Food For Decoration
An Ethnographic Note on Semana Santa in the P’urhépecha Community of Santo Santiago de Angahuan, Michoacán, México

In 2010, Mexican cuisine, and specifically that of the state of Michoacán, was included in UNESCO’s Intangible Culture Heritage list. 1 Notably, community building was highlighted as an integral part of this culinary tradition. Although food in the P’urhépecha community of Santo Santiago de Angahuan contributes to the creation of community, its meanings are broader. In this research note, I describe the use of food items, such as breads and fruits, as Holy Week (Semana Santa) decorations inside the church and Iurhixu (Chapel) during Holy Week 2009.

Located 7,677 feet above sea level, and thriving under the shadow of the volcán Paricutín, Santo Santiago de Angahuan is a small P’urhépecha community of aproximately 4000 people in the Sierra P’urhépecha in the state of Michoacán, México.3 Since the birth of the Paricutín in 1943, researchers, scientists, and tourists have traveled to Angahuan to enjoy the majestic view of the volcano and the Sierra. But the Paricutín is not the only tourist destination in the community: the church of Santo Santiago, named for the community’s patron Saint, and the Iurhixu, are two other points of interest for tourists and researchers alike. Built in the 1570s, the architecture of both structures is a clear example of Mudéjar art, which is a mixture of Islamic and Christian art that was developed in the Iberian Peninsula and later used in early colonial structures in the Americas. In the early 1940s, famed Mexican art historians Francisco José Rhode and Manuel Toussaint were the first researchers to write specifically about the church and the Iurhixu. Since then, numerous scholars have traveled to this community to study the church, the Iurhixu and the community’s vernacular architecture, in addition to their traditions and cultural practices (see Rodríguez et al 2000 and Gomez Ivoff 2004). The church and the Iurhixu are always beautifully adorned for the community’s special celebrations such as Santo Santiago (July 25), the Assumption of the Virgin (August 15), the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12), or Christmas. Decorations consist of flower bouquets, pine-needle garlands, curtains, or of traditional arts and crafts items, such as rebozos (shawls). They are generally made with seasonal flowers, fruits or natural materials.

Angahuan has a cargo system; this is a socio-cultural-religious organization system that aids in the planning and distribution of labor and economic responsibilities. The church and the Iurhixu, each have a set of cargueros (the church has eight couples as cargueros and the Iurhixu has six couples as cargueros), who are responsible for the preparation and organization of the different rituals and celebrations that take place during the year. They are also in charge of the decoration of the church and the Iurhixu. Although the carguero couples are responsible for the church and the Iurhixu, in reality their extended families play a key role in supporting and helping them with the organization, preparation and celebration of the many rituals. Thus, the decoration and preparation of the church and the Iurhixu can be said to be community-wide events.

I arrived in Angahuan in February 2009, prepared and eager to conduct my year-long research stay in the community. I have lived in Angahuan every summer since 2006, but I was looking forward to participating and documenting the full calendar year cycle of events, including planting, harvesting, Holy Week, the Day of the Dead and Christmas celebrations. While I am familiar with P’urhépecha forms of celebrations (I grew up in the P’urhépecha area, an hour and half away from Angahuan), I never cease to be amazed by the beauty and elaboration of Angahuan’s decorations and ornamental arrangements. For each of the main rituals celebrated during Holy Week (mainly from Thursday to Easter Sunday) the church is decorated differently. A full elaboration of the many rituals and events celebrated during Holy Week in Angahuan deserves its own full-length manuscript, so I will limit myself in this ethnographic note to describing the decorations of the church and Iurhixu for the Holy Thursday mass.

During the afternoon of Holy Tuesday in 2009, I walked to the main plaza, the community’s center, together with two of my host sisters. Angahuan’s center follows the traditional colonial layout: the community’s main plaza is surrounded by the church, the hospital (now the chapel and convent), governmental offices (civil registry, and jail) and the school. The main plaza has a fountain (which is no longer in use), a pergola, and small green areas, and it is at the heart of the community’s social life. While my host sisters attended a meeting in the church, I headed towards the Iurhixu. In the days leading to Holy Week, my host sisters had described to me the traditional way of decorating the church and the Iurhixu for the holiday so I was incredibly excited to see them.

