Morismas de Bracho, Zacatecas, Mexico 2012
Wilmette Arts Guild, Wilmette, IL, engaged George Olney, an artist, teacher and photographer, a resident of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to photograph the Morismas, a magnificent 4-day spectacle, considered a re-enactment of the Christian Reconquest of Spain, held annually in Zacatecas, Mexico. Local brotherhoods don uniforms, form platoons and challenge one another in mock battles. Blasting blunderbusses emit sonic booms; percussion jolts the enemy and black smoke billows into clouds that obscure the Moor’s castle on a hill. This celebration of Christian victory has a 188-year old official, recorded history in Zacatecas, and I was told it could be traced back four hundred years.
I met with George; we agreed I’d write the commentary and text that would fill the white spaces between George’s photos. 

George is a fearless photographer. He once roped himself to a church tower, hung over the edge and took a bird’s eye view of indigenous performers. He has a penchant for “seeing from above.” At the Morismas, this perspective was granted from atop a telephone pole while 3 policemen yelled for George to come down, and when George answered calmly, taking their pictures and parachuting his press credentials, which fluttered down to the Mexican police, he was given, “two minutes” to photograph the mock battling armies. 

The results are here, fine, expressive photos, views from above, up close, in among the troops, the marchers, capturing the broad panorama and the intimate personal participation. Although the battles were mock, the injuries were real. The Red Cross was active. At least three ambulances were called out, driving into the droves of Christians and Moors on the hillside, to take the injured to hospitals, and there were many minor injuries, cuts and bruises, some from gunfire recoil, others from falls.


Background and Overview: Morismas de Bracho, Zacatecas, 1992

In 1992 I drove to the Morismas and I hadn't been back since. My impression then was akin to a reenactment of the Civil War, Blue vs. Gray, but this time I saw the entire spectacle, 11,000 participants. The principal actors are now wired with clear loud speakers delivering their speeches. It's far more than a Blue-Gray confrontation! Historic epics, 1st, 8th, 16th, 19th centuries are intertwined, rolled into one story, representative of people, historic figures, and places, and my interpretation is that there are subtexts, resistance to domination and syncretic concealment of indigenous practices.
Armies marched, challenged each other, platoon after platoon, or I should say groups of Brotherhoods that are organized, taking sides. Insults flew, Christians disparaged Moors, and Moors defied Christians. Charlemagne declared the superiority of his Savior and the Christian religion. Argel Osmán, the Moor, answered, cackling, ''Ha, ha, ha, ha." Moors took over the Christian's hill, forming a crescent and star, very visible, red uniforms stood out against the green hill. Each side blasted the other with homemade firearms, the closest thing would be a blunderbuss, but the guns were not flared. And blast they did! Pointed at the sky, thank heavens, the guns roared and my ears rang. I now know how the bell felt when Quasimodo pulled the cord and why he was deaf. The percussion felt like the “Big One” had hit, that is, the expected California earthquake, and black smoke obscured the Moors' castle.  
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Click on images above to enlarge.
Click on image above to enlarge.
It was a magnificent, costumed, energetic, action spectacle! There were indigenous dances, Catholic rituals, and baptisms. Moors and Christians took communion together.
There were decapitations, prisoners taken and rescued, and there were subtexts (my interpretation) of political and religious resistance to invaders. Like masks, the Morismas festival both concealed and revealed. 

Comeuppance: Sunday, Christians, thousands charged, endlessly, from nowhere (other side of the hill) unseen until they arrived marching, massively, in formation, brotherhoods forming a cross, "In this sign you will conquer," retake their hill, defeat the Moors and decapitate the Grand Turk Argel Osmán.... in this case in the rain. 
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The Morismas is spectacle, folk theater, ritual, and performance art, on what must be the world's largest stage, two hills, parade grounds, upper and lower, the open air atrium in front of St. John the Baptist’s chapel and Zacatecas’s city streets. Drums rolled and bugles sounded, and the marching column was so long the vanguard met the rearguard looping Zacatecas’ city center.

