“The Hispanic culture is rich in tradition. That’s what makes us unique – New Mexico is a perfect example of that.”
The University of New Mexico Vice President for Student Affairs Eliseo "Cheo" Torres said it best, pointing to the array of traditions most clearly illustrated during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
“You can create new traditions or change existing traditions. As long as there is a good intention; as we change, so do our traditions.” - Eliseo "Cheo" Torres, UNM Student Affairs vice president
Celebrar, meaning “to celebrate,” happens each year from September 15 to October 15 as Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Torres said a lot of traditions celebrated today began around 1519 when the Spanish arrived in what is now called the U.S. and Native and European cultures began to blend.
“Some people say that culture is the best of everything, so that encompasses traditions being part of the best of everything,” Torres said. “A lot of those rich, Hispanic traditions have carried over into New Mexico. That’s what attracted me to this wonderful state; there are a lot of traditions still celebrated here.”
Torres’s initiation as a Lobo began when he moved to New Mexico 24 years ago. The vice president for Student Affairs also shares, writes, and teaches about one of the strongest traditions known to the Hispanic culture – curanderismo.
“It’s the one tradition I cherish, and I’ve studied all my life,” he said. “I grew up with it and my teacher, known as Chenchito, was from Mexico; I was his student for 30 years.”
Curanderismo is the art and practice of traditional medicine and it comes from the word curar meaning “to heal.” A curandero or curandera “is a traditional native healer found in Latin America, Southern Europe and the U.S. The curandero's life is dedicated to the administration of remedies for mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual illnesses.” According to Torres, throughout the 1800s when the curandero practiced holistic medicine, they would have been considered a family’s counselor, midwife and pharmacist.
“Times have changed, and we don’t rely on the curandero as much, in this country anyway, but you have other countries in Mexico and Latin America where people treasure the knowledge of the traditional healer and sometimes they’re the only doctor in their villages,” Torres said.
Other Familiar Traditions
- Día de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead: The New Mexico Department of Tourism describes the tradition as “a Mexican holiday dating back hundreds of years, Día de los Muertos originated with the Mexica. Before Spanish colonization, the celebration took place during the summer. Later it was moved to autumn to coincide with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. The multi-day holiday involves family and friends gathering to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and helping support their spiritual journey.”
- Mariachi: A genre of Mexican music widely enjoyed in New Mexico, particularly at weddings and other celebrations; the traditional mariachi group consists of as many as eight violins, two trumpets and at least one guitar, including a high-pitched vihuela and an acoustic bass guitar called a guitarron.”
- Pilgrimage to Chimayo: During Holy Week in New Mexico, tens of thousands of people make their way to El Santuario de Chimayo, a small village in Northern New Mexico. The New Mexico Explorer describes the tradition as “generations of American Indians, Hispanics and other people of faith traveling to the site of El Santuario to ask for healing for themselves and others, and to offer prayers of petition and of thanksgiving for favors received.”
- Tamales: A traditional holiday Mesoamerican dish, made of corn-cased masa, steamed in a corn husk. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and chile. “Tamales were also considered sacred as it is the food of the gods. Aztec, Maya, Olmeca, and Tolteca all considered themselves to be people of corn and so tamales played a large part in their rituals and festivals.”
- The lighting of luminarias or farolitos: According to the New Mexico Department of Tourism, “Before the 1872 invention of flat-bottomed paper bags, before the ready availability of votive candles and before electricity and strings of ‘icicle lights,’ New Mexicans marked the paths to their doors and the local church with small, bonfires on Christmas Eve—symbolically lighting the way for the Holy Family.”
“Today, I think the younger generations are starting to reclaim their culture and traditions that have been forgotten,” Torres said. “I think the diversity has always been here, but I think the sense of pride is becoming a lot stronger of who people are and how their particular culture and traditions contribute to the world.”
Possibly one of the most important traditions is illustrated in the exchange between Torres and myself; we shared stories of life, family, and traditions including first experiences celebrating Día de Los Muertos to the smell of tamales drifting through Hispanic homes during the holidays.
As Torres said, storytelling is often a forgotten tradition.
“Storytelling was one of the most important traditions when I was growing up,” he said. “We’d sit on the porch and listen to our elders tell stories of the past. We’ve seemed to have lost that because we’re too glued to the TV and to our phones. We don’t have time to converse with others.”
But Torres said he remains hopeful that the future of traditions looks bright.
“I always tell people create your traditions,” Torres said. “You can create new traditions or change existing traditions. Even in traditional medicine people are beginning to do rituals a little differently and that’s okay. As long as there is good intention; as we change, so do our traditions.”