Learn How Catholic Mexicans Still Celebrate Lent In The 21st Century
By Alvaro Ramírez
As a kid in a small town in Michoacan, I learned that Lent is the forty-day period that follows the first full moon after the Spring equinox when Catholics reaffirm their faith by way of ritual, abstinence, and penance. As a little kid growing up in a small town in Michoacán, I was always intrigued by the meaning of Cuaresma (Lent), a word full of mystery that I only half understood as a fledgling Catholic. It was a magical word that conjured awe and wonder as I took part in the events that marked this religious period.
In time, I learned that Lent is the forty-day period in Spring (around March or April, depending on the first full moon after the Spring equinox) when Catholics reaffirm their faith by way of ritual, abstinence, and penance. In practice, however, most people only follow part of the rituals.
In Mexico, as well as other Latin American countries, Catholics celebrate the days prior to Lent with colorful and rowdy carnivals that announce the arrival of a period of abstinence, and then dutifully take part in the rituals of Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
A minority of Catholics still follow the precepts of Atonement. Most, however, attend the Penitent Processions, one of the most spectacular occurs on Good Friday in the city of Taxco, in the state of Guerrero. Under a hot sun, a group of black-hooded men and women flog themselves in public while the rest of the attendants watch. After the self-torture ends, everybody, even those who only watched, walk away feeling cleansed by this communal catharsis: the penitents have taken upon themselves the role of Christ himself: endure suffering to redeem the entire community.
This has also lost much of its original function. The word Carnival derives from the Latin carnem levare which means, “remove meat”, in Medieval Latin there is also carne vale, “goodbye meat.” During Lent, Catholics originally abstained from eating meat and even from having sex. People eventually came up with other strange prohibitions; for example, as children, I was told not to bathe on Fridays, for if I did I would turn into a fish!
The water motif continues on Sábado de Gloria (Holy Saturday) when it’s traditional to throw water on people, though lately the government has prohibited this activity because of water shortages. Another popular activity on this day is the burning of effigies of Jude Iscariot, or any other figure -religious or even political- that evokes evil and betrayal. These effigies are stuffed and covered with firecrackers and usually represent unpopular characters, either fictitious or real; everybody gets a big kick of seeing them slowly blow up to smithereens.
The food was my favorite part of Lent. Every Friday, we used to follow a strict menu of fish, vegetables, and legumes. The special recipes prepared on these days were delicious and defined us as Catholics. Nowadays many people ignore these precepts and it is possible to find taquerías on any given Friday during Lent full of people enjoying “tacos al pastor” and “tortas cubanas” without the slightest fear of divine retribution, or of losing their religious identity. Other people observe personalized abstinence: they promise solemnly to god, and to themselves, to give up something during these days, it could be bread, tortillas, or soda; though no one I know gives up sex!
It’s hard being a Catholic in the new millennium. Penance and meaningful abstinence are tough to follow and for many no longer form part of “La Cuaresma.” We’ve also lost much of the reverence and wonder for these sacred days. Despite these changes, food traditions have endured and many of us continue to eat the steaming shrimp and fish soups, plates of lima beans, potato cakes, cactus leaves, and other mouthwatering dishes that complement the rituals and still make Lent a tasty feast.