The Program: Characters and An Abridged Outline 

List of Principal Characters

Christians

John the Baptist: off stage, but the overriding figure. A separate folk theater performance of the decapitation would be symbolically connected to the final Christian victory with the decapitation of the Grand Turk Argel Osmán. 

Charlemagne: his entourage and 12 Warrior Knights, and echoes of Roland famously blowing his horn Oliphant.

Oliver: one of the 12 Warrior Knights who battles Fierbrás in combat.
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Don Juan of Austria, the victor at the Battle of Lepanto, in the Corinthian Gulf, where Cervantes lost the use of his left arm. 

King Phillip II of Spain

General Alfonso de Guzman

Pope Pius V

Moors
Fierabrás: Moor’s Champion Warrior, Admiral Balán’s son.
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Floripes: Fierabrás’ sister.

Grand Turk King Argel Osmán, who captures Don Juan de Austria, but later, will lose his head.

Admiral Balán, who dies in battle, killed by King Charlemagne.
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​Time Frames:
The story and action melds history and invention. Centuries are condensed into one story. 
First Century: John the Baptist, hence the invaders are Romans.
Eighth Century: Charlemagne, the invaders are Moors. 
Fifteenth Century: Don Juan de Austria, the invaders are the Turkish navy.
Nineteenth Century: Mexico, the invaders are French Zouaves, Algerian Moors, under command of Maximilian. 

Day-by-day: Program Abridged

Thursday:

John the Baptist’s statue is washed, indigenous dancers perform, mass is held, band concert plays, dignitaries introduced, Coronation of the Festival Queen, folk theater “The Beheading of John the Baptist,” Coronation Ball. 
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Friday: 

Early morning cannons boom, “Las Mañanitas” is sung, Catholic mass and communion, platoons march.

At noon: The Moor’s warrior, the giant Fierabrás defies King Charlemagne, battles Oliver, the King’s knight, is taken prisoner, converted and baptized.  

The fair is opened; there are a variety of afternoon entertainments, acknowledgments and a celebration of the Eucharist. 

5:30 p.m.: Don Juan of Austria confronts Turkish King Argel Osmán, ordering him and his troops to leave the grounds. There are speeches and declarations. There is posturing but no combat at this time. 

Nighttime: A bond fire is lit. Christian and Moor knights battle in front of the fire. Christians bearing torches take over St. Martin’s Hill, forming a huge fiery cross.
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Saturday:

Early morning cannonade, troops congregate, a mass is said, officiated by the Bishop of Zacatecas, the fair is open. There are rides and games. St. John the Baptist is carried through the streets of Zacatecas.

Noon: King Charlemagne sends a delegation of 7 to Admiral Balán, informing him that his son Fierabrás has converted and been baptized. Five members of the delegation are taken hostage, and Admiral Balán demands the return of his son. 

There is a lull, general fair activities.

6 p.m.: Challenges are exchanged. Troops prepare. The Moors form a Crescent and Star on the Christian hill, then race down the hill attacking the Christians. Turk Argel Osmán’s forces overwhelm Don Juan de Austria, the Christian army is defeated and Don Juan is taken prisoner and bound in chains.
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Nighttime programs follow.

Sunday: 

Cannons wake the city. Troops organize. Mass is celebrated. Brotherhoods are commended. Families join the platoons; infants and children dress as Moors or Christians and accompany their parents. The entire armies, 11,000 strong, Moors and Christians, assemble and parade through the streets of Zacatecas and are acknowledged by dignitaries, government and ecclesiastical, sitting in the review stands.  
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Noon: King Charlemagne learning that his men are held captive in Admiral Balán’s castle engages the enemy. Warriors fight in hand-to-hand combat, many die and King Charlemagne kills Admiral Balán. 

