Celebrations and festivals are a big part of life in Mexico. After all, this is the country that gifted the world Mariachi, Tequila, and the Day of the Dead.
But aside from large nationwide holidays, each town or city no matter how small has its own yearly festival, sometimes lasting a few days or a couple of weeks.
But despite looking like just one big party, these celebrations have deep meaning. They combine traditions dating back to ancient times.
In Yucatán, these local festivities are known as fiestas de pueblo or fiestas patronales. They honor the religious patron of each community and are usually celebrated on that saint’s holy day.
Some of the most widely venerated holy figures in Yucatán include Sisal’s Black Christ, the patron of the community’s fishermen who is taken on a procession on both land and sea, as well as Santa Elena in the community of the same name, and the Virgin of the Candelaria in Valladolid.
Because much of rural Yucatán continues to depend largely on subsistence agriculture, the help of holy figures is often requested to help ensure the timely arrival of rain and healthy crops.
Though on the surface these practices seem entirely Catholic, the reality is ceremonies like this have been practiced in Yucatán since time immemorial, long before the arrival of Europeans.
If you know a little about the history of the conquest of Yucatán, it’s not hard to see the connections to the rituals of the ancient Maya. For example, the patron saint of Hoctún is Saint Michael the archangel… all very Catholic, right? Well, the thing is that since early on in the conquest Saint Michael was purposefully presented to the Maya as an analog for the rain god Yum Chaac. This is why today many in Yucatán associate the archangel Michael with the health of crops and the arrival of rain.
But back to the partying. Fiestas de Pueblo tend to be the biggest yearly event on each community calendar. In fact, migrants living in other parts of Mexico, the United States, or even further afield often return home to their villages to take part, instead of coming home for celebrations like Christmas.
The center stage for the party is a ruedo, a sort of stadium made of perishable materials found in the countryside. Setting this structure up can take weeks and it’s important that it be done with the utmost care, as it will ultimately support the weight of thousands. They may look a little flimsy to outsiders, but accidents and collapses are actually rare.
Claims of animal cruelty have resulted in bans in Mexico’s bigger cities, but in the villages, they are a huge part of life and show no sign of slowing down, much less ending, anytime soon.
The festivities inside the ruedo are also accompanied by fireworks, traditional dancing, and the sale of lots and lots of food.
It’s not unusual for guilds, known as gremios, to sponsor free food for the entire community, usually, beef cutlets, a traditional roast pork dish called cochinita pibil which is cooked in underground pits and wrapped in banana leaves … of course, served with tortillas and chile habanero.
Outsiders, even foreigners, are more often than not warmly welcomed to take part in the festivities and even eat or drink for free. To a point!
But if you decide to attend, just remember to read the room. Then you will know when it’s appropriate to be solemn or when you can let loose.