Burning Man Meets County Fair in Cholula
Conquering a continent isn’t easy, especially when its indigenous people do not subscribe to your belief system. Back in the 16th century, the Spaniards decided that the best way to overcome religious dissent in the New World was to dismantle or diminish important indigenous structures. In Cholula, one of the oldest continually occupied sites in the Americas, Cortes and his cohorts built a Catholic church on top of the Great Pyramid and started honoring their own patron saint (in this case, the virgin of the remedies) on the same day that the locals paid homage to their most revered gods.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and ancient and modern beliefs have fused into a single, glorious celebration. The festivities begin a week prior, when Cholutecans from various neighborhoods lead a midnight procession through town, bearing lanterns and images of the virgin. Much to everyone’s relief, we imagine, the practice of sacrificing a local resident to Quetzalcoatl or another pre-Hispanic god on Sept. 8 — now the virgin’s feast day in Cholula — has evolved into an entirely symbolic gesture. After the final Mass celebrated at the church, worshipers today burn a chubby paper-mâché doll with fireworks instead of offing a real person. This human stand-in, called el panzón for its big belly, is stuffed with apples that fall out as the doll goes up in flames.
“The annual fair of Cholula is a sample of the folklore and the way of life of the people from this area,” city officials say.
People from all parts of Puebla and adjacent states travel to Cholula to pay their respects to the virgin and the ancient religious site. The market that centuries ago naturally occurred at the base of the pyramid, as the result of so many merchants and farmers coming to town, in 1950 evolved into an annual regional fair. The 2010 Feria Milenaria runs through Sept. 16 in San Pedro Cholula. The line of street vendors literally stretches from the pyramid, up the main drag, to the zócalo. Visitors can sample all sorts of regional specialties, from pan de nata to pulque, purchase arts & crafts and household wares, and enjoy carnival-style thrill rides. The city’s tourism chief told local press that he expects 100,000 people to attend this year.
Photo credit (El Panzón): Isabel Muñiz Montero, 2007