Sunday, January 23, 2011

What is a Cofradia?

I will respond to questions with other entries rather than in comments since the answers might be of general interest. 

An earlier entry talked about the procession of the Cofradia de Vicente Carrillo. Cofradias were originally (as far as I understand) , set up by the Church (Catholic, natch) in colonial times as a way of evangelizing and also controlling the indigenous population.  

I am not an expert on cofradias nor on religion, but religion is pretty inescapable in Guatemala. From the little I've read (and I'm writing this without going back to check notes), the cofradias have played a role in the preservation/renaissance of Maya religious practices (sometimes called costumbre, although most Maya activists would reject that term. The Catholic Church and the Spanish crown wanted to wipe out Maya culture (are we surprised?) when they weren't trying to eradicate the people themselves, and Christianity was a useful weapon in that effort. 

However, they have turned into somewhat autonomous organizations that, while still affiliated with the church, seem to provide a space for indigenous self-organization (although in a religious sense). I don't want to go too far with this, but they seem similar to the cabildos in Cuba -- also religious fraternities that were established by the church but that had a degree of autonomy and allowed black Cubans (free and enslaved) to preserve or reconstruct (depending upon whose argument you buy; this is a blog about Guatemala so I'll keep the Cuban parallels to a minimum) African religion and culture. 

There was (and still is) a shortage of priests relative to the size of the population (Chinique does not have a resident priest; services are conducted by a priest who resides in San Tomás Chiché, the next town west, who comes in on Sunday mornings and some - I am not sure all -- Saturdays). So I think the cofradias' relative autonomy (the degree to which they are self-governing) may have been dictated by that.

So, this cofradia is named in honor of Vicente Carrillo, who was the patriarch of this extended family. I don't know when this particular cofradia was formed (but I can try to find out) or when Vicente Carrillo lived and died. 

The cofradias have their own internal hierarchy and structure. Members are elected or appointed to specific positions or oficios. Like the cabildos in Cuba (and the candomble terreiros in Brazil) they can own property. I do not know what the cofradia does as an organization the rest of the year, after the patron saint feast, but I will perhaps be able to find out.

 I think I mentioned in an earlier post that the procession had a mixture of Christian and Maya elements. This has been true of most of the Catholic religious events I have witnessed. I'm not sure exactly when this started, as there was a lot of repression of Maya cultural practices and belief systems until relatively recently.  Historically speaking, the Catholic Church in the highland regions went through some changes in the 1960s and 1970s, and there were some priests -- such as Msgr. Gerardi, who worked in El Quiché for many years, and was a strong defender of Maya and their cultural rights -- who were more tolerant. The Maya cultural movement of the 1980s helped revalorize Maya religious practices, and (jumping to the present) you can find stores throughout Quiché selling the materials necessary for Maya ceremonies (white and colored candles, pungent handmade incense, and so forth). There are at least two in Chinique, one on the main commercial street sandwiched in between Western Union, a computer/internet center (one of three or four in town), and regular stores.  

More about Maya religion/culture and Msgr. Gerardi in future posts....


  1. thank you! i look forward to learning more as you learn more, since i'm very interested in the quasi- and non-official structures communities use to self-organize, self-govern and self-educate. This is one of the things i wish to study in my own upcoming education

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