Imagine a play with 11 people — it’s not hard to do. That’s how the revival of the religious “moros y cristianos” festival in Zacatecas began, in the 1950s — a colonial festival that commemorated the Reconquest of Spain in and through a retelling of its legendary roots (particularly the romance of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France). Known today as “Las Morismas de Bracho,” the festival takes place on the last week of August every year on the edge of the city.
But let me return to our play of 11 actors. Multiply that number by 10 — that’s a lot of actors for a play, 110. Would you say a Broadway theater could hold that many actors? Decades pass, and now the number is 1100 — the only thing comparable to that would be the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Hundreds of people in a procession marching through the town, in brilliant costumes representing everything from the Jewish subjects and Roman soldiers of King Herod in Palestine to the nineteenth century Turkish forces sent overseas by the French dictator Louis Philippe in order to install a French emperor in Mexico. I did mention the medieval knights too, right?
A play with 1100 people, double that number. Double it five times. That’s (I think) 11,000 people. Add another thousand. Invite the families and friends of all those people. And let the play begin.
The festival takes place over the course of four days. On Thursday, a small troupe of actors faithful to the veneration of San Juan Bautista — patron saint of the church, whose confraternity was created in 1824 in order to rectify the dissolute and reprehensible acts that took place around the parish during the days of the festival — stage the story of John the Baptist. The play, which is done in an open air space not far from the church, tells the story of how Herod’s wife, an adultress who left her husband to be with his brother (Herod) uses her daughter Salome to ask Herod for the head of John the Baptist. Like most coloquios, there seem to be a lot of tangents that involve the Devil’s attempt to sabotage the redemption by killing John the Baptist; Herodías’s desire for fame and power (which leads to her adultery); and the play’s trovador, who in addition to accompanying the corridos with his guitar, also falls in love with Magdalena (another tangent!), and confesses that he’s the illegitimate son of an important Roman official.
Now what, you may ask, does all this have to do with moros y cristianos? Well, for one thing, the theme that ties together this play with the Morisma (in which Balan, leader of the Ottoman Turks is defeated by Charlemagne and his 12 Peers of France) is decapitation. Recall, the pre-Hispanic civilizations that had ceremonial centers just outside Zacatecas practiced human sacrifice, which also involved decapitation; and that as late as this past year, Zacatecas like other northern towns suffered from wars between drug cartels that resulted in decapitated heads left on the street. More directly, though, when the Ottoman Turks defeat the Christians and take the castle in the first battle, they capture the icon / statue of John the Baptist as their “treasure.” Tomorrow, when the Turks are being routed by Charlemagne, they cut the statue’s head off out of pure malice and frustration. The story ends, of course, with the beheading of the Moorish leader Balan. Decapitation brings the story around full circle.
The costumes are quite beautiful, especially against the stark background of the field stage. Throughout the play, there were a couple of funny moments that got people laughing: one was when Herodes goads Salome to sing (she has a voice that delights the heavens), but the girl playing Salome couldn’t really sing. When she’s finished Herod insists that she sing again, she does (the song is about how she’s being worked to death singing), then Herod waxes poetic about the beauty of her voice again, and when she asks him if he wants her to sing again he pauses, and says very abruptly “No!” at which point the audience burst out laughing. I think everyone was kind of relieved, although you have to remember that the girl who played Salome must have been barely 15 years old, so no disrespect to the fantastic job she did!
Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday are dedicated to the main story, which concerns: a) the conversion of the Moro “giant” Fierabras (son of the Turkish emperor Balan and brother of Princess Floripes) to Christianity; b) the seizure of Jerusalem, several knights of France, and the icon of John the Baptist by the Turks, launching Charlemagne’s holy war to recover the holy relics and the city (represented by a castle at the top of a hill); c) the assistance of Floripes, son of Turkish king Balan, in rescuing the knights and the relics, out of love for French knight Gui de Borgogne; d) Charlemagne’s confrontation with Balan in a one-on-one, mano-a-mano sword fight, leading to the Turkish emperor’s death and the rescue of the castle! Now wait a minute, you might say: “didn’t Charlemagne live 200 years before the capture of Jerusalem by the Seljuk Turks?” The answer of course, is: who cares?
The adaptation of the “Twelve Peers of France” isn’t out to teach a lesson in history, but impart a set of values that arise out of the understanding of a Christian universe…. Ideally, of course. Festivals never become popular because some outpost Christian missionary priest struck upon a great idea and aggressively promoted it among the locals. What might have drawn Indian converts to these stories? Janea Estrada’s recent article in La Gualdra, the cultural review of the Zacatecas edition of La Jornada (http://issuu.com/lajornadazacatecas.com.mx/docs/gualdra_163), gives us some clues: the desperation of the Indians, who died working 20 hours a day in the mines of Zacatecas; and whose numbers fell by 80% in the Americas within the first three or four decades of the conquest; the conviction that the simultaneous catastrophe that was the conquest and the discovery of silver in Zacateas led priests to believe that the Devil had relocated from the Ottoman Empire to Zacatecas, precisely one century after the Reconquest of Spain; the success at appropriating and repeating a European fantasy in order to mask the anger and bellicosity which, having no outlet, indigenous communities would visit upon one another; a legitimate pretext for continuing to practice the arts of war (similar to the history of Brazilian capoeira), through activities like juego de cañas (cane-stick game). There lies a will and an art in blurring and recombining the fragments of an indigenous universe that had been kicked to pieces, with the foreign, weak, inconsistent presence of conquistadors and missionaries outside Mexio City; until, between the danza de Matlachines (http://youtu.be/fvTYRRQ3Qxs) and the Battle of Lepanto, the clash of swords and the random crack and boom of gunpowder packed into toy muskets and cannons, the question of what is ultimately “native” and “foreign” becomes a labyrinth of contradictions (http://youtu.be/i78ZoDZsZjs).
The final battle scene is a baroque spectacle: the Christian army forms the shape of a cross as they march in file slowly down the hill opposite to that of the castle held by the Turks. At a signal from the band, Christian troops swarm over the hill and around the cross, all descending upon the central field of battle where the final confrontation takes place. In it, Felipe II goes hand to hand with archenemey Argel Osman, and ultimately frees the captured Christian soldiers, as well as the head of San Juan Bautista. There’s a video of these two scenes here (http://youtu.be/Z2SbfeYYMok and http://youtu.be/uYT7IKnDPwI).
Is the festival a placeholder for lost gods? The history of Mexico according to José Vasconcelos and the murallistas of the 1930s? Religious devotion? Or just a reminder of the state of exception having become the rule? You emerge from the day’s exercises, face and fingers black with gunpowder smoke, ears ringing, eyes stinging, drunk to hell. And all you want to do is to go back and do it again.