James Hutchison: 1034192

Mutable Tradition in The Holiday Yards of Florencio Morales

        Anthropologists use many tools to ply their trade. Of these, those that are fundamental to the science are the tools used to define carious aspects of human existence. The obvious strength of The Holiday Yards of Florencio Morales by Amy Kitchener is an excellent example of how humans might adapt to new cultures and how those adaptations become a new culture in themselves. Being obvious, this trait will be reflected in a prolifery of assessments that are similar and thus redundant. However, the material contained in the book also brings into question some fundamental anthropological definitions. The most evident is that of tradition and folklore, and how these traditions are perceived and changed by members of a culture to which the tradition and folklore belongs. This is an important issue as the definition of tradition is often the subject of much debate amongst anthropologists and affects the defining of other terms and concepts used, notably folklore. This paper, in an effort to avoid redundancy, will test the definitions for tradition and folklore against the reasons for Florencio’s particular art form as reported of by Kitchner. The method serving as the foundation for the credibility of the book Kitchner uses to approach Morales work is one of direct interviews with the artist. Further, the information in the text demonstrates how tradition and folklore can be symbolically represented in art as it is understood by the artist and how it is understood by the viewer. This makes up the body of the text, which is supported with photographs, and prevents the often erroneous method of applying personal interpretation to another’s practice, whether it be art or ceremony, then purporting the opinion as absolute authority. However, before the text may be analyzed, the definitions in question must be understood.
        Handler and Lennekin maintain that “tradition is a model of the past and is inseparable from the interpretation of tradition in the present.”(41) This definition is supported by the premise that tradition is altered by those very persons who perpetuate it and in so doing even the core of the tradition becomes corrupted with new material. Thus, tradition is of symbolic rather than natural constitution (Handler and Lennekin 41). One of the anthropologists Handler and Lennekin contest, Edward Shils, maintains that although tradition does change, the core or basis premise for the existence of the tradition is perpetuated with the context intact (Shils 13, 19). Herein lies the fundamental basis for the debates surrounding the defining of tradition. However, there remains another facet of tradition that must be factored into the definition: Folklore.
        Folklore is defined as “a term first used in the 19th century to refer to the traditional oral stories and sayings of the European peasant and later extended to those traditions preserved orally in all societies.”(Haviland 392) This poses a fundamental contradiction. According to Handler and Lennekin tradition is continually made anew, even its core context eventually becoming corrupt by the very act of its perpetuation and is, therefore, no longer a thing of the past but of the present (Handler and Lennekin 41). However, the definition of folklore relies on the preservation of the past as does that of the legend being defined by Haviland as being “stories told as true, set in the post-creation world” (Haviland 395). These definitions are severely strained in Kitchner’s book.
        According to Kitchner, Morales, when asked about his displays, said:
                Each entity in the yard carried personal or cultural meaning for him and                 that some of his tales included well-known Mexican legends and personal                 experience narrative, while others resembled exempla that illustrated                 moral precepts.(Kitchner 11)
        Kitchner also reports that Morales was different from a different culture than that in which he lived while producing his art and that his art reflected his propensity for adaptation by successfully blending the two cultures together (Kitchner 14). These perspectives and attitudes held by Morales are aptly demonstrated in his production of a nativity scene that also serves as a proof for the aforementioned definitions.
        Kitchner reminds the reader that nativity scenes have been a part of western culture for centuries. Legend credits St. Francis of Assisi with assembling the first nativity. In Mexico, nativities began to appear in the early 1500s and by the 1700s these nativities had in some cases become extensive, being displayed in both home and church (Kitchner, 22-23).
        Traditionally, small figures were used in the home for private nativities, but Morales chose to depart from tradition and erect a large scene outside. It is evident in Kitchner’s account that this was no small departure. In fact, she devotes nearly two full pages out of 34 to this topic (Kitchner 22-23). It should quickly become clear to the alert reader that the definition of tradition is threatened.
        The reason for the symbolic display of the nativity is, according the Christianity, to remember the birth of Jesus the Christ. This event is believed by Christians to have occurred some 2000 years ago. However, prior to the 1500’s, the peoples in Mexico are believed to have been unaware of this legend. Yet, according to sources cited by Kitchner, early in the 16th century, a new tradition had taken root in a culture of Mexico. Thus, a relatively old traditional piece of legendary folklore, accepted by Christians as historical fact, is not old at all in Mexico, relatively speaking. Further, the reason for the existence of this tradition has maintained the original context or core not only throughout time since it began, but throughout the transfer from one culture to another, although minor aspects of it have changed, and as is evidenced by Morales’ work, continues to change.
        Therefore, one of the greater vales of this book and the study method applied within lies in a valid demonstration that the hard-line definitions required in most sciences will not suffice in anthropology under all conditions. The conclusion must then be that the definitions used by anthropologists are confined to the context within those societies, cultures and even towards individuals to which they relate and are applied. It is important to the student of anthropology to understand that humans are varied, and so the definitions by which we define them must maintain some amount of flexibility.
        Further research should focus on the continuous and vigorous testing of these and other theorems that are applied across the spectrum of humanity in an effort to define in black and white what is largely a gray area. Concerted efforts in developing methods of interpretation could better serve the anthropological sciences being directed inward, rather than out, concentrating on the nuances and varieties of ways in which humans define themselves and their worlds as has been successfully done by Kitchner in The Holiday Yards of Florencio Morales.

Sources Cited

Haviland, William A. Cultural Anthropology, 8th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace         Jovanovich College Publishers, 1996.
Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin. “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious.” In Elliot         Oring, ed., Folk groups and folklore genres: a reader, pp. 38.42. Logan: Utah         State University Press, 1989.
Kitchener, Amy V. The Holiday Yards of Florencio Morales. Jackson: University Press         of Mississippi, 1994.
Shils, Edward. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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