Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Tastoanes of Tonalá

Masked dancers called Tastoanes gather in front of Tonalá's Palacio Municipal. On July 25 of this year, Carole and I visited the Guadalajara suburb called Tonalá to participate in the the annual Fiesta de los Tastoanes. During our five years in Mexico, we have seen a number of indigenous dance troupes, many of them wearing hand-crafted masks. However, the Tastoanes are in a league of their own. The fantastic masks portray grotesque monsters and the dancers are vigorous and acrobatic. The whole affair is conducted in a spirit of great fun. For anyone who is intrigued with Mexico's indigenous culture, and who plans a July visit to the Guadalajara area, this fiesta is a must. As a bonus, Tonalá is the source of many of the wonderful crafts showcased in Tlaquepaque and other parts of Gualalajara. Every Thursday and Sunday, the local craftspeople display their wares at massive street fairs in Tonalá where prices are generally much lower than at the boutiques of Tlaquepaque or elsewhere.

The Prelude

A statue of a Tonalateca warrior kneels in a dramatic pose in the center of Tonalá's plaza. Tonalá (Nahuatl for "The Place Where the Sun Rises") is located on the eastern side of the Guadalajara metropolitan area. The city was originally founded by Zapotecs, an ethnic group concentrated mainly in faraway Oaxaca, but with widely scattered outliers. The Zapotecs intermarried with other groups and were eventually conquered by the Toltecs, who imposed their own religious and military practices. Tonalá figured in the famous Salt War of 1480-1510 AD, when the Purépecha (also known as Tarascans) invaded on their way to seize the valuable salt beds near Colima. Tonalá's king raised an army and fiercely resisted the invaders, eventually defeating them. The warrior shown above exemplifies this fighting spirit. For a map of Tonalá showing its relationship to Guadalajara, click here.

The dance area was laid out in front of the Palacio Municipal. When we arrived, the area was packed 6 or 8 people deep and photography seemed problematic. I have learned over time that an elevated position is often best for an event like this, and I noticed the 2nd floor balconies of the Palacio, seen above. Other expats we met were sure the local authorities wouldn't let is up there, but I've long since learned to ask for what I want. The worst that can happen is that they say "no". Sure enough, an official gave me a welcoming smile and graciously conducted us up to a balcony with a great view of the action. Tonalá gave a rather different welcome to the Spanish, when they arrived on the scene in 1530. Queen Cihualpilli then ruled the area and, no doubt, had already heard about the ferocious temperament of Conquistador Nuño de Guzmán. She bowed to the inevitable and provided him with supplies. However, when de Guzmán demanded that the native people show obeisance to the Spanish King, they were outraged and showered the Spanish with arrows. This was the same warrior spirit that had overcome the Purépecha only 20 years before.

Tastoan masks decorate the staircase leading to our 2nd floor balcony. The 6 masks in the middle are connected to a fountain. The subjects of Queen Cihualpilli formed their battle lines on a hill near the present-day Centro Historico and fought the Spanish with everything they had. De Guzmán's soldiers, covered with steel armor and possessing firearms and horses, eventually won the battle. However, the Tonaltecans were no pushovers and the Spanish suffered severe casualties. De Guzmán subsequently chose Tonalá as one of several successive sites for Guadalajara and it held that distinction during the 18 months between August 8 1533 and February 1535. By 1621, Tonalá had become one of several key sites used by the Augustinian friars for propagating the faith. In 1873, Tonalá was recognized as the chief city of its own municipalidad (equivalent to a US county). In the 20th Century, Metropolitan Guadalajara expanded to swallow up surrounding towns like Tonalá. Presently the overall municipal population of is 408,000, with the population of Tonalá itself (374,000) making up most of that total..

Members of the large crowd chat as they await the beginning of the dance. The city government had set up bleachers that ran the whole length of the Palacio and they were packed. Everywhere we've visited, Mexicans love fiestas and spectacles.

