Religious Beliefs. There are several basic elements to contemporary Mixtec peasant religious beliefs. These include a cosmology divided between the Earth and the Sky; a monistic pantheon, wherein the distinction between a particular deity, such as the image of the rain god, and its manifestations in rain and water, is unimportant; a focus on the renewal and fertility of the world through acts of self-sacrifice; and a modeling of contemporary social interactions on those that occurred between humans and the gods in mythic times. At the center of many Mixtec rituals are the saints introduced by the Spanish during the colonial period, and almost every Mixtec town has a Catholic church at its center. Protestant missionaries have made inroads in some Mixtec communities since the 1930s, often dividing the community into factions based on religious affiliation.
Religious Practitioners. Native religious practitioners are only rarely full-time specialists; they usually function as a combination of curer, diviner, and shaman, with individuals specializing in particular divinatory and curing techniques. Both men and women play these roles.
Ceremonies. Ceremonial life in Mixtec communities is very rich and centers around the fiesta complex. Fiestas, held to celebrate the feast days of major saints, are often sponsored by a mayordomo. On these occasions, hundreds of people may be involved in the rituals, which include gift exchange, sacrifices, processions, a mass, and much eating and drinking. Fiestas are also held to commemorate the life crises of baptism, marriage, and death and may involve hundreds of participants in rituals, the exchange of gifts, and feasting. Other major events include Carnival, just before Lent, which often involves the performances of dance troupes, and rituals to bring rain and celebrate the return of the dead (the latter occurring at harvest time in late October and early November). Pilgrimage sites are scattered throughout the Mixteca, and Mixtecs often make pilgrimages to important places outside their region, such as Juquila, and to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Medicine. Most people are familiar with a wide range of plant and animal products that have curative properties. Specialists are called to cure illnesses such as soul loss, evil eye, and those believed to be caused by witchcraft. Many sicknesses are attributed to moral failings by the sufferer or by the sufferer's immediate kin. The Mexican government has established free rural clinics throughout the Mixteca, staffed by trained nurses and doctors. These have been especially effective at reducing the mortality rate of young children and women of childbearing age who develop complications during pregnancy.
Death and Afterlife. Death is commemorated by elaborate mourning rituals, which involve gift exchange and feasting and seven or nine nights of prayer, depending on whether the deceased was a child or an adult. The world of the dead is the mirror image of the world of the living. Thus, one year for the living is one day for the dead; when it is night for the living, it is day in the land of the dead. In some places, the dead are said to reside on certain mountaintops. Many people subscribe to the ancient Mesoamerican belief that one's final resting place is determined by the manner in which one died. Thus, those who drown serve the rain deity; those who die in the forest serve the demon. Most of the dead are believed to return during the All Saints' observance to visit with the living.