Totonac - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Totonac popular Catholicism is a complex reelaboration of elements of both Iberian and Amerindian religion. The concepts of the deities and their relations to humans are not those of institutional Catholicism. According to the Totonac view, there are sacred beings that have power over aspects and places of the world. These include not only the images of saints in churches but beings with Amerindian attributes, such as the Dueño del Monte, a mountain god. Many Totonac have been converted to Protestantism, especially that of the Pentecostals, who are highly critical of popular Catholic beliefs. In some communities, this has created conflict.

Religious Practitioners. Prestige was traditionally accrued by those who sponsored religious festivals honoring the saints and their images. Participation by all families was obligatory. Those persons who had held official positions in a cargo system (which governs sponsorship of festivals) received the important status of principales. The cargo systems were independent of the Catholic clergy.

Pentecostalism offered an opportunity for young people to obtain status outside the cargo system by becoming charismatic preachers. To counter the growth of Protestantism, the Catholic church also created pastoral programs for laypersons. Such programs often characterize traditional Indian religion with its Catholic borrowings as "superstitious."

Ceremonies. Rising costs have affected the system of individual-family sponsorship of religious festivals. An alternative to individual-family sponsorship has been the establishment of collective groups to finance the ceremonies.

Arts. The Totonac consider the Dance of the Voladores, in which the performers unwind from ropes attached to the top of a pole, to be an important symbol of their ethnic identity. Although other indigenous peoples of the region perform this dance, the Totonac regard themselves as the best performers. The dance is rich in symbolism; it represents birds descending from the sky. Professional troupes of Volador dancers travel to large cities within Mexico and abroad.

Medicine. There are various native health specialists. Parteras (midwives) are elderly women who attend pregnant women and supervise natural births, for which they enjoy high status. Curanderos heal through the use of medicinal plants and ritualized ceremonies. Brujos have knowledge of sorcery and can cast and break magic spells through contact with the supernatural. In the past, persons accused of sorcery often were murdered. Medical care is also given by doctors at government clinics that exist in most communities. The Totonac tend to consult either traditional or institutional medical practitioners, or both, depending on the circumstances.

Death and Afterlife. There are specific godparents ( compadres ) of death, who help pay the cost of burial. The Day of the Dead, on which spirits are said to return to the village, is an important feast. Protestants, like Catholics, arrange flowers on the tombs of the dead, although they do not celebrate with alcohol or incur excessive expenditures.

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