Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cajititlan's spectacular Fiesta of the Three Kings - Part 1

"Thumbs up!" from a participant in Cajititlan's Three Kings Fiesta parade. We had been hearing about this spectacular event ever since our first winter in Ajijic. I was determined to see it this year, but Carole doesn't like crowds, so I cast about for a companion to share the experience. I found two, both of them good photographers. Joel is my Spanish teacher and advises me about the plants and flowers I display in this blog. Jay is a photographic artist who often displays his work in the Ajijic Plaza. Both are my good friends and were great companions for an adventure like this. In Part 2 of this posting I will use some of their photos because my camera quit on me near the end of the Three Kings parade.

Cajititlan is a small town with about 5000 people on the north shore of the Lago de Cajititlan, a lake north of the mountains surrounding Lake Chapala, about 1/2 way to Guadalajara. Cajititlan is a fishing town, and long ago the residents began an unusual tradition for celebrating Three Kings day (also called the Epiphany), on January 6. Thousands of people parade the statues of the Three Kings through the town before loading them on boats for a tour around the lake and finally returning them to the church where they stand in niches during the rest of the year. For reasons still not clear to me, Cajititlan held its parade this year on January 7. Things in Mexico don't always happen when you expect, but then that's part of the adventure.

Baltazar, the Nubian King. The Three Kings are also known in the Bible as the wise men from the east who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, shortly after He was born. The other two Kings are Gaspar and Melchor. Although the Bible does not name them, or where they came from, or even say how many there were, early Christians didn't hesitate to add to the story. In some traditions, one came from Ireland, and another from as far away as China. Baltazar, the dark-skinned King shown above, supposedly came from Nubia, an African kingdom south of Egypt. The tradition that there were three arose from the number of gifts they brought, and the gifts themselves have various symbolic meanings.

The Three Kings leave Cajititlan's church on their way to the lakeshore. Shown above are Gaspar on the left and Melchor on the right. Cajititlan's traditional ceremony, described by a visiting Franciscan friar as early as the 1580s, is one of Mexico's oldest. Some aspects of the ceremony may actually pre-date the arrival of the Spanish. According to local legend, the carved eagles with obsidian eyes found near the church altar may represent the mythical water deity Atlquiahuitl. Many Christian traditions have pagan origins (the Christmas Tree came from pagan tree worship associated with the Winter Solstice). The Catholic Church in Mexico was especially adept at incorporating indigenous beliefs in order to make conversion easier.

Rosca de Reyes, the Kings' Ring. This traditional Christmas sweetbread was for sale in many booths along Cajititlan's narrow streets. Rosca de Reyes is typically circular in shape, sometimes with the center filled in and sometimes not. A charming tradition associated with it involves baking a small Baby Jesus in the bread. The person who choses the piece with Jesus in it is then obligated to throw a party on February 2, el dia de la candalaria or Candlemas, and to invite everyone who also had a piece of the loaf. According to Joel, people in Guadalajara once baked a Rosca big enough to go all the way around the Zocalo (main plaza) of the city, a huge distance. No doubt they made the Guinness Book of Records.

Cooked agave heart makes a tasty sweet. Other treats we found along the streets included chunks of cooked agave heart. This succulent plant is normally associated with the manufacture of Tequila but has many other uses. Joel brought us some samples to taste and it was unusual, but very good. It also has a lovely golden brown color that attracted my eye as a photograher.

Colorful hangings draped the town's streets. The entire route from the church to the boat landing was festooned with streamers, balloons, or in this case drapes. These decorations created an almost tunnel-like feel, but a glowing light filtered through. Here, visitors and residents mill about during the final preparations for the big parade.

Calm before the storm. Two small boys enjoy a quiet moment on the dock where mobs of Three Kings participants will soon converge. At 5.5 square miles in area, Lago de Cajititlan is smaller than Lago de Chapala, but is still a sizeable body of water. On Three Kings Day, the water was glassy calm. We searched out the launching point early in our visit because we hoped to get on one of the boats for the procession around the lake. The town was already full of people and I had heard that many thousands watch or participate in the parade. I suspected that competition for spots on the boats would be fierce. I wasn't wrong.

Agustin and Juan at the lakeshore. We met this pair near the dock. Their calm dignity was leavened by an amiable willingness to answer our questions about the launching of the Kings. They confirmed that many would want to board the boats here and that we should arrive well before the head of the parade if we wanted to find space. As you can see by their dress, the morning was cloudy and cold, unusual for this part of Mexico where we usually find blue skies and brilliant sunshine at this time of year. The cloudiness was actually a blessing, since bright sun, with its glare and deep shadows, makes for difficult photography.

Final preparations on the street leading to the dock. Overhead, lines of streamers create a church-like feeling on the street. The people in the distance are laying out vegetation and flower petals to form a pathway down which the Three Kings will be carried. The pathway ultimately extended past me all the way to the top of the street and around the corner. There was a great deal of care and painstaking work involved in creating this pathway, an indication of the deep religious feeling this event evokes.

The final touch, bougainvilla petals. Bougainvilla, like many plants in this area, blooms even in the winter. I have seen similar pathways created for the Palm Sunday celebrations in Ajijic. The woman above carefully and reverently dropped flower petals along the length of the path.

Another sort of preparation was under way just up the street. On our way back to the parade starting area, we came across a couple of young guys setting up cohetes. Anyone who has visited Mexico during any fiesta is familiar with the deafening boom these rockets make when they are sent aloft. Since they usually pop off some distance away, few people I know have observed their preparation close at hand. Above, the rockets lie ready for mounting. They are simple devices, just a long stick with a crudely wrapped explosive charge at the end. The original purpose of cohetes was to scare away devils. Since I have seen no actual devils anywhere I have traveled in Mexico, it seems to work pretty well.

Cohetero mounts the skyrockets on a simple metal frame. These skyrocket workers, known as coheteros, are paid specialists. Joel informed me that arranging for a cohete (skyrocket) display is not inexpensive. In fact, when a lengthy barrage occurs, it is usually arranged by someone intending to display a little "conspicuous consumption." Joel's feeling, shared by others, is that such money could be better used to help the poor during the Christmas season. Still, Mexico's conspicuous consumption is pretty mild compared to the obscene excesses that occur north of the border at this season.

Ready to go "boom!" When this frame is full, it may contain more than 100 cohetes. The other cohetero is preparing a second frame. The rockets may be set off one at a time, or the worker may sweep down the line with a flaming lighter to start the fuses of the whole frame simultaneously. When this happens, sometimes at 5 AM the morning of a fiesta, the experience is akin to awakening during the middle the Battle of Stalingrad. As someone once said about Mexico, "if you can't stand noise, find another country."

Hurrying to the starting line. This father and son pair were making haste to the church courtyard to join hundreds of other similarly clad dancers. Notice the toy monkey the little boy is toting, also dressed for the occasion. Their costumes are typical of many participants. On their heads they wear scarves around their faces, topped by black wooden masks which are crowned with flowers. Their bodies are cloaked with richly colored and fringed velvet robes and tunics, replete with mysterious designs. Many participants chose to tilt the masks back when moving around so they don't trip on cracks and cobblestones under their feet.

Joel takes a momentary break from photography. I was particularly pleased that Joel chose to come along. Carole and I have studied Spanish with him for a couple of years now, and he has become a good friend. He delights in explaining the cultural meanings of the unfamiliar activities and objects we find around us, such as the background of the Rosca de Reyes. On this adventure in particular, his knowledge of the culture and ability to communicate with others we encountered were exceedingly helpful. He's also a very fun person and has a great sense of humor. Anyone living in Lake Chapala, or on and extended visit, who wants to learn Spanish will find him a great teacher. Joel Gomez can be contacted at Tell him I sent you!

And so it begins... We stationed ourselves up a slight hill on the route of the parade, and after a considerable wait (things rarely start at the advertised time in Mexico) a noisy, colorful, and outrageously costumed mob of humanity approached. The photo above gives a sense of the closely packed crowd, with the costumed dancers leading, followed by a huge Mexican flag and various other banners, and then hundreds more dancers.

Dancing with the stars. This woman, in her wonderful green velvet cape and robe and feathered headdress, danced her way up the street while waving a large red flag.

More eerie dancers with their carved wooden masks. Many of the dancers, with their black masks, portrayed Moors. Others had masks with the pink faces of Spaniards. This motif of Moors and Spaniards goes back to the 700 year struggle between them for control of what ultimately became Spain. The Spanish Conquest of Mexico occurred only a couple of decades after the final victory of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella over the last Moorish holdouts. They were the same King and Queen that financed Columbus' voyages to the New World. Many Spanish words, such as Ojala (God willing), still in use in Mexico, have their roots in Moorish Arabic.

A Churchillian pose. Winston Churchill, the great World War II British leader, used to flash his "V for Victory sign" in just such a pose as this. Many of the dancers were delighted to be photographed, like this dancer in red velvet as well as the "thumbs up" fellow in the very first picture.

This fellow definitely wanted to be seen. His huge mask had to be heavy, even if it was made of paper mache. Still, he danced all the way through town while wearing it. Cheerful-looking sort of fellow!

Another eye-catcher. This dancer's devil mask looked pretty scary until I noticed the toy animal he was carrying. He may have picked it up for his child from one of the innumerable stalls lining the streets, or maybe he was just a big kid himself. He was surrounded by a similarly nightmarish--but still amiable--dance troupe.

Proud mom with her little prince. Moms love showing off their babies and this one was no exception. He was dressed as a King himself, complete with golden crown. In the background, an abuela (grandmother) looks on approvingly.

"I'm forever blowing bubbles..." Just like the song, this woman sat on top of a wall blowing bubbles at the crowd as it passed. This was just another of many strange and charming vignettes I saw while wandering the streets of Cajititlan on Three Kings Day.

Another little king dines while reviewing his passing subjects. This little guy was sitting on the top step of his front porch, sucking happily on his bottle, while his siblings were donning their Three Kings outfits inside.

Mucho monkey-business. This was the strangest apparition of all. I have no idea what this has to do with Three Kings Day, but this character thoroughly entertained the crowd. Notice the little boy holding his leash, and the monkey puppet he manipulated while he danced through the crowd. Go figure!

This concludes Part 1 of my two-part series on Cajititlan's Three Kings Day. Next weekend, in Part 2, you will see the fantastically feathered Indian dancing troupes, and watch the journey of the Three Kings to the waiting boats and finally back to vast crowd surrounding the church. You won't want to miss it! As always, I appreciate your comments which you can leave in the comments section below or email to me directly. If you use the comments section for a question, please make sure to leave your email so that I may answer you.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Excellent post! I put a link on my Facebook page, too.

  2. Wonderful post jim. At fiesta time the village also offers a feast for the senses. The celebration draws troupes of colorful costumed autochthonous dancers who perform regularly in the church atrium and street processions. Visitors can also count on lively music, spectacular fireworks, games and mechanical rides for fun-lovers of all ages, and hundreds of vendors hawking typical foods, spirits and assorted merchandise.

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  3. Jim: Really enjoyed your post of the Fiesta of the Three Kings. I am a nonprofit exec. examining retirement in lakeside. Can you tell me more about how you and Carole find residing there? Major broad challenges? Cost of living comparisons? Other broad decision-making concerns you would advise me to consider. Thank you!
    Barb Bradley, Raleigh, NC

  4. Barb- Since you did not leave an email address to respond, hopefully you will check back at this site. My email is If you will email me directly, I'll try to answer your questions.
    Tengo buen dia! Jim Cook

  5. Damn, I missed it. Now I can't wait till next year!! As always photos are wonderful and narrative excellent.
    Rick & Eleanor, Quinta del Sol

  6. Yes, i am very enjoy reading your blog post. Waiting for another great picture from your journey


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