Ritual Traditions of Maria Lopez: From Mexico to Louisiana

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Honoring and Thanking the Saints: Private Ritual

Among the important sacred traditions celebrated by Mrs. Lopez are the special saints' altars set up in her home. As a child she grew up with altars in her home, where the main altars were for the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Baby Jesus at the Christmas celebration held the night of December 24, termed in Spanish Acostada del Niño Dios. As a teenager, she helped make altars in both the church and at home. She made her first altar when she was 15, and she now has numerous statues and pictures of saints stationed throughout the rooms of her home. On the designated date for each saint she reveres, she makes a different altar to "show admiration" and "give thanks for favors." Typically, the altars are left up for nine days; for many saints, she will have a novena-nine straight days of prayer in honor of a saint. Her saints' altars are formulaic, stylized, and sparse Lopez does not consider these to be her private, personal altars since her family and friends will also participate in these altars. 3 Stating that she can pray anywhere in her home, Lopez says that she does not have a designated sacred place in her house where she prays.

Maria Lopez builds altars in her home and a shrine in her yard.

Most of her altars are set up in her dining room, which has the most space; sometimes she even removes a leaf from the dining table to provide more room for prayer. Except for the Baby Jesus, for whom all colors are acceptable, the saints have their own colors, which determine the colors Lopez uses in her altars. Typically, she purchases the appropriate colored tissue paper to cover the altar's tent like structure, which is made from either sticks or PVC pipe. According to her, the shed for the altar should resemble the church where the original shrine is located. She selects the saint's matching flowers from the collections of artificial flowers that she has bought and keeps stored in a shed. She wants every altar to be unique, so she may rearrange the flowers, candles, and saint's picture, or may design steps or shelves to hold the items. As part of her ritual for making the altars, she usually sings sacred songs. In the altar observed for the El Niño de Atocha / Holy Child of Atocha on June 7, for example, she used blue and white flowers and a small statue of the boy.4 Her candles and other decorations such as the plastic lace tablecloth draping the table for the altar usually come from the Dollar General store. For the El Niño de Atocha altar, Lopez said that she will set two pieces of chocolate and a glass of chocolate milk on the altar for El Niño, who is just a child: "Later, everyone can sit around the table, reserving a place for El Niño, and share the chocolate" (Lopez 12 June 2007).

December is a major holy month for her, beginning with the celebration on December 12 of her special saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.5 After Mrs. Lopez got her papers to become a permanent resident, she went on a pilgrimage to Mexico to thank the Virgin who had responded to a request from Mrs. Lopez for assistance with her legalization papers. Today, as a way to further honor the Virgin, Lopez is preparing a garden shrine in her front yard with a running rose-covered arched trellis which will house the Virgin. With the new saint strategically standing in the place of honor in her front yard, she will be demonstrating her heritage and faith to all who pass. Likewise, her front yard Christmas lights décor also feature Mary, Baby Jesus, and Joseph.

Maria Lopez's Christmas traditions.

When she first arrived in Bernice, she missed the Mexican Christmas rituals, so in her second year here, she made her first altar for the baby Jesus at Christmas on Dec. 24. An important part of this ritual preparation is the making of new clothes for El Niño, a baby Jesus doll usually brought from Mexico. According to Lopez, most Mexicans in her community keep a baby Jesus doll in their homes, where it receives special treatment. He even has his own special chair cut to accommodate the traditional position of his legs, so that he will sit safely in it. Also Lopez makes an elaborate outfit each year at Christmas for her own baby Jesus and also for other families occasionally. In fact, when the Lopez family goes back to Mexico at Christmas, they will take along the baby, which they have had now for 14 years. During the year their baby Jesus sits in his special chair between statues of Mary and Joseph, in a room where anyone can pray at any time. If Lopez is in Bernice and does not go back in Mexico for Christmas, she may also arrange the Posadas, the processions of Mary and Joseph to find lodging held December 16-23. 6 Following the Posadas is the Acostada del Niño Dios, the "laying in the manger" of the Baby Jesus on December 24 at midnight. She tells us that on that day they hold "solid prayer from 8 a.m. to 12 midnight, and many come to pray in front of the altar" she sets up in her dining room. She reports that the Mexican community has many parties for the baby Jesus until Jan. 6, the Epiphany. This devotion to El Niño constitutes a major focus of the community's folk Catholicism, but the adult Christ also garners their attention.

