Monday, February 27, 2012

The Masked Dancers of Tuxpan's Candelaria Fiesta

Chayacate dancers in front of Tuxpan's main church. For several years, Carole and I had been trying to get to Tuxpan's famed Candelaria Fiesta. The last time we tried, a deluge of rain nixed our plans.  I began to wonder whether we'd ever get to participate in this wildly colorful blend of Catholicism and indigenous religion. This year, el Dia de la Virgen de Candelaria (February 2) dawned bright and sunny. From our home in Ajijic on Lake Chapala's North Shore, Tuxpan is only a 2-hour (one way) drive. Two carloads of us set off on this easy day-trip. The small, attractive town of 33,000 is worth a visit even without the fiesta. We took Highway 54 down the long valley that stretches south from Guadalajara to Colima. The almost arrow-straight road passes some large, shallow lakes with high mountains rising dramatically on either side. Tuxpan is situated about 16 kilometers (10 mi.) south of Ciudad Guzman. There is only one turnoff to Tuxpan after Ciudad Guzman on this long straight stretch. If you reach the place where the road begins to wind through the canyon country, you have gone too far. Tuxpan is about 4.8 kilometers (3 mi.) east of Highway 54. At the intersection with the main street leading down into town you will find a large statue of a costumed indigenous dancer. A right turn here takes you almost directly to the church plaza. When you get to a cross-street called Juarez, the plaza is only about 1 block to your left. For a Google map showing the area, click here.

The meaning of Candelaria

Mid-day sun frames a steeple of Tuxpan's church. The brilliant sunshine and deep blue skies promised a successful fiesta, although I wondered if the high contrast would give my photos a "washed out" look. It was tricky, but the miracle of digital photography allows adjustments that cover a multitude of sins. Also it helps if you take more than 2000 photos, as I did. Even a blind pig can find an acorn if he roots around long enough. Prior to setting off, I had done a bit of research about Tuxpan and its Candelaria celebration. For much of this, I am indebted to Judy King who edits the "Mexico Insights, Living at Lake Chapala" website (see "Other sites to visit" on the right column of this page). The choice of February 2 for the fiesta grows out of the biblical Jewish tradition that a woman is considered "unclean" for 40 days after she gives birth. After that time, a new mother could present her baby at the Temple. Since the traditional date of Jesus' birth is December 25, the 40 days would expire February 2. In 540 AD, early Christians began to celebrate this as a special day.

All around us, women moved toward the church carrying beautifully dressed dolls. Many of the dolls wore elaborate costumes like the one we found above, just outside the church's main door. The little figures represent the Baby Jesus or el Niño Dios (the Child God). Some of the dolls were female, but this didn't seem to matter and they were all taken into the church to be blessed during the mass. We were even more fascinated by this old tradition when we learned that prehispanic people believed in a child god called Pilzintecuhtli. The Spanish were always alert for ways to coopt indigenous people into Catholicism, so they simply incorporated Pilzintechutli into the Candelaria tradition. The little figures play a role throughout the Christmas season. They occupy the manger in household nativity scenes before getting blessed at the church on Candelaria. Niños Dioses are often handed down from generation to generation and some are quite old.

View from the church door toward the plaza and Sierra del Tigre. In the foreground, Carole (left) chats with Jerry and Hal, two Americans who recently came to live full-time in Mexico. I invited them along because of their interest in Mexico's indigenous cultures. Additionally, Jerry is an accomplished photographer. Above, they are silhouetted against the broad plaza on which much of the dancing will later take place. In the middle of the plaza stands a tall, stone cross from Jalisco's earliest days. Behind the cross, the mountains of the Sierra del Tigre rise. Archaeologists believe that the area around Tuxpan was initially settled by the Toltecs in 642 AD. The town lies near a pre-hispanic trade route (now Highway 110) that passes through these southern Jalisco mountains, connecting Michoacan with Colima. This strategic route became the scene of many conflicts over the centuries. At one point in the late 15th Century, the Tarascan Empire (modern Michoacan State) sent an army through here in an attempt to seize the valuable salt beds along the edges of the shallow lakes we passed on the way down. The Teco Kingdom of nearby Colima resisted fiercely in what became known as the Guerra de Salitre (Salt War). The Tecos managed to oust the Tarascans after a long struggle which lasted until only a few years before the Spanish arrived. After his victory over the Aztecs in 1521, Hernán Cortés sent out armed parties in every direction to explore his new domain. Francisco Cortés, Hernán's nephew, led the conquistadors who passed through the Tuxpan area in 1529. In 1536, Franciscan friars founded the village of Tuxpan which, in the native Nahuatl language, means "place where the rabbits live." Armies passed and battles were fought along the Sierra del Tigre route during the War of Independence (1810-21), the French invasion and occupation (1862-67), and the Revolution (1910-20).

At the base of the plaza's stone cross I discovered this carved skull and bone. I was mystified by the ominous carving and could find no explanation for it. The octagonal cross itself is reputed to be the oldest colonial monument in Jalisco State. Candelaria, sometimes known as Candlemas, also has pre-Christian roots from the Old World. The reference to candles relates to a pagan festival celebrating the mid-point of the winter season. Since February 2 is normally cold and gloomy in Europe, people celebrated by lighting up their homes with candles. The Church cleverly turned this pagan celebration to its own advantage by linking it to the legend of Simon, a holy man at the Temple when Mary first brought in her new baby. Simon prophesied that the newborn would "bring a light to all the nations." The Church declared to Europe's pagans that candles represented this light, and began holding a special service to bless them on February 2. This special Mass was called Candlemas or Candelaria.

The Prelude

Local craftsman fashions a mask. Mexico has a tradition of mask making that stretches back thousands of years. All through the fiesta dances, this craftsman worked quietly and steadily on his creation. Attached to the face of the clay mask is an impressive rack of antlers. While these appear to be clay, I saw many dancers wearing the real thing. Local residents take great pains in assembling their costumes and practicing their dance routines. I was pleased that the whole affair seemed to be by, for, and about the local people. Even including our party, there were only a handful of tourists in evidence, foreign or Mexican. Many of the indigenous dances I have witnessed around Mexico seem to have evolved into a show aimed at entertaining tourists. While they are interesting and colorful, these dances sometimes feel a bit detached from their original purpose and meaning. Not so at Tuxpan, at least up to this point. Each of Tuxpan's several barrios (neighborhoods) hosts its own troupe, made up of local people of all ages. The various troupes create colorful costumes, unique to that neighborhood.

A dancer adjusts his peacock-feather head dress. This dancer wears a red tunic that reaches his knees, and red stockings. Long bangs of artificial hair extend down from the front part of his head dress, obscuring his face. Peacocks were unknown in pre-hispanic Mexico, so ancient dancers would have used feathers from the tail of the quetzal bird. By about 10:30 AM, dance troupes had begun assembling in their neighborhoods. Above, a scattering of dancers had arrived at the church's plaza and were adjusting their costumes. The troupes arrived one group at a time and danced their way into the plaza, a process lasting a couple of hours.

Taking in the view. The dancer with the bangs finally lifted them up for a a better view of the scene. Tuxpan has earned the nickname "pueblo of the eternal fiesta" because of the 50 (count 'em, 50!) fiestas held here every year. Mexicans are seriously into partying, but these people take it to a whole new level. Everyone was cheerful and upbeat and many people smiled at us as we wandered about, gawking and taking photos.

The kids couldn't resist my camera. As soon as they saw me shooting, they began waving and engaging in other antics. I finally called a group together and got them settled down enough to take their photo, making them the envy of their friends in the area. Everywhere we turned, we were greeted with warm hospitality. Quite a number of people spoke at least some English and many asked if they could explain what the fiesta was about, or otherwise assist us. We were amused to find that some had lived in the US, often quite near our former homes in Los Angeles and Oregon. We have experienced the same open friendliness in many of Mexico's small towns and rural areas. Previous to our arrival in Mexico, we had lived in several big cities in the US and this left us a legacy of what Carole likes to call "psychic body armor". This involves an automatic suspicion toward friendly strangers, and the immediate thought of "what do they want?" It is an unfortunate aspect of modern life, based on a real need to watch one's back in urban areas. In all my encounters with Mexico's rural people, I have always been greeted with a warmth and concern for my well-being that always felt genuine. The people of Tuxpan were no exception to this. They are proud of their town's traditions and eager that others should understand them.

Los Sonajeros, the dance of the warriors

A Güegüe leads los Sonajeros as they march into the plaza. The horned monster with the foaming mouth is called a Güegüe (pronounced gway-gway). These are beings who drive away evil spirits and are usually armed with a whip for that purpose. Behind the Güegüe, massed Sonajeros march, each holding a long wooden rattle that sounds like a tamboreen. There are two kinds of dancers in the Candelaria event, los Sonajeros and los Chayacates. The Sonajeros'  (rattle dancers) tradition is by far the oldest, harking back to the prehispanic warriors who used to march into battle carrying a fearsome weapon called a macuahuitl (hungry wood)These were wooden swords with razor-sharp obsidian blades fitted along the side. The rattles the Sonajeros carry look quite similar to macuahuitls both in size and shape. Their costume consists of white cotton shirts and pants, a red belt, a colorful scarf, and an extraordinary vest made of rows of looped, multi-colored ribbons. The vest may represent the quilted armor the prehispanic soldiers wore. Most of the Sonajeros also wore a white cowboy hat that probably came into fashion in the 20th Century.

Los Sonajeros whirled in twisting lines as they filled the plaza with color and sound. They were accompanied by a flute called a carrizo and a deer-hide drum. Their dance resembles a cross between country line dancing and military close-order drill. It requires great skill and obviously a lot of practice. Known as the Dance of the Warriors, it is performed in honor of Xipetotec, the god whom the Aztecs believed invented war. He was a life-death-and-rebirth deity, and therefore was connected to agriculture, vegetation, the seasons, disease, and--somewhat oddly--silver and goldsmiths. He is often depicted in the ancient codices carrying a bloody weapon and wearing a flayed human skin. As part of the ceremonies held to worship Xipetotec, captives were sacrificed by cutting their hearts out. Their skin was then removed, or flayed, and worn by priests or warriors. The person emerging from the dead, rotting skin represented life being reborn from death. Ancient life was not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Young Sonajero crouches and brandishes his noisemaker like an ancient macuahuitl. The wooden device is about 1 meter (3 ft.) long and contains from one to three slots along its length. In each slot are several thin, metal disks. The device has a handle on each end with which it can be held or shaken. When shaken, the clashing metal disks make a sound similar to a tamboreen. Masses of Sonajeros rhythmically shaking the instruments create an impressive din.

A Sonajera shows off her rattle. People of all ages and both sexes participated in the dances. When I asked to take her photo, this young Sonajera rewarded me with lovely smile. Her rattle is appropriate to her size, and contains only a single slot for the clashing disks. As with most of the Sonajeros, her pants are beautifully embroidered around the ankles and she wears sandals on her feet. The large statue at the edge of town that you pass when entering Tuxpan shows a dancing Sonajero.

Los Chayacates, the horned dancers

A Chayacate with a full rack of horns towers over the crowd. Cayacates have a somewhat more recent pedigree than Sonajeros. I found two completely different explanations for the Chayacate dance and I can't verify which is true, so I'll give both. Although each neighborhood that fields a Chayacate troupe produces its own unique costume, there are some similar features among troupes. One of these is a white-faced mask with a dark beard. Since indigenous people at the time of the Conquest were dark skinned and had little or no facial hair, the masks appear to represent Spanish faces. According to one account, the Chayacate dance was a way that indigenous people could safely ridicule their oppressors. The horns represent evil, and the whips some dancers carry represent the cruelty of the Spaniards. At the same time, the agility and grace of the dancers themselves represents the ancient indigenous warriors.

The Chayacates produced their own music with their own kind of instruments. Most of them carried a rattle called a cirian made from a gourd filled with seeds and attached to a short wooden handle. In addition, many troupes were accompanied by a violinist. The violin is an instrument introduced by the Spanish, and was unknown in Mesoamerica prior to the Conquest. The alternate version of the Chayacate dance story begins in 1774. At that time a virulent plague of smallpox devastated Tuxpan and the surrounding communities. The people appealed to San Sebastian for deliverance, since he is the patron saint of health. The appeal apparently succeeded, according to this version of the story, because the grateful people organized the Chayacate dance to honor him for his help.

Some Chayacates wore long blonde "hair" with their Spanish-featured masks and antlers. The Nahuatl word Chayácatl means "man wearing a mask."  It was a warm day and I imagine that the vigorous dance activity raised quite a sweat under all those clothes and heavy masks. Some dancers even wore gloves.

A young boy peeks from under his mask as the festivities gain momentum. Apparently, in the early days, all the Chayacates were children. If one believes the first version of the story, this may have been to protect the dancers from retribution should the Spaniards figure out they were being ridiculed. As the dance became a long-standing tradition, grown men and women began to participate as dancers.

A Chayacate with hair made of maguey fibres. This one also sports a truly impressive set of antlers. Which version of Tuxpan's story is true? I can't say for sure, but I tend to favor the ridicule version. It is not uncommon for people to find ways to make fun of their oppressors, if they can do it covertly. Certainly any overt show of disrespect would have resulted in savage Spanish reprisals. Also, there exists another famous indigenous Mexican dance called the "Dance of the Old Men." That dance mocks the feebleness of Spaniards who did no work because of the ready availability of indigenous slave labor. In the Dance of the Old Men, the performers also wear white faced masks and blonde wigs. The epidemic version may have been a clever story created to cover the real intent.

Dancers came in all sizes. By early afternoon, the crowd was packed around the dance area and performers ranging from niños to abuelos (kids to grandparents) filled the air with the sound of their rattles, vioins, flutes, and tamboreen sticks. By now, all the troupes had arrived and the dancing was building to a frenzy.

Chayacates began to file into the church to be blessed. The long blonde hair worn by these dancers was made from maguey fibres. The maguey plant is a relative of the agave from which tequila is made. Maguey fibre was used by ancient indigenous people for a variety of purposes including ropes and sandals. Also, apparently, they used it to create mocking wigs.

The great parade

A huge parade began, with many of the audience participating. After all the dance troupes had arrived, performed, and been blessed, everyone prepared for the big parade through town. Quite a number of statues and other sacred objects were brought out to be carried by the faithful. Above, several versions of the Virgin Mary are carried on palanquins. Each statue is dressed in a different color and at least one is adorned with bouquets of flowers. To get a better view, I had climbed up on the wall surrounding the octagonal stone cross in the middle of the plaza. While I was able to shoot over the heads of most of the participants, it was a fairly wobbly position. I had some concern about providing unintended free entertainment to the crowd by tumbling over backwards.

San Sebastian was martyred by being shot full of arrows. Sebastian was a very early Christian martyr, who died in 268 AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian. He had been a captain in the Praetorian Guard, the emperor's elite troops. Somehow he became a Christian and promptly began converting prominent Romans, at least one of whom, according to legend, was cured of muteness as a result. The emperor got wind of this treachery and ordered Sebastian to be tied to a stake (or possibly a tree) and shot with arrows. The widow of one of his martyred convertees went to retrieve Sebastian's body and discovered he wasn't dead. She nursed him back to health, after which he is said to have cured a blind girl in the household. Then, apparently determined to have a successful martyrdom, he stood up during a procession while Diocletian passed by and denounced the emperor publicly. His comments were not well received. Diocletian made sure of the job this time by having him beaten to death and his body thrown into a privy. San Sebastian is thus famed for being the only saint to have been martyred twice. The people of Tuxpan probably appealed to San Sebastian in 1774 (if that version is true) because he was said to be a defense against the plague. In the Dark Ages, a plague ravaged the barbarian (but partially Christianized) Lombards. The story goes that they erected an altar in honor of San Sebastian and brought the plague to a halt. According the Tuxpan story, he was successful there too, and now is paraded through the streets during every Candelaria fiesta.

A big smile from a little girl. She was my seat mate on the wall by the cross and was very curious about my photography. I asked her for a photo and she obliged, nearly blinding me with her radiant smile. Kids are great! At the end of the big parade, all the troupes and their supporting neighbors returned to their barrios for food, drink, and more partying. While we understood that everyone would be welcome to visit any and all of these parties (and food and drink would be free to all), the day was getting on and we had a long drive back. Before we left, however, I noted that the Hotel Plaza Juarez is right down the street from the church plaza. It appears to be an excellent and quite inexpensive place to stay, should we decide on an overnight visit in the future.

This completes my posting on the masked dancers of Tuxpan. I encourage you to visit during Candelaria, or at any other time if you are in the area. Who knows how much longer this wonderful fiesta will remain unspoiled by the temptations of the tourist dollar. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below. In addition, if you would like to forward a link to my blog to friends or relatives, help yourself. The more the merrier!

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, thanks again for a deliteful story about Mexico.My partner Barbara and I have traveled extensivly in Mexico and her Parents retired in Ajijic for 20 years.You have a wonderfull gift of story telling and photography. David.

  2. Jim, I love your blog & will continue to follow to keep up with my home away from home. In addition, I am launching a campaign to get help to retrieve my land that was stolen from me tehre. The mountain across Lake Chapala from Ajijic, the tallest
    one, is (was?) my ranch of 200 acres from the road to the top of the mountain. Anyway, I will be returning soon to do what I can & would love to use some of your photos of it to showcase this cause. Please get in touch if you are willing to share any of the images of this mountain in Mismaloya. Thanks so much, Sue

  3. Great deal of info there...Thanks:)I loved Ajijic when I visited it about four years back.

  4. As always, I so enjoyed this post. Add Tuxpan to my list of festivals I'd like to see!


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