Over forty people were diligently working on the Iurhixu’s decorations. In the patio outside the chapel, a group of men were preparing a huge cross, decorating it with large watermelons. Another group was working inside the chapel creating a wooden structure that went from the ceiling to floor in front of the altar and was covered with green leaves. On the floor, I saw big clusters of plantains, which had been smoked to prevent them from rotting. When I arrived that afternoon, the main structure was already in place, and the workers were starting to hang the clusters of plantains, covering the inside of the green leaf structure. On one side of the chapel a group of women were tying loaves of bread to a long plank of wood for another set of decorations. The loaves of bread had different shapes, and were decorated with images of flowers, chalices and other Catholic symbols. In another corner of the chapel I saw a pile of coconuts and more watermelons tied together to form long garlands. I also saw baskets full of mamey (Pouteria sapota, a fruit native to Southern Mexico) and smaller plantains, also smoked and ready to be used to decorate the chapel. After greeting my acquaintances, taking pictures and hanging out for a little bit, I crossed the street towards the church.

In contrast to all the movement in the Iurhixu, I was surprised to find that there was almost no decorating taking place at the church. This is not to say that the church was empty, because it was full of people attending meetings for different church groups or working in the parish, but the decoration activities had been halted for a couple of hours to allow a group of women to pray the Rosary. Despite the hiatus in active work, preparations were well underway. Walls of green leaves stood side by side, framing the doorway of the church and creating an entrance to the main aisle. Each wall was an empty square frame with a huge cross in the middle. The frames were already decorated with green leaves, and the crosses, similar to the ones in the Iurhixu, were covered with watermelons. The rest of the church was almost untouched. But the cargueros were not worried; they still had another day to get the church and the Iurhixu ready, as the decorations did not have to be in place before Thursday’s Last Supper mass.

I was not able to return to the plaza again until early afternoon on Thursday when the different rituals for the “Last Supper” mass began. By that time all the decorations were in place. I first walked to the Iurhixu. The entrance was decorated with a rectangular figure made from purple flowers. A big Crucifix sat next to the chapel’s entrance, already decorated and ready for the Via Crucis, the Stations of the Cross. Each of the three upper corners of the cross held a circular funerary wreath (similar to those used for the graves during the Day of the Dead) made with purple and red flowers. Each wreath had an image in the middle: the two corner wreaths had images of the crucified hands of Jesus Christ, and the upper wreath had the placard INRI. A huge garland, made from assorted fruits (plantains, coconuts, mamey, and passion fruit), red and purple flowers, leaves, and small straw baskets, hung from the lower part of the Cross. At the feet of the crucified image, a cluster of dry purple corn, along with two dried beehives and four huge watermelons, completed the Cross’s decorations. The Cross was later carried by four young men as part of a manda (promise) during the Via Crucis.

The inside of the Iurhixu was breathtaking. The frame of the wall covering the altar was covered with green leaves while the insides were filled with the plantain clusters. Planks of wood decorated with bread marked the wall’s borders. The huge cross, decorated with watermelons, was positioned in the center of the wall, and the long garlands made of coconuts, watermelons and mamey, dangled from the corners. In the upper middle part of the wall, two angel-shaped breads flanked a large circular bread with the inscription JHS. The lower part of the wall was decorated with more garlands made with smaller fruits, such as avocados, oranges, mamey, passion fruit, peaches, and small ribbons made of bread and candy. The walls were decorated with triangle banners made of purple and white flowers. All the benches had been taken to the church, so the floor was covered with a “carpet” made of painted sawdust. With the different colored sawdust, the organizers had created flower patterns that finished in a large chalice. Twelve traditionally decorated clay pots flanked the “carpet.” The clay pots (six at each side) were filled with flowers and other endemic plants.

From the Iurhixu, I walked to the church. A stage was set in the church’s atrium with an altar for the masses. Because during this time of the year mass is too full to fit all the attendees inside the church, the benches of both the Iurhixu and the church had been set up in the atrium. The church, like the Iurhixu, was also beautifully decorated. The two walls were fully covered with leaves, clusters of plantains, and bread. Garlands made of coconuts and watermelons also decorated the walls, and similar to those of the Iurhixu, the bottoms of structures had smaller garlands made with bread ribbons, passion fruit, and candy. I also noted a corresponding set of twelve clay pots with flowers and endemic plants along the bottom of the wall. At the top of the structures, an arch made with large circular breads welcomed everybody into the church. Inside, the church was simply decorated. Purple cloths, symbolizing the passion of Jesus Christ, covered all the images and figures. The main altar was covered with a huge white curtain, which hung from ceiling to floor. The top of the curtain was painted with angels and images of the Holy Sacrament. In front of the altar a small shrine had been constructed. This was basically a small wooden house-like structure that contained the Holy Sacrament. On each side of the shrine, flower bouquets and candles completed the altar’s decoration.

After the Via Crucis, mass and the reenactment of the Last Supper, the aguadoras, or water bearers, began to hand out fruit-flavored water (or aguas frescas) to the attendees. The aguadoras are young women and young men who carry clay pots filled with different fruit-flavored water (made with rice, oatmeal, hibiscus flower, strawberry, watermelon, lime, etc.) and are tasked with serving it to all the people present. While the aguadoras shared their waters, the church, little by little, filled with parishioners. People moved into the church slowly, kneeling at the decorated-wall entrance, and shuffling on their knees until they arrived at the front of the church. Some people said the Rosary while they crossed the church or made personal prayers. At the entrance of the church, a group of older women sat down surrounded by baskets full of bread and fruits (mainly plantains and some watermelons). As people left the church the women gave them a piece of bread or a fruit.

The decorations were removed from the church and the Iurhixu early on Saturday, after the rituals and mass remembering Christ’s crucifixion. After the Via Crucis and the re-enactment of the Crucifixion on Friday, parishioners held an all-night vigil over the “body” of Christ at the Iurhixu. All the work that went into creating the huge and intricate walls and all the food decorations for the church and the Iurhixu were only used and appreciated for twenty-four hours. The immense work, creativity and effort exerted by the cargueros and their families produced an incredibly ephemeral piece of art.

Food decorations are common throughout Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations (see Brandes 2006 and Charmichael and Sayer 1992), but the practice is less common during Holy Week. While I have limited myself in this ethnographic note to describing the decorations of the church and the Iurhixu in Santo Santiago de Angahuan during Holy Week 2009, I suggest that further analysis would reveal significant underlying meanings. The way in which the church and the Iurhixu in Santo Santiago de Angahuan are decorated clearly reflects a P’urhépecha aesthetic—the use of particular colors and motifs. The way space is used also bears the culture’s stamp. For instance, all the food used as decoration is not grown in the community. Because of its cold and humid climate, and its altitude, Angahuan does not produce coconuts, plantains or watermelons. These foods come from the lowlands and are in season during Lent, making them both accessible and affordable. I believe that one possible explanation is that the use of these fruits is a remnant of the Pre-Colombian trade routes. However, ethno-historical research must be done in order to confirm this claim. By looking at the manner in which the church and the Iurhixu are decorated we see how food can transcend its original meaning and purpose (as food), to become an item of aesthetic beauty and cultural identification. Finally, I dare to hypothesize that through their use of food as decoration, members of Angahuan transform a space that is inherently Colonial into a P’urhépecha space.

  • 1. For more information on the inclusion of Mexican cuisine in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List, please refer to the official UNESCO website
  • 2. The P’urhépecha (formally known as Tarascans) are mainly located in the state of Michoacán. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, the P’urhépecha Empire was larger than the Mayan Empire, and they were one of the few empires that the Aztecs could not conquer. After almost 500 years of colonization, the P’urhépecha have been able to maintain their language, culture and land.
  • 3. The state of Michoacán is located in the Center-West Coast of Mexico. The capital of the state, Morelia, is 4 hours west of Mexico City, and Angahuan is 3 hours away from Morelia.

References Cited
  • Álvarez Rodríguez, Gloria A. 2000. Templo de Santo Santiago Apóstol. Los Artesanos Michoacanos : Los Cielos Historiados en Tablas Pintadas. Morelia, Michoacán : Gobierno del Estado de Michoacán. 169-77.
  • Brandes, Stanley. 2006. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Charmichael, Elizabeth and Chloë Sayer. 1992. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Texas: University of Texas Press.
  • Gomez Ivoff, Cristina. 2004. Arquitectura: Reflejo de Sitio. La Troje Purhépecha. MA Thesis. Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain.
  • Rhode, Francisco José. 1946. Angahuan. Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 4 (14) : 5-18.
  • Toussant, Manual. 1945-46. Angahua. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 5: 24-6.