A fiesta cycle can be defined as an annually repeated series of religious fiestas that celebrate particular Catholic saints and virgins and take place on specific dates throughout the year. Focusing on the ethnographic analysis of a traditional fiesta cycle practiced by members of the indigenous Mixtec community of San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, my research offers a theoretical reimagining of how scholars think about the concept of “fiesta” and the relationship this concept has with contemporary practices of belonging and the construction of identities in indigenous communities. This post is an exploration of fiestas-as-practice from a theoretical and ethnographic perspective.
Why fiestas-as-practice? Many studies about Mixtecs from San Juan Mixtepec and other Mixtec communities focus on practices of transnational migration as the primary basis for analyzing twenty-first-century Mixtec sociality. I believe that this perspective overlooks that the practice of fiestas in San Juan Mixtepec is a critical, intrinsic element for conceptualizing belonging that includes, yet extends well beyond, the transnational context. It is undeniable that a connection exists between the processes of transnational migration and fiestas. Fiestas migrate with Mixtepequenses as well as inspire them to return to Mixtepec periodically to participate in the cycle. The practice is an integral part of Mixtepequense cultural identity and belonging; performances of the patron saint fiesta in honor of San Juan Bautista, for example, can be found in Mixtepequense diaspora communities. This continued celebration of fiestas in and beyond Mixtepec shows that contemporary Mixtepequenses take part in a much more complicated system of social relations than can be classified by liminal migratory spaces between “here” and “there.”
Practice theory represents a diverse conglomeration of social scientific analyses that loosely fit together with one another because they all approach a variety of different questions in the same way: understanding the relationship between human action and cultural/social/political/historical frameworks. Sherry Ortner (2006: 133) noted that a viable theory of practice considers neither “individuals” nor “social forces” as having “precedence,” but instead focuses on “a dynamic, powerful, and sometimes transformative relationship between the practices of real people and the structures of society, culture, and history.” Practices, in the broadest sense, can be defined as “socially recognized forms of activity, done on the basis of what members learn from others” (Barnes 2001: 27). Fiestas are one culturally significant example of this; they are collectively recognized expressions of Mixtepequense identity, practiced by (and taught by/to) Mixtepequenses through variable performances grounded in historically and temporally contextualized cultural discourses. Theories of practice are particularly applicable for an ethnographic investigation of these cultural practices.
My research explores fiestas as a form of human practice wherein Mixtepequenses bring to life what they as individuals, as well as what preestablished sociocultural frameworks, define as appropriate performative expressions of Mixtec cultural identity at a particular historic moment. As practices, fiestas represent the physical manifestation of the relationship between Mixtepequenses and various sociocultural frameworks. The variable ways in which Mixtepequenses practice fiestas reproduce as well as challenge these frameworks, and they provide the means through which new imaginings of what it means to be “Mixtec” can emerge over time.
When we conceptualize the fiesta as practice, we can approach this cultural phenomenon as a distinctive instrument for negotiating identity, senses of self, religious beliefs, politics, embodiment, memory, and concepts of home that extend beyond the boundaries of the fiesta itself and inform what it means to belong in San Juan Mixtepec. As practices, fiestas reproduce these systems, social frameworks, and habitus but also have the power to change said frameworks over time. This power comes from the fact that the practice of fiestas embodies practices of the everyday that relate directly to being Mixtepequense. Specifically focusing on the intersections between practices of “ordinary living” and larger-scale, communal practices, such as fiestas, reveals the essence of social and cultural being on individual, as well as collective, levels.
Practice is, at its core, grounded in social relations between individuals and the dynamic relationships individuals have with sociocultural frameworks of belonging (Bourdieu 1990; de Certeau 1984). The fiesta cycle is, in part, representative of preexisting sociocultural frameworks related to what the institutions and individuals responsible for the organization of fiestas present as key elements of Mixtepequense identity. These elements have their basis in historically contextualized cultural traditions related to being Mixtec, religious traditions grounded in the Catholic faith, and community sociopolitical organization, among others. Frameworks of power grounded in Mixtepequense sociopolitical organization, and the individualized perspectives of those embodying these positions of power at a particular moment, also determine what practices are deemed worthy of performance in fiestas, when these elements are implemented, by whom, and for what audiences. Practices are therefore in a dynamic relationship with frameworks of power and are based in “operations―multiform and fragmentary, relative to situations and details, insinuated into and concealed within devices whose mode of usage they constitute, and thus lacking their own ideologies or institutions―[that] conform to certain rules” (de Certeau 1984: xv). Therefore, although they insert their own interpretations into their individual practices of the fiesta cycle, Mixtepequenses base their actions, in part or in totality, upon preexisting social, cultural, and political frameworks that structure their actions.
The utility of investigating fiestas from a practice perspective lies in the analysis of how individuals, despite or because of the dynamic relationship that exists between structure and agency, differentially interpret what it means to be Mixtepequense in this unique cultural context. The practice of fiestas reflects and maintains hegemonic discourses of cultural identity, but is itself also a dynamic entity wherein individuals create and challenge those discourses through variable interpretations of the practices. These interpretations are grounded in diverse perspectives based on everyday experiences of being Mixtepequense. It is within the space of the fiesta that practices of the everyday and practices of the extraordinary are magnified, creating a unique context within which Mixtepequenses examine, challenge, preserve, and transform what it means to belong in San Juan Mixtepec.
Barnes, Barry. 2001. “Practice as Collective Action.” In The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny. London: Routledge.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ortner, Sherry B. 2006. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ivy A. Rieger is professor-investigator of cultural anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí and received her doctorate from the University of Colorado Boulder. She primarily specializes in theoretical questions related to practice, belonging, and performance among the Mixtec of Oaxaca, Mexico, where she conducts ethnographic research focusing on fiestas, ritual, memory, and identity among this indigenous group. She is a coeditor of These “Thin Partitions”: Bridging the Growing Divide between Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology.