As a little kid growing up in a small town in Michoacán, I was always intrigued by the meaning of Cuaresma (Lent) a word full of mystery that I only half understood as a fledgling Catholic. It was a magical word that conjured awe and wonder as I participated in the events that marked this religious period.
In time, I learned that Lent is the forty-day period in February-March or March-April (depending on the first full moon after the spring equinox) when Catholics reaffirm their faith by way of ritual, abstinence, and penance. In practice, however, it is mainly rituals that are emphasized nowadays. We notice this in Mexico, where Catholics are well aware that the colorful and rowdy carnivals announce the arrival of Lent, then they dutifully participate in the rituals of Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Penance, on the other hand, is the domain of a minority of Mexican Catholics who still do some type of atonement for their sins, but most of us have taken a different approach: we attend penitent processions such as the famous one on Good Friday in the city of Taxco. Under a hot sun, we watch a group of black-hooded men and women mortify their bodies in public, then we walk away as if cleansed by this communal catharsis, the result of a group of anonymous people taking on the role of Christ, suffering to redeem the entire community.
Abstinence has also lost much of its original function. The word Carnival derives from the Latin carnem levare which means, “remove meat;” in Medieval Latin there is also carne vale, “goodbye meat.” During Lent, Catholics originally abstained from eating meat and some even from having sex. People eventually came up with other strange prohibitions; for example, as children, we were told not to bathe on Fridays, for if we did we would turn into fish!
The water motif continues on Sábado de Gloria (Holy Saturday) when it’s traditional to throw water on people, though lately the government has prohibited this activity because of water shortages. Another popular activity on this holy day is the burning of effigies of Judas Iscariot, which is very popular across the nation. These effigies are full of firecrackers and usually represent unpopular politicians and other public figures; the people get a big kick seeing them slowly blow up to smithereens.
The food diet was my favorite part of Lent. Every Friday, we used to follow a strict menu of fish, vegetables, and legumes. This diet was delicious and kept us lean and healthy; more importantly, it defined us as Catholics. Sadly, today many people have given the Latin “vale” to this aspect of religion. You can find taquerías on any given Friday during Lent full of people enjoying “tacos al pastor” and “tortas cubanas” without the slightest fear of divine retribution or of losing their religious identity.
Other people observe personalized abstinence: they give up such things as bread, tortillas, and soft drinks during this period, though no one I know gives up sex!
It’s hard being a Catholic in the new millennium. Penance and meaningful abstinence are tough to follow and are a longer really part of “La Cuaresma.” We’ve also lost much of the reverence and wonder that we used to experience for these sacred days. Despite these changes, food traditions have endured and many of us continue to eat the steaming shrimp and fish soups, plates of lima beans, potato patties, “nopales” and other mouthwatering dishes that complement the rituals and still make Lent a tasty movable feast.
A different version of this postcard was previously published under the title, “Learn How Catholic Mexicans Still Celebrate Lent In The 21st Century“, which appeared in Cultura Colectiva, a Mexican digital magazine on March 29, 2019.