One day they may be calling you, so be ready and learn what it means
Whether you live in Oaxaca or vacation here on a regular basis, if you’ve begun to integrate into the 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. In a nutshell, it’s a web of mutual rights and obligations of monumental importance throughout Mexico and elsewhere, both in urban centers and rural communities, cutting across and permeating virtually all socio-economic strata. One chooses who will be his or her lifetime compadres, the cornerstone of compadrazgo.
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 (at times extending to their children…i.e. compadritos.) While family members are frequently asked to be padrinos, often friends, neighbors and business acquaintances are selected, as a means of strengthening ties which already exist. Academic writings, confirmed by my personal experience, suggest that while as a godparent you have lifelong obligations to your godchild which may or may not ever be called upon, it’s the ties between compadres which on a regular basis can come into play.
Let’s examine other occasions when you might find yourself asked to be a godparent, obligations which may fall upon you at the time, and finally how your new status as a compadre manifests, 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 is fact based and proven, using a functionalism model.
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, girls’ 15th birthday celebrations (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 quince años 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 merely 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, while 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, and the list goes on, depending often upon the financial ability of the people throwing the function, and in the case of individuals with resources, whether or not they want to bestow a special honor at that particular point in time of the already-existing relationship. You may be asked to make a speech, give a blessing, dance with the bride/groom or quince añera, almost always being an active participant depending on circumstances. If you’re not Catholic, 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 padre 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 padre may be in attendance to give and direct blessings. Personally, this Jew doesn’t object to having a little holy water splashed on him 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 corollary would rarely occur. A maker of alebrijes in Arrazola may ask a wealthy patron / shop-owner from Mexico City to be godmother to her daughter and future son-in-law at their wedding, but the opposite would be out of the question. And you may be similarly asked, by a Oaxacan 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. As an otherwise extranjero, you may feel as though you’ve come of age in Oaxaca. Compadres give and receive more invitations. Favors may be asked of you more readily and of a different type, with an expectation of compliance, if not the most careful consideration…and just as importantly, you will come to feel more comfortable making requests of your compadres…borrowing a truck, helping out with an arduous household chore, lending money, housing a relative temporarily, providing counsel in trying times, receiving preferential treatment in business or politics. By the end of our first year of permanent residency in Oaxaca, of the foregoing we lacked personal experience in only the matter of politics.
In terms of the broader societal importance of compadrazgo, the number of kinship ties you have is relatively finite, and usually beyond your control. However, 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 “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 or thrust into the system.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B., and his wife, Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters’ in social anthropology in 1978, and law degree in 1984. He was a Toronto litigator until moving permanently to Oaxaca in 2004.