Today I moved in to my homestay in the Coyoacán district, originally an Aztec trading port at the edge of Tenochtitlan's Lago Texcoco. When Hernan Cortés arrived in the 1520s, he made the area the first Spanish settlement in all of mainland Latin America. The area wasn't connected to Mexico City until the 20th Century, when the city's population grew to what is now 35 million people--the largest city in the world. Today Coyoacán is an upper-middle-class neighborhood with a bohemian vibe and a vibrant art culture. I live two blocks down from Frida Kahlo's house.
I was told all of this tonight when, upon my arrival from an exhausting UC orientation, I walked right in to a family celebration of the tres reyes magos. While I had been hearing about the reyes since elementary school--they are the Mexican version of Santa with a more religious reference (the three wise men)--I had never seen them celebrated in quite this way. The family was just about to do a ceremonial cutting of what looked like an enormous fruitcake when Brita and I arrived. Soon we, too, were squeezed in at the table staring over the dessert.
One by one, members of the family took turns cutting themselves slices of bread, each with the hope that their piece would contain a porcelain figure of the baby Jesus. In a bizarre combination of Dutch Catholicism and Aztec tradition celebrated only in Mexico, he who finds the Lord in his bread will have to throw a tamale party on February 2nd. This year, my host's daughter-in-law was the "lucky" winner.
From there on it all became very complicated. The winner now becomes the figure's godmother and has to dress it and take it visiting. She also presents it in the church for official recognition. Either that or it is just kept as a piece for the manger scene, it was hard to tell quite what the family intended. And, of course, on February 2nd Jesus' new godmother will cook us all a tamale dinner.
Apparently in the neighborhood there is also a very popular porcelain replica of the baby Jesus named el niño Pan. He is a figure that the local people can pray to for guidance and help, and they often line the streets to touch his clothes (although touching his face or hands is prohibited). Families host the niño for one year each, and the waiting list for Pan is forty years long. When their turn finally does arrive, the family is charged with hosting tamale parties every day for the entire year. The clincher is that these parties are often attended by hundreds of people who come to eat and touch the clothes of the niño. While it personally sounds like a daunting task, the grateful followers of the niño show up to help prepare the nightly meal. Wherever the niño goes, the meal follows. According to my host's son, the niño even traveled by airplane to New York and back in one day for dinner.
At one point in time the Mexican Museum of Anthropology tried to take el niño Pan as a cultural artifact, but the people refused. They came to an agreement that the museum could take him once the people no longer wanted him. Maybe the museum curator should just get on the waiting list.
So here I am in my new home in Mexico City with a shower as my bathroom, Frida Kahlo as a neighbor, and a porcelain Jesus demanding tamale dinners for hundreds. Not too shabby.