The Peaceful World Foundation invited our Art Program Facilitator, Julián Carrillo, to present on the role that creativity plays in the lives of elders, using examples of his fieldwork in southern Mexico. Our Executive Director, Heidi Majano, asked him to share his reflections on the conversation.

By Julián Antonio Carrillo

How many of us know an elder who no longer is living their best life? Or who lives disconnected from family and community because of social isolation? While these situations are unfortunately all too common, the field of “creative aging” uses the arts…

to improve the quality of life for older adults through creative expression and social engagement.[1]

Lifetime Arts and other organizations of the creative aging industry offer the arts to older adults by way of professionally-led instructional arts programs. However, there are many examples of non-professionals — some of them elders themselves — who are fomenting creative expression and social engagement for their communities.

Such is the case of the maroma in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, Mexico.

The maroma is a unique performance in which ordinary but brave men and women transform into poets, acrobats, musicians, and theater actors and actresses. They momentarily leave aside their jobs or everyday duties of farm life, to also transform their public by way of wonder and shared laughter, all while enriching Catholic patron saint fiestas and other events.

For some Indigenous groups the maroma is also a ritual of communication with pre-hispanic gods and deities, necessary to transform the rural landscape with rain and to provide a good harvest.

The maroma company (group) of Santa Rosa Caxtlahuaca, Oaxaca.
Photo by the author. Year: 2012.

The maroma’s social base is constituted by kids, youth, adults, and elders. These are individuals, families, and groups that dedicate part of their existence to the maroma either as a ritual and/or a form of paid labor. Like many traditional arts, the maroma is done in community.

While most maroma artists are men, some women like Juana Méndez
pictured above have participated in the maroma all their lives. Here, in her house, she is showing her special attire that she uses when performing, which she made herself.
Photo by the author. Year: 2016.

Between 2012-2016, I had the privilege of sitting down with and interviewing several maroma elders. These are strong, humble, and resilient people, and many proudly self-identify as campesinos (peasants). Some of them, like Porfirio Méndez, inherited the art form from his 4th generation maroma family; others, like Venustiano Martínez, learned it when they were teenagers in the 1950s from community members and still perform it today.

(See him here in a video made as a tribute to him by younger generations of maroma artists). And others, like the late Avelino Cruz, didn’t really become maroma performers until retirement age.

Venustiano Martínez. Photo by the author. Year: 2012.

Regardless of how they entered the artistic practice, it is clear that the maroma serves them in old age in various ways. For instance, the maroma is a physical and intellectual activity that keeps elders socially engaged with each other and their communities.

We can also consider the maroma a platform for “generativity,” or what psychologist Erik Erickson defines as..

…the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation.1]

Folklorist Jon Kay has worked at the intersection of this concept and the folk arts, arguing that the “passing on of traditional knowledge and skills can be seen as a special kind of generativity.”[2]

In my research, I observed the maroma playing positive roles in elders’ lives that fit the definition of creative aging mentioned above. 

Our online conversation included sharing our own experiences related to the elders within our own communities.

As anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff said, “[t]here are elderly people all over America, waiting only to be asked about their stories and folk art” in order to contribute to intergenerational cultural transmission.[3] Some of them, artists themselves, are even eager to teach.

As such, we must continue to engage them respectfully and honor their positive creative practices, inviting them to a more prominent “seat” at the creative aging “table,” as they already contribute to the field.

It is estimated that by the year 2030, twenty percent of the U.S. population will be over 65 and the number of people over 85 will double.[4]

Elders at the Peace Festival share from life experience.

As such, there’s no better time than now to explore the role the arts play in later life. For this — like our Peaceful World Conversation on October 28th showed — we thankfully have the elder maromeros of the Mixteca to teach and inspire us to live creatively, laugh louder, and keep our balance as we walk forward on the tightrope of life.

Join us on our next peaceful world conversation.

[1] Erickson, Erik H.1950. Childhood and Society. Pg. 267.

[2] Kay, Jon. 2018. “Introduction.” In The Expressive Lives of Elders: Folklore, Art, and Aging, edited by J. Kay. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Pg. 7.

[3] Myerhoff, Barbara G. 1984. “Life Not Death in Venice.” In Festival of American Folklife Program Book, edited by T. Vennum. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Pg. 38.

[4] “Overview of the Creative Aging Field – Creative Aging 101 – Lifetime Arts.” Cited already.