I stand next to my dear friend, Larry Messerman, in front of about 70 people who look up at us expectantly. We are welcoming them to Fiesta September 2022, at Casa Xiuhtechutli in Tepoztlán Mexico.
Before us is Don José Sandoval de La Cruz, our presiding shaman from the Sierra Madre up north, accompanied by several Huichol families dressed in their traditional embroidered trajes. Also gathered are Don David Wiley, the Mara’akate of the Sacred Fire community, community members from as far away as the United Kingdom, as well as those from our own local fire hamlet. We are gathered to honor the Tuki which lives on this land, in the traditional way the Huichol people have done for thousands of years.
There is a great richness to the group–a great variety of experience in our connection to the medicine paths of Sacred Fire, as well as other spiritual traditions. We have been asked to dress festively, and everyone is glowing in colors and excitement. Surprisingly, the post-travel exhaustion is not dimming our light.
Some guests I’ve known for decades; some I will meet for the first time later today. A gentle shyness creeps up my chest and my eyes brim with tears as I look out on the colorful, full-hearted crowd. Larry begins to speak and soon it will be my turn. I am suddenly flooded with the knowing in my body, “I belong here, these are my people, I belong.”
Larry, who has lovingly introduced me as his sister, is the Master of Ceremonies for this Fiesta. I am his translator from English into Spanish and back again, as needed. We are doing our best to keep everyone included in this trilingual group. For the Huichol, Spanish is already a second language and one of their group, Maurilio Cruz, will be translating directly for Don José. Larry and I have hosted together many times. We enjoy each other, enjoy the joking and sharing, watching each other for pauses and clues, noticing if something is missing, throwing in bits of Yiddish from our shared Jewish background.
I can’t remember how many times I have been asked to provide this service at Fiestas and other Sacred Fire events. I always accept with joy and feel it is an honor. Larry has a special talent for moving between logistics and the important work of guiding us into a deeper understanding of what we are doing here together, the profound perspective beyond the actions. Often his speech is truly poetic, and I have to stop to gather my breath before I can translate. He can put the ineffable into language, bring the shining multicolor threads of the Huichol world into something we ‘modern’ people can not only feel, but begin to understand and translate into our own lives. Language is connective tissue, and Larry connects us across three cultures.
In the Huichol tradition a Tuki is the traditional ceremonial temple, the home for the Gods. Although at first glance it may appear to be just another thatched roof adobe building, the Tuki is designed and built as sacred architecture. Everything about it, from the choice of materials, to the orientation of the posts that hold up the roof, is based on thousands of years of tradition that express the full Huichol cosmology. Here in Tepoztlán we have the honor of holding our community fires in this sacred place and every time I cross the threshold, I can feel this powerful being living and breathing, bringing teachings and blessings to all those who gather within.
The Tuki is a living treasure. It nourishes and feeds our people and our connection to the world. As such it also needs to be fed in certain rituals, known as Fiestas. The Fiestas for our Tuki at Casa Xiuhtechutli began in 2009, the year it was built, and continued for a cycle of five years. After a period of rest, it became time for a new cycle, which was delayed due to the pandemic.
So, this Fiesta, in 2022, is filled with special excitement. It is combined with a second Fiesta of Initiation for Mara'akame Brian Collins who will consecrate his relationship to a sacred site. Also, as a surprise to all it will include the second baptism of the tiny baby of Xitaima, Maurilio's young daughter.
Although the Ritual Performer Don José, Don David Wiley, the Attending Shaman and Guardian of Casa Xiuhtecuhtli, and the Mara’akate of El Grupo Tatewarí have the greatest responsibility for these events, they are only possible through the dedication of time, energy, financial support, creativity, patience and love of everyone present.
The family and friends of Don José have made the 20-plus hour journey by bus from their homelands to join us and support him in practical and ritual matters, and surely in many ways that are invisible to us. The Jicareros, specially designated Mara’akate, are responsible for the ritual well-being of the Tuki and will take the sacred offerings to the Home of the Gods. The Caseros perform tasks of organization and maintenance before, during and after the event. The Tuki maidens adorn and watch over this sacred space. They prepare for and guide the many rituals, blessings and ceremonial meals held within it.
The Fire Keeper tends the consecrated fire, keeping it burning day and night. The brilliant kitchen staff manages to juggle modern food allergies and traditional ritual cooking methods for 70 people. The Health Hut is always available for our questions and needs. Dancers and musicians, mostly volunteers from among the guests, rehearse and perform a sacred Dance of the Bull within our great dance of Fiesta. Children run around being children with all their joy, grace, curiosity and screams. Also, a special gift…two babies are passed from arms to arms throughout the days and nights we are together.
