Easter in the Mountains
Forget Egg Hunts, the Cora Paint Themselves and Hold a Sacred Dance-Off
May 6 2013
The Cora, or Naayari, as they call themselves, were the last indigenous ethnic group in Mexico to be conquered by the Spanish—they held out until 1722. Many of them still live in isolated communities along the Sierra del Nayar mountain range, remote settlements that are only reachable by plane and lack basic services like running water and electricity. Not much has changed since precolonial times. The Cora adhere to their own idiosyncratic blend of Catholicism and animism, which manifests in their unique way of celebrating Easter.
I shot these portraits during the Judea Cora (their version of Catholicism’s Holy Week), in San Juan Bautista, a small town in the state of Nayarit. The celebration’s rituals involve physical acts of contrition, similar to Lent, but the Cora also celebrate in all-day ceremonies meant to represent a cosmic battle with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, while simultaneously depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s pretty confusing, but as I understand it, the significant rituals begin on the night of Ash Wednesday, when participants covered in body paint made from burnt, ground-up corn—who are meant to represent Jews and Romans—perform a dance that signifies the “rise of evil.” On Thursday morning, these Cora fast while wandering through town in a ritual that evokes the Romans’ search for Christ. Later that afternoon, another set of dancers, this time representing Christ’s apostles, paint themselves white. Then the two factions meet in the center of the village for a ceremony—the “Jews” eat while the “apostles” dance until nightfall, after which they host a separate meal before returning home. The Jews then dance from dusk until around midnight, when they go out in search of corn to “steal.” (In reality, a farmer donates the corn in exchange for a blessing of his harvest.) This year, the Jews left the town center at 1 AM and returned with sacks full of corn around 6 AM. Other biblical characters like the Pharisees and figures from the Coras’ own myths round out the cast.
I was awed by the dedication and attention to detail shown by the Cora who paint their bodies and elaborately decorate their sabers and crowns. Each design is different, and all the participants, even the youngest dancers, create their own.
All of this, I was told, represents a battle in the spirit kingdom that is resolved when a figure representing both Jesus and the sun resurrects itself and punishes the Jews, who repent for their sins. I found the detailed explanations of the rituals I received from the Cora difficult to comprehend because the ones most familiar with the story are adults who only speak the Cora language. In the end, though, I think the portraits speak for themselves.
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