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The Mexican wedding fiesta . . . really an ancient Native tradition

The Mexican wedding fiesta . . . really an ancient Native tradition

 

The chokopa at Tama Tribal Town, Georgia

A timber pole was erected in the center of the ancient village plaza.  From it were strung hundreds of light bulbs . . . creating a cone shaped dance structure, not terribly different in feeling than a traditional Creek chokopa (chukofa in Mvksoke).

It is a time that is gone with the wind.   The way Mexican young folks dance today would get them arrested for lewd public behavior in the United States. Back then the Mexican dances . . . even the folk dances . . . were sexy enough, but certainly didn’t emulate bedroom behavior like today.  I had many surrealistic experiences that first summer in Mexico, but still today a fiesta in a Native village that seemed to belong to an earlier century, remains the most poignant.  For an evening, it seemed like I was a cast member of a Western being filmed in Old Mexico.

First, a shorts interlude

In 1970, virtually nobody in Mexico wore shorts in public.   Young middle class men wore athletic shorts on the soccer field or the running track.  Mexican aristocracy donned shorts on the tennis court.  The 80% of Mexican adults, who were either laborers or farmers, wouldn’t have even owned shorts.  Accustomed to wearing shorts most of the time from May to  September, I quickly found myself being stared at like I was an extraterrestrial in Mexico when I wore shorts in public.  I would not wear them again, when out and about, until in Yucatan and around crowds of Gringo and European tourists, also wearing shorts.

However . . . a century of social change was happening overnight in Mexico. In particular,  intelligent young women like Alicia and Michelle, a cousin of the groom, were rebelling against Medieval traditions that had maintained Latin American women as the virtual slaves of men.  Michelle had been attending a university in Texas for a year.  She returned home in June, dressed like a Gringa hippie.  That was the beginning of her troubles.  Her mother soon found birth control pills in Michelle’s bathroom.  Birth control pills had only been legalized a couple of years in Mexico and still required the permission of parents or a husband.  Her mother cried for two days.  

Then Michelle’s boyfriend from Texas showed up for the wedding.  Not only was he a red haired Presbyterian, but his FATHER was a Presbyterian minister.  By that time, Michelle’s parents were convinced that she was heretic and a whore . . . headed straight to Protestant hell.  The final straw was when Michelle wore a loose-fitting Maya blouse and shorts to the wedding fiesta. (Photo Above) Sorry, affordable SLR cameras back then could not take crisp action photos with a flash.   Many of the Mexican men assumed that she was a prostitute provided as entertainment by the host village.  Her brawny Scottish-American boyfriend almost got into several fights over that.

The morning after the fiesta, Michelle’s parents told her that if she ever saw the heretic again, she would no longer be their daughter.  They also announced that they would no longer pay for her tuition at the University of Texas.  She promptly ran off with her boyfriend, moved in with him in Austin, TX and joined the Presbyterian Church.  Her boyfriend’s church got her a scholarship and part-time work, then at age 21 sponsored her for US citizenship.    About 12 years later, I ran into the happily married couple at the Belle Chere Festival in Asheville.  They were living in the Atlanta suburbs and she had a prestigious job helping an Atlanta Metro school system adjust to the torrents of Mexican immigrants then moving into the region.

In 1970, there were only few thousand Latin Americans in Georgia . . . most of them were either students or Cuban-Americans.  Today, Georgia has over one million citizens of Latin American ancestry.  The majority of these Latin Americans have at least some Native American ancestry.   Many of them, especially the poultry industry workers, are full-blooded Native Americans.

There was no such drama at the home of my adopted Mexican parents, José and Guadalupe Soto.  They were progressive, loving, tolerant people.  HOWEVER,  Lupe did ask me to wear shorts every time she invited her lady friends over for drinks.  By the second cocktail, the ladies would start gawking at my legs.  They had never seen the brawny physique and big feet, typical of Creek men.  When the younger señoras got a little tipsy, they would start asking to touch my calves and biceps.

