Nahua of the Huasteca - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nahua religious beliefs are generally a syncretic mix of Native American traditions and Spanish Catholicism; however, even in areas where Catholicism appears to prevail, beliefs tracing to pre-Hispanic practices often remain strong. The sun has been syncretized with Jesus Christ and is seen as a remote creator deity. The moon-related Virgin of Guadalupe, a manifestation of the pre-Hispanic earth and fertility deity Tonantsin, is widely venerated. The pantheon incorporates a complex array of spirits representing manifestations of a unified sacred universe: earth spirits associated with death and fertility, water spirits that distribute rain and provide fish, and celestial spirits that watch over people and also provide rain. A complex sacred geography is associated with mountains, springs, caves, lakes, arroyos, and the Gulf of Mexico. More acculturated communities may have a cult surrounding the saints. A significant religious development in the 1970s and 1980s was the conversion of increasing numbers of Nahua by U.S.-based Protestant-fundamentalist missionaries.

Religious Practitioners.

In more traditional Nahua communities, the primary religious specialist is the shaman, called tlamatiquetl ("person of knowledge"). These shamans may be either male or female, and they undergo an apprenticeship under an established master before practicing on their own. Other specialists include midwives, and, in more acculturated communities reflecting Catholic influence, catechists and prayer leaders. Few Nahua communities have a resident priest. During the 1980s, under the influence of North American missionaries, some Nahua have become lay Protestant pastors.

Ceremonies. The Nahua have a rich ceremonial life that is partially synchronized with the Catholic liturgical calendar. Major occasions include a winter-solstice ritual devoted to Tonantsin, planting and harvest ceremonies, and important commemorations of underworld spirits at Carnival in the early spring and on the Day of the Dead in the fall. In more Hispanicized communities, celebrations of saints' days may be part of a civil-religious hierarchy. Noncalendrical observations include curing and disease-prevention rituals, ceremonies to control rain, pilgrimages to sacred places, ceremonial washing of newborn infants, the creation of ritual kinship ties, house blessings, divinations, and funerals.

Arts. Nahua of the Huasteca generally do not recognize artistic expression as a separate sphere of activity. Women take pride in creating beautiful, colorful embroidery on their blouses and in constructing well-made clothing for their families. Men fashion headdresses from mirrors, folded paper, and ribbons and perform dances during important ritual occasions. Men also play musical instruments and are the ones most likely to engage in storytelling. Both male and female shamans engage in the practice of cutting intricate and aesthetically powerful images of spirits from paper; as part of their religious observations, they also construct complex altars designed to be beautiful places.

Medicine. Medical practices include the use of herbs to treat symptoms of disease, bonesetting through massage, and attendance by midwives at births. These pragmatic measures are supplemented by elaborate symbolic healing procedures orchestrated by shamans. The use of cut-paper figures to represent various spirits is characteristic of curing rituals held by the Nahua of the southern Huasteca. These rituals, which vary in complexity and length according to the seriousness of the symptoms, are usually preceded by a divination to determine the cause of the malady. In extreme or chronic cases, individuals may visit a regional clinic to seek help from a Western-trained medical specialist.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs concerning the afterlife are in transition under influence from both the Hispanic dominant culture and late-twentieth-century Protestant proselytizing efforts. The fate of the soul is linked to the circumstances of death rather than being a reward or punishment for behavior. The yolotl soul, representing a person's life force, generally travels to an underworld place of the dead called mictlan, where it eventually dissipates. The tonali soul, linked to the personality, disappears at death. There is a widespread belief that the souls of those who die from water-related causes go to a kind of watery paradise. People who die prematurely are thought to become disease-causing wind spirits.

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