Tag Archives: anthropology

A Queen-Warrior Story from Tonalá Mexico

The sound of her tears echoed as they cascaded into the serene waters below, declaring, “I will not let them kill my people!”

As I ascended Cerro de la Reina (Queen’s Hill) in Tonala, Mexico, camera in hand, thoughts swirled about the bullshit societal constructs that disempower women in modern North America. In our Latin America histories, and in many cultures worldwide, women have been revered as la madre tierra sagrada, or sacred mother earth goddesses. Our ancestral Latino narratives are adorned with tales of Latina princesses, queens, and warriors.

Finally, I reached the top of the hill, the site of a powerful indigenous Queen.

Her name was Cihualpilli Tzapotzintli (pronounced zoo-ah-pee-yee), a warrior-queen who oversaw a mini-empire of towns and cities. She had access to many resources from 12 tributary states. Cihualpilli surveyed the valleys of her lands from the observatory on top of the hill. All was relatively peaceful until the year 1530.

A view of the valleys below from on top of the Queen’s Hill.

A wave of Spanish conquistadors were closing in. Messengers alerted Cihualpilli of the menacing, armor-plated men. Tales of prior conquests haunted her, where defiance led to brutal slaughter and unimaginable atrocities. All who opposed the metal-men died a horrific death. Any survivors died from the pure evil spirits* of such men (*diseases that were brought into the area).

Aware of the inevitable clash, Cihualpilli opted for diplomacy, dispatching emissaries bearing gifts to meet the approaching conquistadors. However, the greed of the invaders demanded submission to the Spanish crown.

Cihualpilli had a policy to not attack the men. But dissidents from nearby tribes started to ally, worrying that the Queen could not lead in such war matters. She was waiting to welcome them with open arms, but the dissidents hid around the base of the hill, showering the metal-men with a rain of arrows. Within 2 hours, all the dissidents were dead.

She cried at a waterfall, “I will not let them kill my people!” Desperate to avert further bloodshed, Cihualpilli devised an unconventional strategy. Adorned in their finest attire, groups of women approached the invaders, offering lavish feasts, even themselves, in a bid to seduce and placate the conquerors. This ploy seemed effective, as Cihualpilli sought to surrender to the Spanish, envisioning a path to peaceful coexistence.

Submitting herself as an example, Cihualpilli underwent baptism by the conquistadors, adopting the name Juana Bautista Danza while retaining her symbolic role as ruler of Tonala.

The indigenous temple, once a site of sun worship, fell to the Christianization wave, its stones repurposed for a Christian sanctuary. Sneaking my camera inside, I captured remnants of the past.

Inside the Christian temple built from recycled stones. -ak
The temple as it appears today. It is still active for sermons.

Today, statues of the Christianized Cihualpilli stand beside the Christian temple, while an indigenous depiction graces the town square, a testament to a complex history of adaptation and resilience.

A statue of Cihualpilli  before becoming Christianized stands tall in the heart of Tonala’s city.
A statue of Cihualpilli  after becoming Christianized stands next to the temple. -ak

The funerary practices of the Toraja people

maptorajaTucked away in the mountainous region of a southern Indonesian island, the Tana Toraja people practice elaborate funerary rituals. A unique ceremony custom is performed after a Toraja member dies. Very often, the ceremony is held weeks, months, and even years *after* their death. This gives families that need time a window of opportunity to raise the costly funds of funeral expenses. In the meantime, the body is wrapped in cloth and temporarily placed under their homes. The Torajans  believe the soul lingers around the village until the ceremony, which frees the soul so that they can begin their journey to the “Puya” (a place for spirits).

Stone graves on a cliffside (Photo: Flickr)

After a ceremony that spans 6 days that includes dozens of machete-slaughtered water buffaloes, pigs, and chickens, the body is properly laid to rest in a cave, a stone grave on the side of a mountain cliff, or in a coffin that is hung off a tree or cliff. Babies are placed inside of trees. They are now free to begin the Puya journey.

A tree of babies graves

A Torajan dressing his dead loved ones (Sijori Images).

In another yearly ritual called “Ma’Nene,” the dead are exhumed, washed in the river, bathed with local herbs, and brought back to ‘walk’ and ‘dance’ in the village. It is not uncommon to see dead Torajans sitting fully dressed in their family homes for years.

A family and their dead loved one.

A family walking their dead loved one
A family ‘walking’ their dead loved one

Of course, the more money a member has allows them to have a better funeral arrangements. The Toraja people don’t save up for retirement, they literally save up for death. The Tana Toraja region is on UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list.

Anthropologist Kelli Swazey explores the Torajan’s cultural funerary practices in this TED-MED Talk: