Bancroft celebrates the Mexican fiesta

The Bachelor's Ball in the Gold Ball Room depicts a popular dance ritual in this 1963 painting by famed artist Antonio Sotomayor. (Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library)

Sotomayor painting, The Bachelor's Ball

A new exhibition at the Bancroft Library aims to educate visitors about the complex rituals and rules governing the wide range of Mexican fiestas, which extend well beyond sugar skulls, brightly colored marigolds and altars honoring the dearly departed so popular around this time of year.

José Adrián Barragán-Álvarez, curator of the Bancroft’s Latin Americana collection, has assembled an intriguing display with a wide assortment of objects for ¡Viva la Fiesta!: Mexican Traditions of Celebration. Among them, a huge, hand-colored map of Mexico City from 1807, photos of contemporary posadas (the community processions occurring each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas), images of the ever-popular bullfights, paintings and cookbooks that highlight different foods for different fiestas.

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“I got to really think about what do we mean when we say ‘fiesta?’ And what are its real components, rather than stereotypes?” said Barragán-Álvarez, who earned his Ph.D. in history at UC Berkeley and worked at the University of Texas before returning to campus as a Bancroft curator in 2016. And, he said, he wants to put Mexico’s many fiestas into context. 

In ¡Viva la Fiesta!, Barragán-Álvarez uses paintings, books, pamphlets, baptismal records, lotería cards, sermons honoring local patron saints, prayer cards and more to explore the celebrations that adorn the Mexican calendar and help to define community identities, national politics, religious observations and practices, indigenous customs and popular recreational pastimes.

He’s split up his presentations into personal celebrations, such as baptisms and marriages; religious holidays devoted to the different versions of the Virgin Mary based on the stages of her life and what followers believe she can do; patriotic and military holidays; celebrations of Mexico City and its role in late 18th century urban planning reforms and architectural design; the special foods for rituals, such as moles for weddings and tamales for Christmas; as well as dance and energizing music such as the Tejano tunes that rely on the German accordion for oomph.

¡Viva la Fiesta! is on display in the Bancroft Library Gallery through February 2018. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Read more about the exhibit here