Friday, April 28, 2017

The Sonajero & Chayacate dancers of Tuxpan's Candelaria Fiesta

Sonajero dancers enter the atrium of Tuxpan's church. Each colonia  (neighborhood) fields its own troupe of dancers. The group above was one of many approaching from all parts of town as the Fiesta de Candelaria got under way. Last February 2, Carole and I brought two car-loads of friends to witness this extraordinary event. We first came to this fiesta in 2012 and the experience was stunning. When I described the fiesta to some friends last winter, they were eager to attend. Tuxpan's event combines multiple traditions, with roots dating back to the colonial and even pre-hispanic periods. The townspeople are wonderfully friendly and hospitable, particularly to foreign visitors. Tuxpan is a two-hour drive south of Lake Chapala, off Cuota #54, the toll road that leads from Guadalajara to Colima. For a Google map, click here.


Dancers packed the atrium in front of the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. This broad, open plaza has a stand-alone cross in its middle (visible on the right). The Franciscans built the original church in 1536 and erected the cross not long after. While the church was rebuilt in later centuries, the original eight-sided cross remains and is the oldest colonial monument in Jalisco. The town's name comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and means "Place of the Rabbits."

These Tourist Police were all smiles when I asked to take their photo. Their attitude was typical of the local folks we met. Everywhere, people smiled at us and those that spoke English (a surprising number) asked if we'd like them to explain anything about the fiesta. While some of Mexico's fiestas are thronged with foreigners, Tuxpan's is different. Because it is somewhat off the beaten tourist track, almost all the spectators are from the local area. A significant portion of Tuxpan's population participates in one or another of the dance troupes.

Detail from a large mural at the Centro Cultural. There are multiple panels showing Tuxpan's history from pre-hispanic times to modernity. This one highlights the variety of dancers. We visited the Centro Cultural while waiting for the show to begin. The attached museum was closed and, seeking information about its hours, I stuck my head in an open door. A woman inside immediately invited us to sample some specially prepared pre-hispanic food. In the blink of an eye, we became honored guests at a banquet that included officials from Mexico City. While we tasted the various delicious dishes, a local poet recited his work and the officials gave speeches (all in Spanish, of course). The din of the fiesta was growing, so we thanked our hosts and joined the festivities outside. Mexico's famous hospitality is no myth.

People carrying gaily dressed dolls began to gather in front of the church. The dolls represent one of the fiesta's multiple threads of historical tradition. While the doll on the right is attired as a Sonajero dancer, most of the others were dressed like the one on the left. People of all ages and both sexes carried dolls--even teenage boys! According to the Bible, Jesus was presented by his parents at the Jewish Temple 40 days after his birth. Jewish religious law in the 1st Century AD forbade a woman to go to the temple for 40 days after giving birth because she was "unclean". February 2 occurs 40 days after December 25 and the occasion has come to be celebrated as Candelaria or Candlemass.


The Sonajeros represent a tradition with deep pre-hispanic roots. The dancers perform in massed ranks, to the rhythm of the sonajeros (rattles) they each carry. The name can be applied either to the rattle or the dancer. When I first saw these dancers perform, I was reminded of the close-order drill that I learned during my military service. In fact, this is called the Dance of the Warriors and honors Xipe Tótec, the Aztec god who invented war. The rattle closely resembles the macuahuitl, a fearsome hand weapon the Aztec soldiers carried into battle. In ancient times, these were edged with razor-sharp obsidian. Today, instead of obsidian, a sonajero contains three sets of metal disks set in notches along the length of the instrument, with a handgrip at one end. When the instrument is shaken, the disks clash together, sounding somewhat like a tambourine. Hundreds of sonajeros, shaken in unison, create a rhythmic din.

The dancers wear vests of multi-colored ribbons. The vests mimic the cotton armor worn by the Aztec warriors. It provided some protection from arrows and other pre-hispanic weapons but was of little help against Spanish steel. Notice that these dancers have removed their sombreros and are holding them close to their sides. They did this just before entering the atrium, apparently a gesture of respect toward the church.

Women and girls danced as Sonajeros too. In fact, there didn't seem to be any gender or age bar to participation. It was a clear and sunny day in early February and the dancers' costumes covered them from head to toe. By noon, it had become pretty warm and I marveled at their stamina as they danced and twirled.

Although only four or five years old, this niña was a full participant. Even on a break, she continued to dance. There were lots of kids among the dancers, as well as some elderly folks. Participation is clearly a family affair.


Wearing antlers and carved wooden masks, the Chayacates now arrived. All their masks were in "whiteface" with Spanish-style beards and mustaches. The name for these dancers comes from the Nahuatl word chayácatl, which means "man wearing a mask".

An energetic pair of Chayacates led the troupe from the Colonia San Fabian. Each cuadrillo (troupe) carried a banner with the name of their colonia. Like the Sonajeros, all the Chayacates carried rattles which they shook in unison. The Chayacate rattles are made from hollow gourds filled with seeds.

Also like the Sonajeros, there are kids in the Chayacate cuadrillos. The origin of the Chayacate tradition harks back to a great epidemic in 1774. The local priest called upon everyone to pray to San Sebastian, the patron saint of people afflicted with plagues. The epidemic soon ended and the dance was inaugurated to thank the saint for his intervention. Statues of San Sebastian are carried by the faithful in the parade through town that begins when all the cuadrillos are assembled.

A cuadrillo of "blonde" Chayacates approaches the atrium. They are followed by another troupe with red "hair". The Spanish features, and the long blonde or red hair, hark back to another colonial tradition. Since disrespect toward their Spanish overlords could be dangerous, indigenous people sometimes used masks and dances to subtly mock their oppressors.

Güe Gües

A Güe Güe carrying a sword pauses for a breather. I have encountered these figures at indigenous dances all over Mexico, but I have yet to find a translation for the name. They always wear horrific monster masks and often carry a weapon like a wooden sword or a long whip. Güe Gües lead the processions or hover about the edges of the action. Their purpose is to frighten away evil spirits, as well as to entertain the crowd with their antics.

A Güe Güe leads a group of Sonajeros through the streets. Notice the red imitation blood on his sword. While most Güe Gües favor modern masks made of rubber, this one wears a more traditional version made from carved wood with vivid paint.

Kids, especially the young boys, seemed to favor the role. This group immediately began to cavort when they spotted my camera. Unlike the Sonajeros and Chayacates, the Güe Gües are not expected to keep in step with the dancers they accompany. This gives them considerable freedom of action and they take full advantage.

A handsome couple. A fanged devil and his skull-faced companion were eager to pose for me. It would be hard to find a finer pair of evil-spirit chasers.


A bare-chested Moor scans the area, his bow and arrow at the ready. Los Moros (the Moors) represent still another tradition. The Dance of the Moors and the Spaniards harks back to the 700-year struggle by Christian Spaniards to expel the Moors, who had invaded and seized Spain in 711 AD. The final victory came when the Moorish city of Granada fell in 1492. The Dance of the Moors and Spaniards commemorates this struggle and final victory.

A young Moor pranced about the edge of the crowd. Los Moros always wear hats with crowns of feathers and generally carry bows and arrows. My photo caught him in the act of pelting his friend with a piece of candy.

The littlest Moor. He is dressed in full Moorish regalia, including a bow, with peacock feathers that are nearly as long as he is tall.

Other dancers

The América cuadrillo. These dancers are the key performers at the fiesta to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. However, it seems that no one wanted to miss out on Candelaria. 

This fellow bore a striking resemblance to Jesus. It wasn't clear to me whether that was his role. However, his costume didn't resemble that of any of the other dancers and he wasn't a Güe Güe. The pretty señorita by his side appears to be his girlfriend.

A violinist who accompanied a Chayacate cuadrillo. This jaunty fellow could have just stepped out of some bizarre orchestra pit.

A clown with a rather sinister smile. Not the sort of jester I'd want to meet in a dark alley. He looks a bit like the Joker in the Batman movies. I assumed he was one of the Güe Gües but, again, who knows? Mexican fiestas often have a surreal quality that defies explanation.

This completes my posting on Tuxpan's Candelaria fiesta. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below, or email them to 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, these are wonderful picture and it sounds like a exciting celebration


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