The Legend of El Tepozteco

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“El Tepozteco” is a project on the sources of communal identity in the indigenous village of Tepoztlan, Morelos. The community has been extensively studied by Redfield (1929) and Lewis (various books in the1950’s), and others. Since Tepoztlan is now only 45 minutes by superhighway from Mexico City, and 20 minutes from Cuernavaca, and because it is a charming town in a gorgeous setting, it has become a popular tourist destination and/or residence for Mexicans and foreigners. The town is the “New Age” capital of Mexico, famous for its mystic energy and for the frequent sightings of flying saucers. The best arable land has been bought up for weekend mansions; there is perhaps the last surviving “hippie” commune in Mexico, and weekend tourists sometimes equal the total population of the town (14,000). This has subjected the community to extraordinary pressures, culminating a few years ago in the “Golf Club War” – a Mexican variant of the Milagro Beanfield War – in which the tepoztecos (i.e., the inhabitants of Tepoztlan) barricaded the town and held off a multinational corporation backed by the state and federal governments.

With this background, the project looks specifically at the psychological & cultural mechanisms which have enabled the tepoztecos to maintain a strong sense of personal and communal identity. These focus on three elements: the strong barrio (“borough”) or neighborhood) system, which acts as both a source of identity and an informal government, socialization processes, and the figure of El Tepozteco, the local divinity.

Tepoztlan is traditionally divided into 8 barrios, plus newer settlements called “colonias”. Each of these has its own chapel, two fiestas a year, and various associations such as water boards, women’s groups, etc. Each barrio has two saints (hence the two fiestas), and is symbolized by a mascot – an ant, frog, possum, scorpion, etc. The barrio facilities – chapel, cobblestone streets, water supply, etc. – are maintained by communal labor. The barrio is governed by an elected mayordomo, who has no legal authority, but is in charge of both the religious and secular life of the barrio. While there is a municipal government, final authority rests with the barrios. During the Golf Club War, the tepoztecos physically threw out the municipal government, which had signed a deal with the KS corporation, and elected a “free government” thru voting at the barrio level. This government has now been re-elected in accordance with federal law.

El Tepozteco is the legendary god, ruler, and hero of Tepoztlan. His pyramid overlooks the town, and his fiesta (technically the fiesta of La Virgen de la Natividad), on Sept. 7 & 8, is the central unifying metaphor for the whole community. He is seen as the source – the embodiment, really – of communal and individual identity and values, which are presented in his legend, and re-enacted in his fiesta. He controls the “aires” (winds), and manifests his (dis)pleasure through wind and rain. He is particularly concerned with the environment, and has shown himself as a ten-year old boy to stop projects which would harm the environment. For example, tepoztecos say that he and his 400 brothers (the followers of the moon goddess, Mayahuel, i.e., the stars) defeated the federal SWAT squads who attempted to assault the barricades.

Of particular interest is the way the barrio system and El Tepozteco are used to socialize children. Children participate at all levels of community life, especially in the fiestas. Every schoolage tepozteco child can recite the legend of El Tepozteco, who, since he manifests as a child, is seen as a patron of children.

The project personnel are Albert Wahrhaftig, an anthropologist at Sonoma State University, Yolanda Corona, a child psychologist, and Carlos Perez, an anthropologist, both at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Maria Rosas, an investigative journalist, and Pacho Lane, a visual anthropologist at the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos. The end products of the project include a documentry film, at least one book. and a website which will be open to additional material from tepoztecos and others.

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