Living Legends

An excerpt from Saints, Statues and Stories: A Folklorist Looks at the Religious Art of Sonora

At sometime around 1850, a mixed group of Seri, Papago, and Yaqui Indians was attacking the village of San Antonio de Oquitoa in Sonora's Altar Valley, about 50 miles south of the present-day international border. The Mexican villagers were defending the strongest building in town: the old mission church, a long, narrow adobe building standing on a hill above the rest of the village, which is in the floodplain of the Río Altar. (Defense had probably been in the minds of the original Jesuit builders when they raised the building in the mid-18th century, and this was not the first time such structures on the far northern frontier had been so used.) Now, however, things were looking desperate. The enemy kept attacking, and the defenders were almost out of ammunition. The next onslaught might be successful. Yet, the attackers were suddenly in full flight for no visible reason. The villagers were saved and doubtless sent up prayers of thanksgiving for that fact. But the question remained: Why this sudden retreat almost on the brink of victory?

The answer appeared long afterward, when villagers were able to question a man who had been one of the attackers. They had fled, he told them, when they saw the relief column approaching. What relief column? As far as anyone knew, no aid had ever arrived at Oquitoa at the time of the battle. The relief column, he replied, led by the bald-headed officer wearing a blue cloak. Then the villagers understood: they had been rescued by their patron saint, San Antoni , tonsured and clad in Franciscan blue. Or, as one Sonoran standing in the church a few years ago put it to a group of American tourists with a backward jerk of his head, "It was that guy, over the altar." And there in a niche was the 18th-century statue of Saint Anthony, just has he had stood for more than 200 years.

The statue is about one foot tall and depicts the standing saint, tonsured and holding the baby Jesus. He does not put equal weight on each foot, but rather assumes the contrapposto so beloved of Renaissance and baroque artists: most of the weight on one foot, with the other leg slightly bent, setting the entire body into a graceful curve that suggests the beginning of yet more movement. This baroque sense of graceful implied movement tells us that that the statue was probably created at some time in the 17th or 18th century.

This legend of a saint saving his or her village from outside attackers has at least ten parallels in Sonora's former mission communities. While the details vary from site to site, the general narrative remains the same: when a group of hostile nonbelievers attacks the village, the patron saint of the church (and therefore of the village) foils them, usually through some sort of an illusion.

For our next story we move several hundred miles south and inland to the mission community of Nácori Grande, in the foothills east of Hermosillo, the state capital. Above the main altar of the small church is a tiny (perhaps six inches tall) statue of the Virgin Mary. It represents the manifestation of Mary called La Virgen de los Remedios (The Virgin of the Remedies). She stands on a large crescent moon, and her dress stands stiffly out to both sides, giving her the appearance of an equilateral triangle. According to local oral history, this statue was originally intended for the much larger Jesuit mission community of Mátape, now known as Villa Pesqueira. When the statue was being carried through Nácori Grande on its way to its final destination, however, the mule carrying it balked in the middle of a nopalera (prickly pear cactus field) and would not continue. This was taken as a sign that the Virgin, working through her statue, indicated her desire to stay in Nácori. A kind of compromise was reached, however, by which the statue, while it resides in Nácori to this day, is carried to Mátape every year in procession for a visita, or visit, which lasts from July until Sept. 10, when La Virgen is escorted back home.

For our final introductory story, we move to the town of Aconchi on the Río Sonora, where the mission church once contained a life-sized crucifix with a black corpus, known both as Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas (Our Lord of Esquipulas, a Guatemalan devotion) and El Cristo Negro de Aconchi (The Black Christ of Aconchi; Griffith 1995, 87–108). On April 5, 1935, a group of dedicated enforcers of the socialist state government's anticlerical policies entered the church, removed all the religious images, and loaded them in a truck to be taken away and destroyed. When the load fell off the truck on a mountain road, however, the quemasantos (saint burners, as such activists were called at the time) decided to have their bonfire on the spot. The larger statues were cut up, the whole lot was put to the torch, and the quemasantos left the scene. A while later, Jesús Tánori Contreras, a farmer from the nearby town of La Labor, north of Mazocahui, saw the fire, grabbed a stick, and raked out the partly burned head of the Black Christ. He carried it to his sister Julia, who placed it on her home altar and began holding regular fiestas in its honor. And there it remained until the early 2000s, when doña Julia Tánori Dórame moved to the coast, taking the precious head with her. After the political situation in Sonora quieted down, the people of Aconchi ordered a substitute Black Christ, which now resides over the main altar (Encinas Blanco 2008, 96; Griffith and Manzo 2007, 84). ...

Themes like these—a saint coming out of the church and protecting his or her village, a statue having a say in where it is to reside and paying social calls to other communities, and a beloved image being saved from the quemasantos or otherwise rescued from destruction and then being revered on a private altar—are common ones throughout Sonora. What a folklorist sees in these narrative themes, which form the core of the book, are patterns of communally held beliefs and values. ...

While I have been photographing Sonora's religious art and collecting the stories and legends concerning it since the mid-1960s, at first this was merely part of my attempt to familiarize myself with Sonora. In 1998 I became more systematic and set out to visit and photograph as much of the art as possible, in churches and chapels and along the roadside. At the same time, I began to read about the subject, relying on books and clippings, many of which were provided by my research associate, Francisco "Paco" Manzo. This fieldwork has continued into the 21st century, though health and mobility issues, as well as changing conditions in Sonora, have more recently curtailed my travels.

In the field, I would travel whenever possible with a companion. If Manzo, a hard-working Sonoran attorney, was not available, I would invite a friend who was bilingual or who knew aspects of the region better than I. Outstanding among these were the late Bernard "Bunny" Fontana of Tucson, Alfredo Gonzales of El Paso, and Jesús García of Magdalena, Sonora. We would visit a village, find the local sacristan, and request the keys to the usually locked church. Sacristans are appointed by the local priest and not only have the responsibility of preserving and protecting the churches and their contents but are usually important repositories of knowledge concerning local religious history, traditions, and images.

Having gained entry to the building, we would examine and document the art inside. While I did the photography, my bilingual companion chatted with the sacristan and anyone else present. As these on-the-spot conversations were informal, they were not taped, nor were informants' names requested. These conversations frequently concerned the image just before us, however, adding an extra degree of authority and immediacy to the narrative. ...

To round out the visit, after leaving the church, we would drive through the village, documenting any other material of interest that we might see. In the evenings we would discuss the day, and I would write up our experiences and observations.

Beyond the data they collected, my Mexican companions contributed something of equal importance to my education: they taught me to travel like a Mexican, or, more specifically, like a Sonoran. We constantly "shortened the road" by enjoying what it had to offer in the way of local foods and products, turning what might have been a rigorous journey into a happy graze. For instance, we would never pass through Ímuris without stopping for quesadillas, a famous specialty made from local cheese. When we saw a hand-lettered sign at a ranch entrance saying se vende queso (cheese for sale), we would often investigate and sample. Sonora's roads and highways are dotted with small restaurants, produce stands, and craft workshops. By stopping, buying, eating, and chatting, I gained a much better understanding of the region.

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