By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.
It doesn’t matter whether you live in Oaxaca or vacation here on a regular basis. Whether it’s Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, the state capital or elsewhere, if you’ve at all begun to integrate into the local community, eventually you’ll be asked to be a padrino or madrina (godparent) to an ahijado or ahijada (godchild). So you’d better familiarize yourself with compadrazgo, or co-godparenthood. Even if you’ve never been asked, it’s important to learn about compadres, the cornerstone of compadrazgo. You’ll hear the word spoken frequently. Compadres are different from friends, by a long stretch.
Compadrazgo is a web of mutual rights and obligations of monumental importance throughout Mexico (and elsewhere), both in urban centers and rural communities. It permeates virtually all socio-economic strata. It’s more important in Oaxaca than in many other states, in part because of both economics and the strength of interpersonal relationships. One chooses who will be his or her lifetime compadres.
If someone is asked to be a padrino of a child upon baptism, it creates a new bond between two families, solidified by the creation of compadres. The parents and grandparents of the child become compadres to the padrinos. While family members are frequently asked to be padrinos, often friends, neighbors and business acquaintances are selected, as a means of strengthening existing ties. Academic writings, confirmed in my personal experiences here in Oaxaca over the past quarter century, suggest that while as a godparent you have lifelong obligations to your godchild, which may never be called upon, it’s the ties between compadres that can come into play on a regular basis.
Let’s examine occasions aside from baptism when you might find yourself asked to be a godparent, obligations which may fall upon you, and finally how your new status as a compadre manifests itself and keeps on ticking. Why you and not someone else? To understand we must look at the pool of prospective choices from which you may be selected. My perspective may appear cynical, but, using a functionalism model, is fact based and proven.
Godparents are selected for both religious and secular rites of passage, for godchildren ranging from infant to adult. In Oaxaca the most common events where custom dictates godparents be chosen are marriages, school graduations, a girl’s 15th-birthday celebrations (fiesta de quince años), confirmations, first communions and baptisms. Sometimes but not always, there may be a financial commitment involved, where for example as padrinos of a wedding or quiñce anos, a couple may be asked or simply volunteer to contribute to the cost of the affair. But don’t worry, financial obligations may be shared amongst several godparents.
A case in point involved my wife and me. When asked to be godparents at the wedding of the son of then mere acquaintances, our mouths dropped, whereupon after a pregnant pause the request was concluded with “of the rings.” This meant that we were responsible for buying the wedding bands, whereas another couple was being honored with being the primary padrinos of the newlyweds. In fact you can be asked to be godparents of (for purchasing) the cake, liquor, flowers, party favors, and the list goes on, often depending upon the financial ability of the people throwing the function. In the case of individuals with resources, they typically simply want to bestow a special honor to an existing relationship.
You may be asked to make a speech, give a blessing, dance with the bride/groom or quinceañera, almost always being an active participant depending on circumstances. If you’re not Catholic and don’t take communion or kneel, let your soon-to-be compadres know, even if it appears there won’t be a religious component to the proceedings. There will likely be a priest involved. For example, on occasion one finds padrinos chosen within the context of the opening of a new business. As part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the man-of-the-cloth may be in attendance to give and direct blessings. Personally, as a Jew, I don’t object to having a little holy water splashed on me by the padre…as long as it’s as a result of inadvertence.
Padrinos are almost always selected from people of the same or a higher socio-economic class. For example, a factory worker may select the supervisor of her department to be her daughter’s padrino at a baptism, but the supervisor would rarely select a worker. A maker of handicrafts in a small Oaxacan village may ask a wealthy patron or shop-owner from Mexico City to be godmother to her daughter and future son-in-law at their wedding, but the opposite would likely be out of the question. And you may be similarly asked, by a Mexican friend/neighbor, a perhaps perceived equal, but for different reasons. Functions regarding the foregoing three examples? Bonds of friendship are acknowledged and strengthened for future utility; a patron-customer relationship is affirmed with comfort in now knowing that it will continue ad infinitum; and there will be the perception that a boss won’t fire a compadre.
Your status as a compadre begins immediately, and you may never again be referred to by your name, but rather compadre. You’ll experience the metamorphosis of your status, and will be treated differently. Otherwise an extranjero, or foreigner, you may feel as though you’ve come of age in your new hometown. Compadres give and receive more invitations to events. Favors may be asked of you more readily, and of a different type. There’s an expectation of compliance, if not the most careful consideration: borrowing your truck, lending money, housing a relative temporarily, providing counsel in trying times. By the end of our first year of permanent residency in Oaxaca, all the foregoing requests had been made of us. But remember, requests for assistance can go the other way as well, so keep that in mind.
In Western society the number of kinship ties you have is relatively finite, and usually beyond your control. In contrast, with compadrazgo, for as many life stages and changes as may arise, one’s immediate family has the opportunity to extend non-relative or “fictive” kinship ties through deliberate selection. One is able to build and nurture through mutual requests and compliance innumerable economic and social alliances.
Here in Mexico no one ever utters the adage “You can pick your friends but not your family.” The strategies and decision-making processes involved in determining who would make appropriate compadres for a family, and why, are absolutely fascinating. I’ve touched upon only some of the dynamics. The internet and traditional anthropological literature are exhaustive, and should be consulted by those interested in or thrust into the system.
A permanent resident of Oaxaca, Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).