Using Knowledge in the Church: Public Ritual

Maria Lopez and her neighbors practice hymns at home with their children. Photo: Susan Roach.

In Mexico, Lopez was a catechist for the church, a role she carries on in the Farmerville church. Part of her responsibility is preparing children for their first communion; her desire is that the community's children will continue the traditions of the Catholic Church. She also leads the choral music during church services. The small choir is sometimes accompanied by a guitar in church services. Lopez and her neighbors may practice hymns at home with their children.

In addition to her work for church services and rituals, Maria Lopez also coordinates extravagant productions such as the Stations of the Cross/Passion of Christ outdoor pageant the Saturday before Easter. While this event is too elaborate to stage every year, she loves to have it as often as she can spare the time. She produced this ritual enacting the trial and crucifixion of Christ at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church on April 11, 2009. For the Passion play, Lopez orchestrated the entire event, directing the play itself, creating the costumes and the altars, and planning for the readers of the accompanying scriptures, and music. The play's cast consisted of the teens and younger children silently and solemnly reenacting scenes from the last hours of Christ and the 14 Stations of the Cross. The physically demanding role of Jesus was played with appropriate seriousness by Lopez's 17-year-old son, Freddy.

The actors' costumes were skillfully designed with draped fabric to give the illusion of the various roles; the Roman soldiers wore gold helmets and red capes with gold trim (but sports shoes, t-shirts, and jeans underneath), while Jesus wore a white robe, sandals, and was mocked with the purple cape and crown of thorns. The play began on Saturday morning with Christ's trial by Pilate, which was followed by a procession led by the cross-bearing Christ with his disciples and Roman soldiers as they travelled to each of the altars representing Stations of the Cross. The audience followed along with the actors in a picturesque pilgrimage meandering around the church grounds and stopping and kneeling by each station's uniquely designed altar, where they heard the scriptures and prayers by the priest and the other designated men. At each stop, Maria Lopez led the a cappella singing of verses of "Were You There?" and other hymns in Spanish Under Lopez's direction, the children provided an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally moving performance with scenes reminiscent of paintings of the Passion by the great masters. With little prompting from her, the procession progressed through the stations.

Slideshow: Passion of the Christ and the Stations of the Cross. Photos: Susan Roach.

The crucifixion culminated at the back on the church where a porch served as the hill of Golgotha. The tomb was located ingeniously beneath the porch, where children could peer. Through the whole event, Lopez sang, watched over, and directed. Afterwards, she and other women served homemade gorditas to the actors and audience outside the church. The event was attended by members of the Mexican community and also Anglo-Americans from the church and community, including a reporter from the local newspaper. Because they are open to the public, religious events such as these allow Maria Lopez to share her knowledge of Mexican religious culture with the wider community. The event was a testament to her musical and crafting skills of leading the singing, costuming the children, and building the picturesque altars representing the Stations of the Cross, in addition to showing her expertise at orchestrating a complicated pageant.

Susan Roach is a folklorist at Louisiana Tech University in the English Department. This research was done while she served as the Regional Folklorist from 1998-2009 for the New Populations Project. In this project, Regional Folklorists were charged with documenting the surviving traditions of the major new ethic groups in their regions. Since the largest ethnic group in north central Louisiana was Hispanic, and Roach did not speak Spanish, she contracted with Martha Perez Brown and Barbara Chumley to assist her with research. Brown, a Mexican native, had been in the U. S. for over 30 years and was working in the Union Parish school system as a liaison with Hispanic students and their families. Chumley, then an English instructor, had experience teaching English as a second language to Spanish speakers. They formed a three-person team for their initial work with the Lopez family, whom Brown already knew and recommended to be interviewed. After the research with her during the summer of 2007, Roach continued to work with Lopez to document traditional events through summer 2010, thanks to translation help from the Lopez children, Freddy and Juanita. It was published as part of the New Populations Project in 2012.