The Festival of San Miguel Tolimán and the Otomí Family Chapels

We had an opportunity at the end of September 2011 to visit the community of San Miguel Tolimán, located in the western, semi-arid region of Querétaro State, during the festival of its patron saint, San Miguel (St. Michael the Archangel).  In addition to the colorful celebrations associated with the festival, we were also able to visit some of the Otomí family chapels that are found in this area.  The Otomí are one of the many indigenous peoples of Mexico whose presence in the country predate the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1519.  Through the intervening centuries, many of their pre-hispanic traditions have become mixed with Catholic religious practices in a process known as syncretism.  For example, many indigenous peoples attribute powers to the saints of the Catholic Church that were previously associated with the multiple gods who made up their religious vision of the world.

The festival of San Miguel is an opportunity for the community to honor its traditions and involve children in the celebration.  The attached photos show the local kids dressed as either indigenous warriors or Spanish soldiers.  They perform a simple dance that represents the battle between the opposing sides complete with the clashing of swords.  The highlight of the festival is the hoisting of a very long (about 75 feet) chimal or decorative shield made of desert flowers known as sotol, fruits, and colored tortillas, with the image of San Miguel in its center.  Two large poles had been constructed in front of the parish church to accommodate the chimal.

The family chapels are located behind private homes and you need a guide to visit them.  They date from the 18th century and were built because the Otomí felt unwelcome in the large churches of the time.  They were unable to honor their ancestors as they wished and were considered second class citizens compared to the Mexican-born descendents of the conquistadors.  Despite some differences among them, the family chapels have a similar structure that consists of a room with a high vaulted ceiling connected to a small atrium which contains niches that honor the souls of deceased family members.  The other important architectural element is an altar that displays the image of the family’s protector saint to whom the chapel is dedicated.  As the attached photos show, the walls and ceiling of the chapel are decorated with biblical scenes and sacred images that reflect pre-hispanic beliefs in the power of nature.

After visiting these chapels, we were interested to see that one was reproduced in the main plaza of Querétaro City during the celebration of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in early November.  Mexicans recognize the value of their pre-hispanic traditions and the importance they play in the mestizaje culture (the melding of indigenous and European civilizations) that makes up modern Mexico.

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