danza to my hometown of Oxnard. Like other danzas, the Copándaro danza is done in honor of La Morenita, and consists of several characters. Hernán Cortés, Mexico’s conquistador, is played by a masked dancer completely dressed pink. La MalincheCortés's native lover and translator, is the sole female character. She's often referred to as la chingada (the fucked one) for having betrayed her fellow native peoples. Several other male dancers represent various pre-Hispanic tribes.

The danza begins with Cortés hopping from one native tribe to another, attempting to locate la Malinche, killing various tribes along the way. Only when Cortés finds la Malinche in the last remaining tribe, do the fallen tribes rise to celebrate Cortés's and la Malinche’s joint return, and, ironically, the conquista (Mexico's conquest). That said, it’s difficult to trace the danza’s "true meaning" since each iteration performs "the myth of originality itself,and the original remains "an ideal that no one can embody" or perform. (See Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler.) In other words, each iteration of a danza is a copy of a copy, of a copy... for which no "true" original exists. A task further complicated by the additions each group of danzantes makes to their danza. In Oxnard, for example, danzantes added Halloween-esque elements to allow broader participation in the danza.

Yet, as the danzantes pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, what is "true" is that the danza is a queer spectacle of sorts. First, there's the apparel. A man fully dressed in pink hops around other men wearing long capes, white lace aprons, and head pieces with colorful threads of ribbon that simulate long hair. The added Halloween-esque elements amplify the cross dressing since anyone can wear a male or female mask. Second, the danza is primarily a dance among men: the apron-wearing male dancers shuffle from side-to-side, waiving flower covered paddles as they wait for the man dressed in pink to weave aroundreally, dance withthem as he searches for la Malinche. Thus, the danza temporarily suspends the strict gender roles the Catholic Church promotes, by creating a space wherein men can cross dress and engage in homosocial behavior, while machismo lurks in the background. This reflects Sedgwicks’s triangularization schema of desire, wherein men’s desire for homosociality is mediated by a female presence, here La Morenita, who prevents the men’s homosocial behavior from becoming homosexual behavior. (See Between Men, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.)

But the Copándaro danza is not the only danza that temporarily queers the space around it in the name of religion. In other Mexican towns, performers pay homage to La Morenita and other Saints with the danza del torito (dance of the little bull). This danza includes several hyper-sexualized female characters, who are usually played by men. (See here, and here.) Throughout the danza, each character attempts to tame the torito but none is successful. The female characters, for example, try to do so by seductively dancing for the torito—and the audience, but they fail. At times, the danza even morphs into a comedy drag show, where cross dressing men liberally parody lascivious females. Yet, the danza remains a performance in honor of a holy, canonized figure.

My work is not intended to judge danzas, danzentes, or their motives. Rather, I seek to draw attention to a cultural practice that, perhaps unwittingly, queers otherwise conservative Catholic spaces and ceremonies by permitting men to cross dress and engage in homosocial behavior. Indeed, had I not found my way to the States, I probably would have found a queer safe-space in religiously motivated danzas. The irony!

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