We are all the Fiesta, and the Fiesta is all of us.
Some of the roles have been assigned months ago, some participants offer on the spot to carry a meal into the Tuki, or clean up after meals. We are all the Fiesta, and the Fiesta is all of us.
The rhythm of these days is familiar to me by now: the first day is mostly for slowing down, moving away from our busy, mind-oriented lives into the quality of presence needed for this time. The attending shamans, Mara’akate, Caseros and Jicareros have already been working very hard, literally day and night, often while fasting for pilgrimages; attending to numerous ritual demands to prepare the space for the rest of us. Yet they receive us with great warmth and open arms.
On this morning, Larry and I help people orient to the new, slower rhythm of our shared time here, and the details of life in this very special time and place.
It is a day for one of the aspects of these gatherings that most warms my heart: hugs, catching up, sharing with new friends and old. After the dry solitary time of the pandemic this is a balm to my soul. We are all hungry for it.
We introduce people to the Tuki itself. Some have never been here before, and Larry speaks eloquently about both Casa Xiuhtecuhtli, and the Tuki itself. When we venture in, we see the altar that covers the western wall, adorned with flowers, sheaves of corn stalks ripe with full ears of corn, big bags of beans, images of places sacred to the Huichol, and many candles. Huichol yarn paintings decorate the walls. On the altar, sits the blood, masks and hides of two deer who have been sacrificed before the Fiesta. The sacrifices and the blood are essential for the feeding of the Tuki and for solidifying the Initiate's relationship with his sacred place.
The Fiesta officially begins when together we consecrate the fire, which will be carefully attended for the next days and nights. Don José will be blessing all the food and drink before every meal, and after eating we will each put a stick in the fire to include thanks to Grandfather for what we have received.
After the sun has set and the stars appear in the night sky, we receive teachings from Tatewarí, the wisdom of the ages gifted to us through the “suit” as he calls Don David in this context. I have been privileged to attend these audiences for over 20 years, yet the depth and eloquence of His words on each occasion touches me in unexpected ways.
Tatewarí prepares us for the sacred activities to follow. He says that the wisdom of the Huichol people is a precious gift that has been obtained through thousands of years of relationship with each other and the living world. There is great value in turning to a tradition like this in these times of great challenges all over the world.
…we are all exhausted, softened and moving more like a tribe and less like individuals.
After the ‘slowing down day’ and the audience with Grandfather, we are all exhausted, softened and moving more like a tribe and less like individuals. It is a subtle change that comes over us, but something I long for especially at this time, after the fear and isolation of the pandemic has held us apart.
Larry speaks to us about this shift: how the healing path of being in community for even a few days, just a taste of the way our ancestors lived their entire lives, helps us release the hard, speedy edges of our individual agendas and ego mind. The sacred container created by the consecrated fire, and our attention to the details of ritual space, bring forth another way of being together.
Once again, I am deeply moved by Larry´s capacity to transmit in poetic language the subtleties of what we are experiencing, to point with words toward the indescribable. Sometimes I struggle and have to take a moment to move between not only languages, but cultural context and understanding about things that are so important to me. The sleep deprivation and lack of normal daily routines loosens up my own conceptual mind so that I cannot rely on it and have to let Larry´s poetry carry me. I also know there are other translators there to help if I miss a beat.
We have time to share our impressions of Grandfather's teachings as we sit around the fire between the ritual events that mark this day and build to the events of the evening. Our Huichol friends take out their splendid woven bags, jewelry and yarn paintings to sell and the fun begins as we deck ourselves out in colorful splendor. Meanwhile, although they are out of sight, we can hear the performers for the Dance of the Bulls rehearsing on the other side of the compound. Intriguing drums, grunts and mooing sounds drift our way.
There is a procession in front of the Kawiteros—the Elder Council of the Mara'akate—who sit before the fire in their spectacularly embroidered trajes. These include the Jicareros, the Mara'akate with their takwatsis, their sacred bundles, and the Caseros.
We share a ritual meal of stew of the meat of the deer followed by feeding the fire with sticks. And then, the most delightful ritual of all: we crumble animal cookies into cups of hot chocolate to be placed to one side of the altar. The children participate in everything they choose to, and of course they go first for this one. I have never asked about the meaning of this ritual, because I prefer to believe that the Gods, like us, just love dessert.
The Dance of the Bulls is performed for us, and a friend who is attending Fiesta for the first time shares her trepidation about the sacrifices to come early next morning. I speak of my own experiences over the years, the layers of fear, awe, confusion and acceptance of the mysterious wisdom of traditions my own western mind cannot fathom.
