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Becoming an Ancestor

The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death

Anya Peterson Royce

Publication Year: 2011

A striking look at the death rituals of an indigenous community in North America. Powerful and beautifully written, this is the story of the Isthmus Zapotecs of southern Mexico and their unbroken chain of ancestors and collective memory over the generations. Mortuary beliefs and actions are collective and pervasive in ways not seen in the United States, a resonant deep structure across many domains of Zapotec culture. Anthropologist Anya Peterson Royce draws upon forty years of participant research in the city of Juchitán to offer a finely textured portrait of the vibrant and enduring power of death in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec of Mexico. Focusing especially on the lives of Zapotec women, Becoming an Ancestor highlights the aesthetic sensibility and durability of mortuary traditions in the past and present. An intricate blending of Roman Catholicism and indigenous spiritual tradition, death through beliefs and practices expresses a collective solidarity that connects families, binds the living and dead, and blurs the past and present. A model of ethnographic research and presentation, Becoming an Ancestor not only reveals the luminescent heart of Zapotec culture but also provides important clues about the cultural power and potential of mortuary traditions for all societies.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Becoming an Ancestor

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. xv-xx

I first encountered the Isthmus Zapotec of Juchitán at a performance of the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca City in July 1967. It was enough to take me and my husband, Ronald R. Royce, to Juchitán the following summer. My acquaintance now spans more than forty years. Twenty-seven when I began, I have spent more than half my life calling Juchitán home and its people family. The epilogue gives ...

Note on Isthmus Zapotec Orthography

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pp. xxi

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pp. xxiii-xxviii

The hundreds of generations of Isthmus Zapotec who have been born, lived their lives, and then joined the communities of the dead are linked to each other through an unbroken chain of ancestors and memories of places where community was honored. Never isolated, never local, they experienced periods of stability in which they flourished, periods of upheaval when they were scattered ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-23

Palm Sunday 1997: the sky is electric blue, cloudless on this early morning. I was in the courtyard of San Vicente Ferrer, the parish church, just having returned from the cemetery where I helped the family arrange the armloads of flowers necessary for this day of remembrance. I waited for the arrival of the Palm Sunday procession, winding its way through the streets after distributing ...

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2. The First Forty Days

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pp. 25-52

Zapotec is a language best suited to describing action, and the philosophy that it embodies is one of continual creation and transformation. Some of these cycles are long, for example, as in speaking of the world and the Zapotec place within it;1 some are daily, as in the passing of the sun across the sky or the song of birds as they prepare in the early dawn to fly off to the outlying fields ...

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3. Artists of Bread, Flowers, Prayers, and Music

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pp. 53-72

Bread, flowers, special foods, music, and prayer are essential elements for the living, reminding them of their obligations and relationships. In the case of death, these elements also bind the living to the dead in a similar web of obligation. The individuals who craft and perform them are key to the communal work of obligation. They are cognizant of Juchiteco aesthetic demands and strive to ...

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4. Tending to the Dead: Home Altars and Cemeteries

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pp. 73-98

Rosa and I went to her brother’s tomb in the Panteón Miércoles Santo. It was a Sunday in March, still Lent but before Holy Week. She carried a pail of water and flowers laid over her arm. It was a largish tomb with a dirt floor, thatched palm roof, and cement block walls. The morning was hot; the sun’s glare enough to make you squint your eyes, but inside the tomb it was ...

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5. Flowers

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pp. 99-113

This is the first stanza of a poem by Zapotec poet Enedino Jiménez. It is a particularly powerful example of the flower and countryside imagery that abounds in the poetic literature of Juchitán. Indeed, the Zapotec word for poetry is diidxa’ guie’, or “flowery speech.” The word Jiménez uses for Juchitán, Guidxiguie’, can be glossed as “town of flowers.” Hearts coming together in love creates a field, a ...

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6. The Day of the Dead—Xandu’

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pp. 115-135

Che Conra and Na Mari were sitting on one of the cement benches in the municipal park when Irma and I passed by, arms loaded with flowers. “You may as well save time and just give those to me,” Che Conra quipped, “and if you take my picture, I will have everything I need for my xandu’ yaa.” Che Conra, Ta Conrado De Gyves Pineda, was known for his quick wit, ...

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7. The Way of the Cross

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pp. 137-146

Beginning with the first Friday after Ash Wednesday, Juchitecos of all ages and backgrounds walk the Way of the Cross every Friday in Lent. The last Friday, the Friday before Holy Week, is in honor of the Virgen Dolorosa, the mother of Christ, in anticipation of the impending death of her Son. On Good Friday, the stops during the noon procession of Christ, the Dolorosa, and Saint John ...

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8. Nabaana Ro: Roman Catholic Liturgy and Zapotec Practice

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pp. 147-177

On the last Friday of Lent, the Friday of la Virgen de Dolores, the saints in the churches begin to get restless. Pilgrimages, processions, being out of their places of ordinary time will mark the next nine days. The saints will be taken out of niches, dressed in the attire of Holy Week, will accept the prayers and offerings of hundreds of Juchitecos, and be carried through the streets, main characters ...

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9. Nabaana Ro: Invitations from the Departed

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pp. 179-198

Even before the predawn procession of San Salvador del Mundo (Savior of the World image of Christ) left the chapel of the Panteón Cubi, the municipal cemetery hummed with activity. It was Domingo de Ramos, Palm Sunday, the day all the departed whose homes lie in that cemetery expect their friends and relatives to visit and stay for the fiesta of the souls. ...

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10. Becoming an Ancestor

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pp. 199-207

Maestro Jiménez speaks for all the Juchitecos when he describes the voice of the ancestors. They instruct; they are the memory of the past and the portent of the future; they fill our souls with joy. They continue to be deeply part of the community of the living. On August 27, 2005, one year after his death, we celebrated the life of ...

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pp. 209-210

Many family, friends, and acquaintances have made the journey from the community of the living to the community of the dead since I first visited Juchitán in 1968. Some are still very present when I visit them in their cemetery homes or when I attend one of the Masses honoring them. They remain present because their lives touched mine just as my life touched theirs ...

Glossary of Isthmus Zapotec and Spanish Terms

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pp. 211-215


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pp. 217-220


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pp. 221-232

E-ISBN-13: 9781438436791
E-ISBN-10: 1438436793
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438436777
Print-ISBN-10: 1438436777

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 46 b/w photographs, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Funeral rites and ceremonies -- Mexico -- Juchitán de Zaragoza.
  • Zapotec Indians -- Mexico -- Juchitán de Zaragoza -- Social life and customs.
  • Zapotec Indians -- Mexico -- Juchitán de Zaragoza -- Religion.
  • Juchitán de Zaragoza (Mexico) -- Social life and customs.
  • Juchitán de Zaragoza (Mexico) -- Religious life and customs.
  • Zapotec Indians -- Funeral customs and rites -- Mexico -- Mexico -- Juchitán de Zaragoza.
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