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Peyton Wright Gallery opens an exhibition of photographs by William Frej
The Borrados (Erased Ones), and the Judios (Jews) Roam the Village Led by the Centurion on his White Horse. Archival pigment ink print, ed. 10, 13 x 20 inches.

SANTA FE, NM.- Peyton Wright Gallery opened the Rituals of the Cora: Holy Week in the Sierra del Nayarit, Mexico an exhibition of photographs by William Frej. The exhibition continues through August 31.

For his fourth exhibition at Peyton Wright in as many years, William Frej sought, and was granted permission to photograph the rituals of this year’s Holy Week by the Mayordomo, Nacho Gonzalez, of Santa Teresa del Nayarit, Mexico, a remote, indigenous Cora village in the rugged Sierra del Nayar, nine hours on a dirt road from Tepic and twelve hours from Guadalajara. Frej learned of this Semana Santa (Holy Week) ceremony from a Mexican anthropologist/ archaeologist Marina Aguirre, an expert on indigenous cultures of Mexico, who accompanied Frej and his spouse Anne on this journey.

Frej’s black and white photography document and memorialize a four-day ceremony embodying Christian iconography while simultaneously undertaking accompanying rituals that pre-date the Spanish conquest of Mexico. To date, few known photographic records exist documenting this important and centuries-old Holy Week ritual.

These indigenous people, known as “Cora”, live in western Mexico’s rugged Sierra del Nayar mountains in the state of Nayarit, bounded by the states of Sinaloa and Durango to the north, Jalisco to the south. The Cora’s remote and difficult to reach location, combined with with their fierce response to Spanish conquerers explains why they retain so much of their pre- Hispanic belief system within a loose Catholic framework.

The Coras or Náayerite, as they call themselves, were not subjugated by the Spanish until the Sierra del Nayar region was conquered in 1722 by Juan de la Torre. It was incorporated into the Crown’s lands under the title of the New Kingdom of Toledo. The Jesuits then took charge of evangelizing the indigenous people in the region and gathered them into towns founded around mission churches. After the Jesuits were expelled by the Cora in 1767, the influence of Catholicism became intermi]ent and remains so today.

Santa Teresa, with about 1,500 inhabitants, is one of the most remote of the villages in Nayarit. The road to the village is rough and the villagers like it that way, be]er to maintain their isolation and keep outsiders away.

Celebrations are held all year round in Santa Teresa, but the most important is the “Judea” Holy Week celebration which incorporates Catholic customs and symbols with Cora beliefs in a entirely unique way. While there is a Catholic priest who says Mass at his home in the village, no priests are involved in the celebrations, and activities all center on the church built in 1874 by the villagers after the Jesuit-initiated church was destroyed. The Judea celebrations are nominally Christian and they depict the death and resurrection of Christ in the larger context of a ba]le of good versus evil.

Judea begins on the Wednesday before Easter. In the morning men with tall sticks run around the periphery of the village to mark its boundaries and “Close the Glory.” In the afternoon families gather in the church and receive blessings from their patriarchs.

On Thursday morning men and boys gather at the home of the “Guardian,” a village elder who assumes this position for five years. He and his group of respected village elders or “mayordomos” form a brotherhood, similar to New Mexico’s Cofradia, who oversees the Holy Week activities. Outside his home, males of all ages paint themselves in black and white and undergo a symbolic metamorphosis into “judios” (Jews) or “borrados” (erased ones). The atmosphere is raucous and there is much jostling leading to the onset of mock ba]les that will take place over the next three days.

Off to the side of the Guardian’s home, women decorate eggs with simple dyes and a black paint. Later these were placed throughout the plaza by an old woman. On this day, women are not allowed to wear their hair in braids or pulled back with combs. In the afternoon they gather in the front of the church and submit to symbolic hair cuts. Throughout the afternoon groups of painted men roam around the village looking for the “Centurions,” two men on horseback. In the front of the church interior a wooden stairway leads to an elevated altar constructed on the top of a wooden pyramid, that seems to harken back to pre-Hispanic times. Candles and greenery line the sides of the stairway and the church is thick with decorations made of natural materials like palm fronds and yucca. In the early evening a procession of all the townspeople departs from the plaza and slowly circles the village. The wooden saints from the church are placed on small palanquins and held high above the crowd. Women carry bowls with burning copal and the air is filled with its smoke and perfume. Back at the church, the saints—Teresa, Joseph, Anthony, James, Michael the Archangel, the Holy Child of Atocha and Our Lady of Sorrows—are kissed and blessed before being covered again under the watchful eyes of a small group. The Centurions on horseback continue to ride in and out of the plaza on their horses, one white and the other black.

On the morning of Good Friday the town is quiet except for the sound of drums and flutes in the background. In the church, eight women gather in a corner with a huge bag of co]on bolls which they clean off burrs and then gently stretch out into flat, round discs. Girls clean fresh flowers and place them around the church. The elderly church cantor pulls out his book of handwri]en songs. Suddenly a large group enters the church. Palm fronds that have been blessed are distributed to members of the eager crowd who will take them home for good luck in the coming year. And at 12:20 pm, just as the crowd calms down, the judios storm in and begin to destroy the steps leading to the altar. There is mayhem as the altar is stripped of its decorations and the steps are demolished, symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ. Just outside the church, men read imaginary texts on banana leaves. Others begin to collect their ba]le sticks, a sign that something is about to happen. The two Centurions ride into the plaza on their horses and ritual ba]les begin. Another procession with the wooden saints circles the town and the church is quiet once again. At 3:30 pm a black shroud in the church, Santo Entierro, the symbol of the dead Christ, is decorated with the co]on discs representing clouds and ribbons. Two hours later the shroud is carried in a quick, soundless procession around the village. The Centurions appear once again and the ba]les continue and strengthen in intensity throughout the evening and into the night.

On Holy Saturday the exhausted warriors continue to wage war, and men with drums and flutes continue to make music, always in the background. Two donkeys appear, perhaps a signal for the borrados to storm again into the church. They separate into two groups with an aisle in the middle and lay down on the floor, writhing as if in pain. Historic photographs of the Judea show the borrados sliding on their backs out of the church and onto the plaza, but this group runs out, all screaming in agony. As one of the few humorous moments in the four-day ritual, they lift the skirts of young girls amid screams and laughter, looking for the hiding Centurion. Inside the church a small ceremony takes place with families who are blessed with sticks with ribbons. Fireworks then go off, the Centurions ride out of town, and Holy Week is over for another year.

All photographs are archival pigment ink prints, signed in ink on front and signed, titled and dated in pencil on verso in editions of ten.

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