La Danza de los Tastoanes

The dance finally began, led off by 3 young men dressed as clownish kings. Mexican events rarely begin at the time advertised, so we found the best vantage points on the balcony and made ourselves comfortable. Finally, things seemed to be under way at one end of the long rectangle making up the dance area. The dancers began to file in, and I could see the long blonde manes of the mask wearers approach through the press of the crowd. I was very glad that I had pushed for a better angle. The ring of people surrounding the dance area was at this point so thick that photography would have been impossible at ground level.

A Tastoan strides about in his full barbaric regalia. In addition to a mask with a huge blonde mane, he wore an animal skin, as did many of the other dancers. So what is this all about? The explanation is a bit complicated because it involves the melding of two different traditions. The point of connection between the traditions is St. James, one of the original 12 Apostles. He is known in Spain as Santiago Matamoros and his Feast Day is July 25.

Dancers gather around a fallen Tastoan. The Tastoanes began to fill the dance area below my balcony perch. Above, a group of them dance around one who lies face down, having been "killed" in a ritual sword fight. St. James the Apostle had evangelized in Spain during Roman times and his body was returned there and buried in the town of Compostela after he was martyred in Palestine in the middle of the 1st Century AD. In the following centuries, his tomb became a pilgrimage site and Compostela was designated a Holy City. At the beginning of the 8th Century AD, the Muslim Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and established their first Caliphate. For the next 700 years, in a struggle known as  La Reconquista, Spanish Christians fought to defeat and expel them. The final campaign of this long holy war was waged by King Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella of Castille, the same two who funded Columbus' explorations. The Spanish Christians adopted James, or Santiago, as their patron saint for the crusade against the Moors. This is how one of the chief apostles of the so-called Prince of Peace was dubbed Matamoros (The Moor Slayer), and why he is often portrayed brandishing a sword. About this time, Spanish Christians began to celebrate Santiago's Feast Day using costumed dancers who reenacted the defeat of the Moors by the Christians.

A prematurely graying Tastoan pauses to catch his breath. On his extravagantly curving yellow nose perches a dragonfly. His lips and teeth form a magnificent snarl. The creators of the masks go to great lengths to make them uniquely--and hilariously--hideous. The long struggle against the Moors had two effects on Spain. First, it produced the most experienced and best organized, equipped, and trained soldiers in Europe. Second, the ideological nature of the war produced a fanatical brand of Catholicism that viewed dark-skinned heathens as souls to be saved, by force if necessary. With Columbus' discovery of the New World, both of these powerful forces were unleashed on the inhabitants of the Americas and Santiago Matamoros became the patron saint of the Conquest.

A statue of Santiago Matamoros, brandishing his usual sword, is carried on a palanquin. Santiago wears a somewhat anachronistic cowboy hat, as do other dancers who represent the Spanish, like the man in the foreground. The saint is carried by Tastoanes, symbolizing his dominance after the defeat of the indigenous warriors of Tonalá in 1530. According to legend, the slain warriors were transformed into hideous monsters, perhaps as punishment for opposing Conquistador Nuño de Guzman. The Danza de los Tastoanes thus originated as a morality play where "good" triumphed over "evil" similar to the dances held in Spain on the Feast Day of Santiago. This, of course, overlooked de Guzman's brutal role as the Heinrich Himmler of the Conquest. In the end, his depredations were so atrocious that even the colonial Spanish couldn't stomach them and de Guzman was sent back to Spain in chains and died in prison.

This fellow looks a bit like the alien warrior of the sci-fi movie "Predator". Many of the dancers, in addition to their masks, wore traditional clothes such as this serape over a tunic and pants made of rough cotton. On his feet he wore leather sandals. As with many Catholic rituals imported by the Spanish conquerors, local people have gradually transformed the dance into something quite different from the original. While Santiago is still respected, many people now feel that the Tastoanes represent indigenous pride in the heroic, if unsuccessful, defense of Tonalá against the Spanish. Mexico is filled with rituals. street names, and monuments dedicated to such heroic but failed efforts against various invaders.

The Tastoanes in action. It was hard to know just where to focus, because there was so much happening all at once. Individual dancers whirled and leaped, and groups of various sizes spun about one another. Rather than being centrally directed, the dance seemed to be a collection of spontaneous outbursts, exciting but a bit confusing. Notice the dancer on the left. He holds a "sword" in his right hand made from a stick with a leather hilt. Many dancers carried similar swords and used them to stage mock battles among themselves.

