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Godparents - Latin America Background

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Godparenthood was imported to the Americas from Europe in the fifteenth century by the Hispanic colonizers as part of the process of domination and conquest. Actually, the Catholic baptism ceremony, mixed with the practical pagan rite of initiation, convinced the conquered, in almost all the towns established by Spain in the New World, of the importance of obedience, and evolved to become a basic institution of social support. In part, the success of the baptism rites grew out of their similarity to some pre-Colombian ceremonies, in which a specific character, sometimes human, some times animal, took charge of the protection of the newborn (Rojas González 1943).

Given the significance that godparenting had for the Europeans and for the New World Indians, and added to the social impact that the bond has in modern Latin America, the present institution is clearly a product of the mixture of Hispanic traditions and indigenous American ideas and practices, as well as their interpretation of Christian precepts. This interactive process made the institution of godparenting strong. It is retained today in many countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Honduras, and Mexico.

The custom, in the case of Mexico, extended to distinguish many people as potential godparents. The possibilities included the woman who cared for the child, a friend, or anyone willing to create a spiritual bond and social relations that would join them together. Also, as an added feature, at the end of the rite, the godfathers comply with the tradition of throwing coins to the children who attend. If this custom is not fulfilled, the belief is that the child will grow unhealthy, and he or she will turn out to be a miserable adult with a bad temper.

To be a godparent in Mexico traditionally included an eight-day ceremony, called compadretlacuas (banquet of the godfathers), invoking God, so that the child would be healthy and strong. The ceremony was sponsored by the midwife (godmother of lifting), the priest, and the guests (normally in couples), who were invited by the parents. All guests were to wash their hands and put flowers over the child's body and then present some clothes for the godchild. All clothes are then used to dress the child, even if this means putting one garment over many others, as a way of showing gratitude and acceptance of all spiritual relatives. The following act includes a domestic fire (a rustic metal stove, called anafre in Spanish) where the mother and godmothers prepare some tortillas filled with meat of which the priest offers four to the fire. While making the offering, the priest prays in totonaca (indigenous language), asking for health, well-being, obedience, good luck, and a long life for the infant. The set of rituals is said to achieve the goal of presenting the child to society and obtaining the acceptance of the group. In the days after the ceremony, the family of the godchild feeds all who come to the house (Castro 1986).

Although its basic values and other elements have been sustained, the vitality of the ceremony has diminished because it became prohibitively expensive to hold the banquet of the godparents. Additionally, contact with other customs and cultural groups and the encroachment of modern life explain why, in part, godparents, especially in modern, large, urban areas, no longer adhere to the religious objective of their role. However, the tradition persists as a part of the cultural inheritance that guarantees the protection and care of children.

Bibliography

Castro, C. A. (1986). Enero y Febrero: Ahijadero, el banquete de los compadres en la Sierra Norte de Puebla. University of Veracruz Library, Mexico.

Foster, G. M. (1969). "Godparents and Social Networks in Tzintzuntzan." Southwest Journal of Anthropology 25:261–278.

Keefe, S. E.; Padilla, A. M.; and Carlos, M. L. (1979). "The Mexican-American Extended Family as an Emotional Support System." Human Organization 38(2):144–152.

Lewis, O. (1951). Life in a Mexican Village. Tepoztlán Restudied. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

López, R. A. (1999). "Las Comadres as a Social Support System." Journal of Women and Social Work 14(1):24–41.

Lynch, J. H. (1986). Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Magallón Junca, C. (1966). El compadrazgo: su función en dos sectores de la población panameña. Unpublished thesis. National Autonomas University of Mexico.

Mintz, S. W., and Wolf, E. R. (1950). "An Analysis of Ritual Co-parenthood (compadrazgo)." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6:341–367.

Pierson, D. (1954). "Familia e compadrio numa comunidade rural paulista." Sociología 16(4):368–389.

Rojas González, F. (1943). "La institución del compadrazgo entre los indios de México." Revista Mexicana de Sociología 5(2):201–213.

ROZZANA SÁNCHEZ ARAGÓN

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