Alicia?  Well-l-l, it should be explained that she was the only child of a divorced mother.  She had never seen a man’s legs close up before, only on televised soccer matches.  Of course, she had dated Mexican men with their skinny legs many times, but they always wore long pants.  The first time I showed up at her house on Calle Guanabana wearing shorts, it had the same effect as if she had shown up topless at the Soto house on Calle Begonias.  She literally became breathless, gawking at my calves.  Just touching my knees would throw her into the heat of passion.   Oh, those were the days!  

An ancient tradition of the Americas provides income for Los Indios

Back then, Native American villages that wanted to maintain their traditional communal lifestyle on an ejido (commune) were struggling.  Their ejido was premised on subsistence farming and internal bartering of services and goods.  However, communal subsistence farming did not produce cash to buy manufactured goods, pay electrical bills or purchase vehicles.  The villages, fortunate to be within driving distance of major cities, hosted  quinceañera, engagement, wedding and anniversary parties for middle class families in the city.   For a flat fee, the family got fancy Christmas season type decorations,  traditional Mexican foods and a band.  It was understood that all members of the village and surrounding farmstead families could attend the fiesta and eat the food. 

I decided to present to you the photocopy of the actual journal written over 48 years ago, so you would be certain that nothing had been fudged.  At the time, I had no clue that I had so much indigenous ancestry and that most of it was from Mexico.  The DNA lab classified my Native heritage as “Mesoamerican.”   Therefore, reading my less than flattering words about the local Indian camposinos, who drank until they were drunk,  is a bit embarrassing. However, that is a fact of the indigenous cultural traditions in Mesoamerica.  Hard-working, normally sober Indios think it also quite normal to get plastered on pulque or tequila in public during communal festivals and fiestas.

The joke was on me.  The following weekend the Soto’s gave a 21st birthday party for me.  Sra. Lupe Soto was worried about me.  I didn’t go to brothels and never got drunk.   At every possible free moment I was walking the two blocks to Alicia’s house.  You see . . . Alicia was not a “real” Mexican.  She was a baptized Roman Catholic, but had a Sephardic Jewish family name.  Her grandparents and mother had converted to Christianity in order to escape the Nazi’s in France via a Mexican immigration permit. Their parents had fled to France from Turkey to escape persecution from the Muslims in the early 1920s.  The Turkish Muslims blamed their Christian and Jewish neighbors for Turkey’s defeat in World War I.  All Christians and Jews were assumed to be spies for Great Britain.  Every member of Alicia’s family, who didn’t convert, was butchered by the Germans. 

Alicia was known as somewhat of a rebel, because she admired the personal freedom of Gringas and had ambitions for going beyond college and getting an advanced professional degree.  Well, after the description of the wedding fiesta,  I will tell you the sneaky trick that Sra. Soto played on Alicia and I at my birthday party.  

I should add that within a few days after my birthday, I was in Yucatan.  On several occasions I visited wedding fiestas in remote Maya villages.  At these fiestas,  both the men and the women would drink corn beer until they couldn’t stand up.  In recent years, I have read several anthropological papers from Mexico, which explain that this binge drinking has an ancient heritage among Mesoamerican peoples.

The Soto House was unusual because it was single story and actually had a small grass lawn.

My 21st birthday party was late in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 4th.    The Sotos invited all of their relatives in Mexico City, plus Alicia.  One of Lupe’s brothers, Enrique Quinard, was an architect, married to a woman from the United States.  I really enjoyed talking with them, because they had a bi-cultural perspective on current events. 

Knowing that Alicia and I normally only drank wine and beer,  Lupe announced that she was serving various distilled alcoholic beverages, cocktails, plus a special fruit punch for the rest of us.  The punch was laboriously made by Lupe’s servants from a mound of various tropical fruits.  It was absolutely delicious . . . the most delicious fruit beverage I had ever drunk . . . addictively delicious.  It had a slight alcohol flavor to it, like sangria, but not enough to affect Alicia and I seriously . . . or so I thought.  

We had quickly drunk 2 cups, when we began feeling a buzz.  However, the buzz made us want more.  Then . . . before we quite knew what had hit us,  both Alicia and I were stone drunk.  We could barely move, so sat down on the couch at the far end of the living room from the entrance door.

There we sat . . . grinning ear to ear and holding hands for . . . what? an hour?  two hours?  I didn’t know.    Occasionally, people would come up to greet Alicia and wish me feliz cumpleaños.    We were able to talk between our silly grins, but probably didn’t have anything intelligent to say.  Alicia whispered in my ear that “it was a good thing that people were here, because she was having naughty thoughts about something she would like us to do.” Not being able to resist temptation, she would occasionally squeeze my knees.  Now, who would ever think of one’s knees being an erotic zone?  LOL  Eventually, we gained enough of our faculties to stand up and walk, but by then several of the guests had already left.

Lupe eventually confessed that she had spiked the punch with grain alcohol so pure that it barely had any taste.  Her excuse was that she wanted to make sure that Alicia and I enjoyed the party.  Well . . . being stone drunk is not so bad, if you are snuggled up with someone you love.  However, it was not worth how I felt the next morning.

The dances at the wedding fiesta

By the way, those rancheros were not copying Gringo cowboys in their fancy dancing outfits.  Cowboys in the United States copied the very practical clothing of Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) when they began herding cattle on the Great Plains.

We did a full range of popular Latin style dances at the wedding fiesta, none of which I had ever done before  . . . la cumbia,  salsa, waltzes, polkas, mambo, merengue, rumba, bachata, bomba, plena, cha-cha-cha and paso doble. Most everybody stopped to watch Alicia and I waltz around the village plaza.  I had never waltzed in my life, but it is a dance that comes from the soul.  A couple hundred people did a snake dance with rattles made from beans in soup cans that was virtually identical in style and rhythm to the Creek stomp dance. 

My favorite dance, as stated above, was the Santa Rita, which was a folk dance that combined the Virginia Reel to a polka.  I had never done the polka before either . . . but I guess we Creeks all got rhythm!  LOL   Now how many people can say that they first waltzed and did the polka at an Indian village in rural Mexico?   Not many!  Below is a professional dance team from Chihuahua doing the Santa Rita, but to show off their fancy dancing skills, they did not use the all of the Virginia Reel type formation.

Well, just wanted to let you know that the people living outside the boundaries of the United States are humans . . . not objects like our current crop of pseudo-politicians would have you think.  After all, many of our Creek ancestors came from Mexico.

PS:   I constantly use Spanish and Swedish search words for doing anthropological research.  Google’s big computer has noticed this.  Now most of my ads and “breaking news” windows are either in Spanish or Swedish. LOL  Yesterday, the weather report for the Nacoochee Valley from Acu-weather was even in Spanish.  

 

 

 

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

3 Comments

  1. For those of you, who are new to POOF. My slides and photos from Mesoamerica were stored in the bottom of a rental storage bin for almost 9 years and subject to many days when the space was like an oven. It’s a miracle that they survived at all. Some slides are in almost perfect condition. Others have been damaged to varying degrees. Most of the photographs are terribly faded, but a few also are in perfect condition. I think it had to do with the quality of paper used by the developing lab. Nevertheless, these are images that would not exist today in many cases . . . because Mexico and Belize have changed so much since then. There has not been nearly as much change in Guatemala’s landscape, but it has become a violent, dangerous country. So you will be seeing some digitized slides that are not of National Geographic Magazine quality, but still (like the image at the top) contain valuable information.

    Reply
  2. theoldlibrary19@yahoo.co.uk'

    Love this post Richard, very romantic and of course the dances interest me immensely as my partner and I are ballroom dancers anyway. Not sure what the merengue, dance is though. Love the pasodoble, rhumba’s and samba’s not sure what the bachata is either. Do they do the tango there or would that be the Argentinian tango (my favourite) The Santa Rita sounds fun. Are you still in touch with Alicia ?

    Reply
    • As you can tell from photo, the wedding was held in an old Native American village. Most of the people at the wedding were camposinos (farmers) and rancheros (livestock husbandrymen). The tango would have been quite a bit too sophisticated for either the majority of those attending the fiesta and its band. Probably a few of the actual guests of the bride and grooom’s families might have known the tango, but we were a minuscule minority of the total number of party-goers. LOL Well, I wouldn’t have known how to do tango . . . still don’t.

      Reply

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