After dinner we move into the Tuki to join a truly magical scene. Don José sits before the altar in the West with his takwatsi and other sacred items before him on the ground, alongside coca cola, and beer he will be drinking during the night. He is surrounded by the Mara'akate in full, colorful splendor. The rest of us are packed into the other side of the Tuki.
Long after dark, Don José begins to sing. He is singing the expressions of the sacred beings here and far away, the souls of mountains and wind and caves, of the animals who have offered themselves for sacrifice, of the local Gods and those of the sacred places that give the Mara'akate, the Tuki and the ritual itself their blessings and power. He asks for their permission, their guidance and help. Sometimes he weeps and sobs through his singing.
During the last Fiesta, Don José confided to me that sometimes they have so much to say that he can barely keep up in his song. I have no words for the way this experience touches me. I can only say that when I heard him for the first time, many years ago with no understanding of what was happening, some unnamed longing in me felt answered. An enchanted sense of wholeness and connection to the living and divine world held me. I thought “Now I am ready to die.”
I am awake for most of the night, letting the waves of Don José’s voice in song and speech sink into me. For me personally, this is the peak moment of Fiesta and all the months of preparation lead up to this.
On other occasions, his singing has lulled me into a deep sleep where the very beings he speaks of flicker in and out of my dreams and leave me with a distinct sense of being cleansed. But this time I am alert and I hear the explanations that Don José passes on to us about what he is hearing and the messages he is receiving. He speaks in his language, Huichol, and Maurilio then translates into Spanish, and Leticia Gamboa, David´s assistant, then offers the English translation–all so that those who are still awake and alert can understand what Don José is saying.
Before dawn, I participate in something ancient that has been enacted for millennia. We file out of the Tuki holding candles and make a procession around the bulls. They are sacrificed and their blood is gathered. Don José anoints the offerings on the altar and the takwatsis of the Mara'akate with this blood. In this way the Tuki is fed, and the sacred bundles are enlivened. The rites of wisdom traditions evoke the great mystery, the ineffable, and touching in me beyond what my mind can explain or understand. Just then, when it seems there cannot be any more to do and our eyes and minds are foggy with exhaustion, Xitaima comes before Don José in a fresh traje embroidered with violet deer. The precious moment of her baby's baptism has arrived. Now, the rituals are complete. We can all feel it.
After a few hours’ sleep, we return for breakfast and line up to express our joy and gratitude to the mara'akate and especially to honor the initiate, Brian, who has the eyes of a newborn child in wonder now. When I greet and thank Don José, he tells me “I did it, I stayed up singing all night, I got through it.” He is at least 80 years old.
Already I feel nostalgia for the preciousness of the time shared in this magical container.
The rest of this day is again social time, with a more relaxed feeling now that the ritual aspects have been successfully completed. We drink too much tea and coffee, complain about our exhaustion and wonder once again how the shamans, mara’akate and initiates get through this over and over again. Some of them are heading for a two-week pilgrimage in a few days. Larry and I make announcements about logistics and also encourage people to give themselves space to absorb and digest the powerful experiences of the past few days.
We now need to prepare ourselves consciously to return to the worlds we have left behind. Already I feel nostalgia for the preciousness of the time shared in this magical container. I prepare to return to a life that will no longer be lived in the warmth of the collective, but “my” life in a way that has never felt right to me.
Ever since I was 14 years old a voice within has repeated, “There must be another way to live. There must be another way to live.” Now that I have spent so many days and nights over the past two decades immersed in community—in events like fiesta, or on pilgrimage, or in Firekeeper trainings, I know where the path lies. The return to “my home” and “my responsibilities”—although clearly necessary and often satisfying—is bittersweet.
In the days following Fiesta, rich memories flutter through my heart and mind as textured and overlapping as the multicolored threads of the Huichol yarn paintings. There is one that returns again and again haunting in its tenderness.
It is the baptism of Xitaina’s baby. It is the moment when she kneels before Don José offering her tiny, swathed child to him in with outstretched arms and he reaches out to sweep his feathered wand over the baby’s head petitioning the Gods once again after a long night of singing and prayer. A collective “Aaaaawwww” rises from all gathered in the Tuki, and I burst into tears.
I long to be that young woman witnessed in her motherhood by the entire loving, exhausted yet alert community. I long to be that baby attended to by the ancient Shaman, receiving the blessings of her family and the Gods.
I feel honored to be part of this gathering, to know that I belong here and have played my part as best I could in the grand dance called fiesta. And I long for a belonging ever more profound.