The Northern state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico is divided into mountains and desertous sierra. Like most of Mexico, tortillas and maize products still make up the staple diet, but cacti come a close second. The area is famous for two things; silver mining and the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, used traditionally by nomadic tribes as part of ritual practice (and more recently and illegally, by tourists). These elements are essential to San Luis Potosi, and have been key to the historical and cultural development of towns as well as the practical lives of the people.
Many towns were founded by miners who brought Catholicism to San Luis Potosi and built churches. Now the locals to the area are predominantly Catholic, but co-exist with huichol tribes passing through the area. Sometimes the lives and ritual practices of these different communities overlap. This overlap can be seen in markets and households where silver crosses sit next to woven ‘ojos de los dios’, the landscape where catholics and huichol worship the same ‘fire mountain’, and in ceremonies where the elements of both religions blur. This can be seen in harvest offerings.
Originally the Huichol came from the state of San Luis Potosi, but later they migrated west to the Sierras of Nayarit, Durango Zacatecas and down to the coast of Jalisco. It is still common practice to travel back to San Luis Potosi to take peyote as part of ‘mitote’ ceremonies, and to bring offerings to Quemado (the fire mountain) after the harvest. These offerings include maize as well as drawings of Gods and the beautiful Ojos de los Dios.
Ojos de los Dios (Eyes of the Gods) look similar to dream catchers, made with wood and string, often in several colors. The weaving of an Ojo de Dios is an ancient, solitary, spiritual practice, and traditionally they are created for celebration or blessing. The huichol call Ojos de los Dios ‘Sikuli’ which describes the power of ‘seeing and understanding that which is unknown and unknowable’. The four points represent earth, fire, air and water.
I travelled to Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosi at the end of October to attend harvest ceremonies and meet pilgrims bringing offerings to Quemado. I was hosted at the Church of St Francis where I met the padres – Padre Vacillio and Padre Joel. Padre Vacilio is the regular priest for St Francis and Padre Joel works in the nearby city of Matehuala but often comes on weekends to Real to give services. Although Padre Vacillio is traditional in his practice, Padre Joel has a less conventional approach to his Catholic faith, less concerned with doctrine and more focused on the spiritual.
Padre Joel described the coexistence of the huichol and Catholic presence in this area as complex, although he did agree that some synchronicity does exist. In light of this conversation, he introduced me to a huichol shaman called Matheo. Matheo is an unusual case, as he was originally Catholic, but joined the huichol when he was fourteen years old and travelled with them to Jalisco where he lives part of the year with his wife and twelve children. Although Matheo has gone down the path to become a shaman, Catholicism clearly still plays a part in his life, and his children have a huichol name as a well as a name given to them when baptised into the Catholic faith (by Padre Joel).
Every year Matheo and his whole family make the 800km journey through desert and mountains to reach Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosi. He brings with him bunches of maize, blessed during the harvest down in Jalisco. Although this corn was piled unceremoniously on the floor in an adjoining building to the house, I was asked not to photograph it. This is because Matheo had not made the trip to give offerings to the Quemado mountain, so the corn still held spiritual potency.
Maize is essential to the huichol community. They harvest it low down in the sierras where they also perform sacred rituals blessing the corn. They then bring an offering from the harvest to San Luis Potosi and the Quemado (fire) mountain to give thanks for the crop. This journey doesn’t take place on a specific date, instead pilgrims can be seen climbing the mountain between late October and early November.
Maize is entwined in huichol myths of creation as it is an essential part of their life both practically and spiritually. Huichol Center director Susana Valadez writes:
The relationship between corn and humans compares to the reciprocity between the Huichol spiritual and mundane worlds, as corn cannot exist without humans to seed the earth, thrive, and reproduce. Reciprocally, humans are then fed and nurtured, grown to maturity, and are able to reproduce because they are sustained throughout their lives by the spiritual Corn Mother.
The heap of maize that Matheo had brought with him from Jalisco was not a single colour like the yellow corn we have in the UK, but a spectrum of colours including white, orange, deep red, blue and even multicoloured. These coloured corns are mostly unique to Mexico and bear spiritual significance for communities throughout the country. Inside his house, Matheo had built an altar which was adorned with family photos, candles pictures of St Francis as well as huichol imagery. Above the altar hung twelve different coloured bunches of corn, one for each of his children. He said this is all the colours of maize he has seen, so he doesn’t know how he would represent another child!
In huichol communities, different colours of corn are animated in their creation stories. Such as when the corn mother takes on human form and invites a huichol man to choose one of her daughters- he chooses the blue corn as it is the most beautiful. Blue corn also has associations with strength and is eaten in preparation for long journeys. In other parts of Mexico indigenous communities also have stories that incorporate the various coloured maize, and some are thought to have medicinal properties. The red is always considered sacred. In some cases, Catholics claim the red color represents Christ’s blood, dripping down from the cross and staining the ground and maize beneath him.
I met Alejandro in Real de Catorce who took me on horseback most of the way up the Quemado mountain. We walked the final stage of the journey, up through the steep landscape, which felt prehistoric as the flowers of giant cacti towered over us. At the highest point we reached a small shrine. It was gated, but inside there were paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe (patron Saint of Mexico) nestled in amongst the candles, gourd bowls and huichol masks and paintings. Outside corn kernels and rice were laid in small offerings all over a flat rock while Ojos de los Dios were hung from trees and bushes.
As a traveller it is easy to get caught up in the exoctic spiritualism of the nomadic huichol, and as we were laying out offerings, Alejandro firmly reminded me that this mountain is also an point of reverence for the locals. Although at this time of year the mountain is attended by more pilgrims, Quemado is an important site for the locals of Real all year round.
The local Christian community also celebrate harvest at the end of October/ beginning of November- often overlapping with Day of the Dead. I was invited by Padre Vacillio to attend a harvest celebration in a small village up in the mountains of San Luis Potosi, nearly two hours drive from Real de Catorce.
We arrived at about 7pm in time to catch the end of the procession. This was led by a girl in white representing the holy spirit and carrying a toy dove. They congregated in the village square, where there was a huge altar constructed from grasses and sheafs of corn. There was a smaller altar in front with offerings of flowers, squashes and coloured maize that read ‘God is Here’.
It was a bitterly cold night and the community, which included the very old and very young, wrapped themselves up tightly in blankets and huddled together on benches. Everyone was dedicated to the five hour long ceremony despite the cold. The peaceful reverence was very moving.
The ceremony began with readings and hymns led by members of the congregation. During this time, people went for private consultations with priests to one side of the ceremony. Then Padre Vacillio introduced the Bishop of the diocese, Monsignor Lucas, who spoke to the community and invited representatives from nearby towns and villages to bring their local flag to the altar to be blessed. And everyone shouted VIVE VIVE! (Live live!) and shook hands to celebrate and share in the future long life and prosperity of each of the represented communities.
When the official ceremony was over we were all invited to share tamales and cinnamon flavoured atole (a hot drink made from ground maize) with sweet rolls. It was exactly what we needed after getting so cold, and it was an opportunity for everyone to relax and celebrate being together for the harvest. Finally people began collecting pieces of maize and other offerings from the alter. I had heard that it was good luck to collect seven colours of maize and we managed to get the whole range for us to take back to the church.
Some elements of this ceremony were similar to harvest festivals in the UK. However, to me, this celebration showed the unique, intense and complex character of Mexico.
Although silver and peyote have their place in the culture of San Luis Potosi, and are what brings tourists there, the maize and the celebrations of harvest are at the heart of the lifestyle.