The public enjoys the fair, its activities and food. 
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5:30 p.m.: Denouement: King Philip II, General Alonso de Guzmán and Pope Pius V, with troops, form the Holy League, coming together in a monumental cross signaling that they will rescue Don Juan de Austria, who is held prisoner in the Moors’ castle. 
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There is a major battle, guns fired. Tthe sound and percussion make one’s head ring; black smoke envelopes the scene and obscures the Moors’ castle. Ultimately the Moors are defeated, Don Juan de Austria is rescued, and the Grand Turk Argel Osmán is taken prisoner. Osmán capitulates, admits his god is inferior to the Christians’. He is executed, white doves are released and his head is displayed as a trophy mounted on a pole and held aloft for all to see. 
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There are final ceremonies and Monday there is a mass for all participants and the public. 

Subtext: A personal interpretation

The underlying theme is resistance, and like masks, folk festivals reveal and conceal. In simplest terms, it’s good vs. evil. 

Sunday, when the lightning flash broke the sky, sending bolts from the heavens crackling to the earth, and the rain drenched both Christians and Moors, the crowd cheered as the mock battle turned into a mud bath. But was the cheer for a Christian celebration, a baptism, or for the matachines, the ritual dancers, who earlier performed and rattled their gourds calling for the gift of rain? Did a Catholic god or Tlaloc answer the request?

Spanish missionaries introduced costumed matachines, often masked, who dramatized the superiority of the Christian god vs. other beliefs in their dances, but the indigenous concealed their own interpretations, which are today accepted as syncretism. 

Thursday, celebrating the Morismas de Bracho, a group of male matachines wore red shirts, embroidered sashes, some blue, some black, some tri-colored green-white-red, the colors of Mexico, and white waistbands. They dressed in long skirts, embellished with Christian images and adorned with bamboo rattles sewn into the brightly colored garments and danced wearing oversized fringed, round feathered hats, that looked like huge donuts with circles decorating the flat tops, and shaking gourds. They performed in the atrium, arched and colonnaded, in front of St. John's the Baptist’s Chapel. St. John the Baptist is syncretisticly associated with water and the Aztec rain god Tlaloc.
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The battles had ended, the smoke had cleared, and rain had baptized the brotherhoods, the public and spectators. Bands serenaded the brotherhoods in the atrium in front of St. John the Baptist’s Chapel and a final mass was held. The field was mud, but the feeling was redemption and grace.

​The End

Dick Davis
I spoke with the dancers. As a tourist with a camera I was ignored somewhat, and maybe there was some ridicule and humor among the Huichols at my expense, spoofing me. But as I continued to ask questions that were not answered, I was introduced to Pedro Sanchez Ventura, an 81-year-old respected elder, who I believe was to decide if I were to be informed. I mentioned a round hat with a yellow circle on the flat top surface. “It has many names,” he said, “monterilla, plumero, tenacho, sombrero.” "Is it a symbolic sun?" I asked. The elder smiled and that question seemed to change the conversation from ridicule to serious discussion. At that moment, the elder seemed to embrace respect for my interest. We chatted and the elder said, "I have no education. I herded goats in the mountains, but we Huichols, we have a mind and thoughts, intelligence, and knowledge of nature, animals and plants. We dance and rattle the gourds, praying for rain, for god to let us see rain." The Huichol elder had a bright eye and I felt the twinkle, that his god was both the god of John the Baptist and the Aztec Tlaloc.  

Decapitations also echo pre-Hispanic Mexico and human sacrifices. Aztecs waged Flower Wars, not to kill but to capture their enemy. 

There are aspects that are not part of the Morismas, the Reconquest drama. I failed to find any reference to Santiago, Spain’s patron saint, who is credited with delivering the Moors into Christian hands. Perhaps it’s a purposeful avoidance of the memory of Cortez and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. The Catholic religion, although accepted and dominant, is also evaded by syncretism. 
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Lic. Miguel Alfonso Reyes Dick Davis Lic. Arnoldo Rodríquez Governor Zacatecas Presidente Municipal
Lic. Miguel Alfonso Reyes Dick Davis Lic. Arnoldo Rodríquez Governor Zacatecas Presidente Municipal

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Zacatecas