I thought this was quite a handsome fellow. He wears a cowhide tunic, and his mask is topped by what appear to be two cow ears. What I at first thought were his eyebrows appear to be the legs of a large spider perched on the top of his long, red nose. The magnificent locks of hair worn by the dancers are usually made either from hemp or horse tails. The dancers' masks are sometimes made from ceramics, but more usually from a combination of leather and paper maché, to reduce weight. They are painted with acrylics which give them their vivid colors. Snakes and insects are often incorporated into the designs, as are the horns, hide, and other parts of actual animals.

A dancer whirls and lashes out with his wooden sword. One of the most dramatic aspects of the costumes was the mane. The dancers took full advantage of this by ducking and turning their heads so that the long hair would swirl and fly about.

Two Tastoanes face off in a mock battle. Sometimes these battles would result in the "death" of one of the dancers. It seemed symbolic to me that the Tastoanes so often fought each other rather than a Spaniard. The Spanish Conquest would never have succeeded without its deliberate "divide and conquer" strategy, implemented by Conquistador Hernán Cortéz from the moment of his landing on the mainland of Mexico in 1519.

When not dancing themselves, Tastoanes stood about and watched the show. When we visited Tonalá, the day was warm and a bit sticky. I can only imagine how hot it must have been for dancers such as these two. The masks are heavy and the costumes had to be stifling, even when standing still. Jumping and twirling about while conducting mock battles must have left them panting and sweating torrents. This might explain why the action of individual dancers seemed to go in bursts rather than continuously, although collectively the action was fairly continuous.

The Aftermath

Centerpiece on the grille at a Birreria. Immediately next to the dance area were numerous small booths selling a wide variety of traditional Mexican food. A birrieria is a place that sells birria, or goat stew. The proprietors of small sidewalk restaurants like this seem to use every part of the goat but the bleat. The meat is cut up and placed in a pot with a spicy, tomato-based sauce and other ingredients. Despite the rather disturbing appearance of the head, the dish is really quite good. Even though the Tastoanes were still performing, by this time it was mid-day and Carole and I went looking for lunch. We had recently dined on birria, so we kept looking .

Great aromas and a the owner's friendly smile drew us to this place. The proprietress stands next to several pots filled with interesting choices. Her young son munches while shyly peeping at us from the back of the booth.We settled on sopes, which can be roughly described as tiny Mexican pizzas. You have several meat or vegetable choices, which are then placed on top of doughy disks about the size of a tea saucer. Three or four of these will fill almost anyone right up to the eyebrows.

Carole and friend at Tonalá's Museum of Tastoan Masks. This was one of a variety of beautifully crafted masks on display, including some from other countries. Try as I might, I couldn't persuade Carole to wear it for a photo. I would strongly recommend a visit to the mask museum for anyone who can't attend the actual dance. Although there were many wonderful masks in the museum, I chose to show only this one because I had so many good shots of masks worn by live dancers. To show museum masks seemed like "gilding the lily". The museum is located on Ramon Corona between Constitución and Cuauhtémoc streets, only a couple of blocks north of the main plaza.

This completes my posting on the Tastonanes of Tonalá. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you have any feedback, I would be delighted to hear it. You can leave any messages in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim--Still enjoying your blog very much. Momma and I went to Tonala... so much fun. And I still want to come have that beer someday. :0)

  2. Wonderful photos, Jim! I appreciate that you provided so much background, historical and cultural, it makes me feel like I'm familiar with the places, even if I can't get there.

  3. Beautiful! What I've seen of Tonala was through a van window and maybe about 3-4 blocks of artisan stores, but I did manage to buy one of my favorite possessions from the area: a wind chime of gorgeously crafted pueblo-style houses. Thanks for such a gorgeous pictorial!

  4. I have always dreamed of making a long visit to Mexico. Your blog is a great temporary substitute, until I can make my trip. Keep up the good work!



If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim