Wednesday, April 22, 2009

WEEK 11: A Break During Semana Santa

Finally, Spring Break! A much needed break from school, concrete, and exhaust fumes! During ‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week), practically the whole country goes on vacation. Not only do the schools close, but Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays, with banks, offices, and many industries closing as well.

Many Mexicans hit the beach at this time, so some of us chose to avoid the crowds and visited the beautiful state of Michoacan instead. We stayed in ‘El Pueblo Magico’, Patzcuaro, a small colonial city on the tranquil Lake Patzcuaro, surrounded by mountains and pine forests, less arid than other parts of the country.

Tzararacua Waterfall of Uruapan, Michoacan[1]

Many of the smaller surrounding villages are inhabited by the indigenous Purépecha people, who have retained much of their pre- Spanish conquest traditional culture. While some of their practices are now partly geared toward tourists, many still make their living off of fishing, sustenance farming, and sales of hand-woven and beautifully embroidered clothing. The market stalls are also filled with fantastically crafted pottery, stone and copperware, carved masks and other woodwork, including the famous Paracho acoustic guitars. The level of artisanship is world class.

Fishermen on Lake Patzcuaro[2]

Many Mexicans who don’t vacation at this time instead take part in the elaborate Semana Santa celebrations held in every parish throughout the country. Called ‘Mesoamerican Catholicism’ by anthropologists, Mexicans practice a unique blend of indigenous religions and Catholicism, resulting in beautiful and fascinating celebrations [3]. They dress up and parade their holy statues in nighttime processions, weaving their way through the towns on the shoulders of parishioners by candlelight, and decorate cathedrals and churchyards with thousands of fragrant fresh-cut flowers, holding all night vigils.

Attending the Good Friday celebration in Tzintzuntzan will be one of the most memorable days in my time abroad. Held in the large town churchyard, the elaborate Passion Play is performed amidst an oddly contrasting atmosphere, somber while almost carnival-like at the same time, with picnicking families, vendors selling food, balloons, and crafts, Patzcuaro and Surrounding Countryside [4] and all the while manacled and hooded penitants weave their way through the crowd collecting alms for the church. Meanwhile, hundreds of other worshipers meander their way through the crowded church to the altar, some crawling on their knees to receive a blessing. While the shackled penitants may seem disturbing to some, we’ve learned the importance of avoiding cultural bias by viewing experiences within their own cultural context, not ours, remaining open to the real significance for the individual.

Although surrounded by so much cultural richness and natural beauty, it was at times difficult, knowing that many residents are forced to leave their homes due to economic hardship, partly due to NAFTA. The collapse of the local corn industry soon followed implementation as highly subsidized American imports squeezed out the small scale farmers, whose subsidies were at the same time required be to phased out, crippling their ability to compete in an unfair market [5].

The nearby village of Cheran, Michoacan is what “Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” author, Ruben Martinez, refers to as one of the main three ‘sender states’, states with high rates of immigration to the U.S. because families can no longer survive within the local economy. I believe our foreign economic policies have much to do with our current immigration problems, as well as with some of the political and social unrest around the globe. I hope informed citizens will lobby their representatives to wield our nation’s immense influence in ways that truly promote social justice and democracy, not merely our economic interests.

--By Marianne Schmits

[1]Travel "TravelPod: The Web´s Original Travel Blog." Retrieved April 20, 2009 from
[2]Corbis Corporation. "Corbis." Retrieved April 20, 2009 from
[3]Foster, Lynn. “A Brief History of Mexico”. NY: Checkmark Books, 2004.
[4]Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. "Patzcuaro." Retrieved April 20, 2009 from
Anderson, Sarah & Cavanagh, John with Thea Lee and the Institute for Policy Studies. “ Field Guide to the Global Economy”, The New Press, 2005.

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