How Otomi Chichimeca peoples preserve their intangible heritage

Present in multiple forms of the Otomí-Chichimeca cosmovision, water is strongly linked to the survival of these millenary cultures of the semi-desert.

How Otomi Chichimeca peoples preserve their intangible heritage
Otomi Chapels (*). Photo: Héctor Montaño, INAH

Considered for several centuries as uncivilized peoples, the Otomi Chichimec groups preserve a peculiar intangible cultural heritage, which, unlike Mesoamerican cultures whose cosmogony has corn as a significant element, in these groups the most transcendent element is water and it is usually linked to the symbolic sphere in the diversity of ritual acts that they still preserve.

Unlike Mesoamerican groups identified with corn cultivation, for the cultural populations of the north, water is the articulating axis of work and ritual life. Although corn is significant and appreciated for their food, the most transcendent element for their subsistence is water, an element that governs the daily life of these peoples and a fundamental part of their ritual cycle.

For the communities of the region, the liquid is a labile and fluctuating entity that in its diverse mutations and states, orients and prescribes the functional and ritual activities, so that humans can obtain its benefits. According to the exegesis of the locals, water is observed as an entity that flies, runs, and sprouts. It is clear to them that the lack of adherence to the traditions and rituals prescribed by their ancestors can result in the lack of the vital liquid or disorder in its appearance, with all the calamities that this may imply.

In this perspective, the complex rituals linked to the annual cycle try above all, to ensure that at different times or seasons of the year, water is present as life support and a fundamental source of food. Given the enormous importance of this element, the Otomí Chichimeca peoples recognize four types of water: ya dehe or humid wind, the water that falls (rain), the water that runs (rivers), and the water that springs (springs).

Present in multiple forms and metaphors of their cosmovision, water is strongly linked to the survival of these millenary cultures of the semi-desert of Querétaro.

As part of the ritual acts linked to the beliefs and values of this indigenous region, the practice of pilgrimages to the top of the hills adheres to this cosmogonic complex. The hills are understood as the place where the entities in charge of caring for and providing water well. In this way, the symbolic pair hill-water is articulated, which gives rise to a network of complex annual rituals of regional scope. Likewise, for the Otomí Chichimecas, the hills are the meeting place with their ancestors and the divine forces.

The three main elevations considered as places of worship and obligatory visits within the life cycle of the people are the Zamorano, the Frontón, and the Peña de Bernal. The inhabitants of San Miguel, Tolimán affirm the above in the following expression: "Since we were children, our parents have taught us to go on pilgrimage... here people know that they have to go for a walk because we are a pilgrim, people...".

The pilgrimages to the hills refer to the cult of the Chichimeca ancestors, the 'abuelitos mecos', or ya meco, as their Otomi-speaking descendants call those they consider the founders of their towns.

In the semi-desert of Querétaro a ritual calendar prevails, whose activities that take place throughout the year have the objective of worshipping the divinity, the saints, and the ancestors, to ask them for a good storm, protection, and help, as well as to thank them for their blessings, gifts, and food. Throughout the year two kinds of complex rituals are registered, those that have been denominated as 'of itinerancy' and those 'of the congregation' or communitarian festivals.

The former takes place at the end of April and the beginning of May, these have the characteristic of propitiating the departure of the population from their localities to the sacred hills, while the latter gather the inhabitants within their community and take place at the beginning of spring and the end of the rainy season.

It is this series of aspects of the intangible cultural heritage that allow us to place the Otomí as one of the ethnic contingents that maintain the memory of the ancient Chichimeca tribes, of their semi-nomadic past, of their indomitable character, and of their determination to refuse to disappear.

(* Built mostly during the 17th century, the chapels have decorative religious and historical motifs on their walls, as well as some images that refer to the Chichimeca past: conquerors, Indians with bows and arrows. They are distributed in the municipality of Tolimán, and smaller areas of the municipalities of Colón, Ezequiel Montes, and Cadereyta, in Querétaro.)

Source INAH