Halloween In Carazo

By Pat Werner

On this Day Of The Dead, I am reminded of the various ways folks here relate to old traditions of Halloween and its Nicaraguan analog. I live in an elderly subdivision outside Diriamba. With about 70 homes, there are only one or two cultural Americans living here, most being Nicaraguans who went to the United States, made a living, and then moved back to Nicaragua in retirement. So on Halloween, I had no visitors.

This is not to say witches are out of people’s minds. Many folks here do believe in the unseen world (or mostly unseen). Once you get past the barriers of being a foreigner living in Nicaragua, and pick up the local language, you may be surprised at the beliefs of the Nicaraguans around you. Just ask them about duendes, or evil elves, that live amongst us. No one will admit to believing in them, but relatives report seeming them. Most will not discuss duendes with foreigners unless the foreigner is bi lingual and has the confidence of the duende observer.

On Halloween night I had no visitors at my home in Regina, and there were no wandering dressed up children in Diriamba. But there were in Masaya. There they have a popular celebration celebrating Ahuizotles, a sort of Halloween equivalent. Whether it is a modern affectation or a blast from the past is a good question. The word itself is classic Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs, and the word refers to a spiny water creature, not the devil. The Nahuatl word for devil is, tlahuelpuchi. I have never found a Nahuatl word in 16th century documents other than a reference to Moctezuma, in mentioning a probable trade colony by the mouth of the Rio San Juan, visited by some Spanish ne’er do wells in the spring of 1540. In the 10,000 pages of the Coleccion Somoza, that covers the 16th century up to 1551, there are over 125 Indian names and places, but none in Nahuatl. The tl word ending differentiates Nahuatl from the language spoken here at the time of the conquest, called in many references, as Naguat, particularly around Chinandega and El Viejo.

Another problem with the Ahuizotl in Masaya is that Masaya was populated by Chorotegas, who spoke Mangue, a completely different and unrelated language, from Nahuat. They were about as similar as German from Polish, which are mutually unintelligible. The Mangue word for devil is, Nimbumbi, and I have not heard of many Nimbumbi celebrations in Masaya lately. Luckily, German Walter Lehmann spent considerable time in Nicaragua at the turn of the last century and wrote down everything he could find regarding Nicaraguan Indigenous languages, so we have almost enough to teach Mangue here, and certainly more than enough to teach Maribios, another extinct language very similar to Mazateka, of which about 100,000 persons still speak the language in northern Oaxaca.

Clearly, Nicaraguan people had a Mexican connection with native Mexicans before the conquest, but it was not very pronounced except in what is today’s Oaxaca, Guerrerro, and Chiapas provinces. There was a village just south of Chinandega, called Mazateka, and a major language of contact period Chiapas was Chiapaneco, which is now classified as the same language as Mangue and mutually understandable. Mazateka is closely related to the extinct language Maribios, which was the second most used language in western Nicaragua in the 16th century. Old friend Otto Schumann, linguist at the University of Chiapas, sent me years ago a dictionary he helped compile of Chiapaneco. That, with the great work of Lehmann, makes Mangue understandable. There are many borrow words we use from Mangue, including the names for many species of wild life, chubasco for storm, and the ubiquitious, nana. From Maribios we have at least chompipe, the word we use here for turkey.

The fact is that we know very little about the Nahuat world view and pantheon of gods, and nothing at all about Chorotegas’ gods and spooks. No Spaniard ever wrote down anything about the world view and pantheon of gods of the Chorotegas. Our only source of Nahuat religion and world view and gods is an interview that Father Bobadilla conducted of several native priests in the barrio now called Xoxoyta, located in today’s San Jorge, in 1528. That interview was reprinted by Oviedo in his work, though he had the date wrong. Ahuizotl was not mentioned, and nor were any other gods mentioned with the tl suffix, diagnostic of Nahuatl, not Nahuat, which did not have this suffix. The modern festival in Masaya may be more modern than you think.

The Americans, especially after the election of Violeta Chamorro in 1990 did bring to Nicaragua Halloween as a cultural artifact of United States culture. A good example was the University of Mobile, that began operations, as a fully accredited American university, in San Marcos, in 1993. They were clearly in the tradition of the Baptist Church of the American south. They had their origins in the Anabaptists of Switzerland and Germany in the 1530s, just when Nicaragua was getting Hispanicized, and broke completely with the Catholic Church. Like many Protestant denominations, they stripped down the religion to what they perceived as being the true religion and rejected many of the foible and bobbles that had grown up in Christianity over the previous 1500 years. These things happen, and the doctrines developed turned out to be more than a monkish quarrel, as one Pope put it. The Amish and Mennonites were other groups that developed in this period, the Mennonites especially working in conflict resolution and ending war.

So one of the most successful things that the U of Mobile did for the local community was to initiate a large haunted house in the cafeteria and top floor of the dormitory, much like hundreds of JC groups put in in the United States every Halloween. The San Marcos kids loved it, their parents loved it, the dormitory students who did the work to put it on, loved it, and it created more community good will than anything else that Mobile did in San Marcos.

That all ended when the Baptists decided to leave San Marcos and the campus was sold to orthodox Catholics led by Tom Monaghan, of pizza fame. The orthodox were of the opinion that Halloween was devil worship, and piously promptly ended the San Marcos haunted house. I was particularly impressed by one of my most able students from Salvador, who passionately felt that souls would be lost to the devil if we continued the Haunted House. So it was ended. I doubted then, and I doubt now, that any souls were lost to the devil by partaking in the University of Mobile’s Haunted House for children. Sometimes nuttiness is nuttiness, no matter how a person wraps himself or herself into a pretzel to intellectually justify the nuttiness.

I remember well taking my young children on Halloween in both Michigan and Wyoming. In both places the kids loved it, and the parents took pains to dress their children, and themselves, to withstand the cold. Other than that, is was always a time of fond memories. In Ogemaw County, Michigan, they had a snow storm on this last Halloween, so I think everyone wore long underwear. Lastly, a day before Halloween I took Chilo to the Managua airport for her flight to the United States. There I happened to notice one person, maybe the most able lawyer I have worked with in Nicaragua, also going to the United States. He was going with his wife and several children, and told me he was going so that his children could have Halloween. I doubt that he was worried about devil worship, and was impressed with his humanity. He will probably forget some of the trip, but I am sure his children will always remember everything of that trip, and cherish the time they spent with their parents. Those are also my memories of my children, and I hope for their children also.