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Best of Mexico


By Flo Ariessohn

One of our main reasons for our trip to Mexico last year was to visit Cuetzalan and to see the yearly Feria (festival), a very indigenous celebration with both traditional and modern elements. (Cuetzalan is a small town about four hours by bus from Puebla, which is two hours from Mexico City.) One of the big spectacles of the fair is the voladores, or flyers, who dress in brilliantly colored traditional costumes, climb up a 150 foot pole, tie their ankles to ropes wound around the pole and then jump off, “flying” gracefully around and around as the ropes unwind until they reach the ground. As the voladores ""fly," another performer balances at the top of the pole and plays haunting tunes on his wooden flute.

The tradition started with the Totonaca Indians of the nearby Gulf Region, who apparently trained local groups of voladores in Cuetzalan, even though many of this area are Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs).

This year, it was even more dangerous than usual, because we had violent thunderstorms with lots of lightning. Even so, they performed in all but the worst weather.

Another fascinating aspect of the festival was the blessing in the cathedral for the various groups of colorfully dressed, masked dancers. The priest, though not indigenous himself, spoke Nahuatl as well as Spanish. He had many groups come in at the same time. Each group performed a short dance before coming up to the altar for the blessing. The cacophony was indescribable. The incense, colors and wild masks with human and animal faces added up to a wonderous, friendly party atmosphere.

Among other special events, the fair also included a puppet show, a large traditional market (with delicious food), handicrafts and lots of practical stuff like pots and pans. In general, I saw mainly local indigenous people and Mexican tourists -- there were very few foreigners like me. Of course, this may change as this festival gets better known, so I’d suggest visiting soon to enjoy the ambiance as it is now.

Also, go a few days early to explore the area and see the town. The huge crowds hit on the big day (Sunday, Oct. 4th this year), when the main events, like the coronation of La Reina (Queen) del Huipil (a traditional embroidered garment), take place. This event is basically an indigenous version of a beauty contest, with very interesting variations on the theme, including a lovely little dance of preschool-age boys and girls (the only girl dancers I saw), as well as the incense blessing of the Queen and her Court by a very old woman.

There is also a feria/concurso del café (coffee) during the festivities -- the beauty queen winner of this one was definitely a mestiza rather than from the non-indigenous population. It was interesting that this particular contest began around 1949. In the early 60's they decided they were losing the indigenous traditions, so that's when they instituted the "Feria del Huipil." I missed the concurso del café this time, but they presented the Reina del café (who had won the day before) early in the coronation of the Reina del Huipil, and she sat in a place of honor for the ceremony.

I watched with a Mexican family (two lawyers and their two kids) and had a good conversation with them as we watched the ceremony. I met a group of young boys who were there to dance, and they kept seeking me out to talk some more, and have their pictures taken (most of the pictures didn't survive, but that’s another story....). I also met all sorts of nice people from Cuetazalan and other areas, including one beautiful 92-year-old woman who cried as she told me the story of her husband’s death, raising four children by herself, and taking in many orphans besides.

I also happened to meet an anthropologist, Dr. Timothy Knab, the author of A War of the Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs. I’ve used his outstanding book in teaching culture classes. During the Feria, Knab told me the book was actually written about the Cuetzalan area.

If you do come to this part of Mexico in the same time period, there is lots more to see besides the Feria in Cuetzalan. In the churches in several towns near Puebla, as well as in Puebla itself, I was able to see some interesting tapetes (long, thin, flower petal “carpets”) and alfombras (rectangular “carpets” of colored sand) made for various religious celebrations. They can be artistic masterpieces, painstakingly made with amazing detail and skill, but quite ephemeral, since they are walked on and destroyed as part of the event itself. The tradition comes from Spain, and if you’re anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world at the right time, you may see some version of this art.

We also visited the Museo del Títire (Puppet Museum) in Huamantla. For me, it was particularly interesting to learn about a traditional Mexican puppet figure, Vale Coyote, who was an inveterate malcontent. Opponents of Porfirio Díaz, the brutal Mexican dictator who was deposed during the Revolution of 1910, used this figure in skits that openly criticized the dictator. Because they were using puppets rather than live actors, they were tolerated. Some years later, the Mexican government offered financial support to a group of famous foreign puppet-makers (including one American) to run a school of puppetry in Mexico City. Ironically, the American and European-style puppets and stories like Hansel and Gretel with no cultural significance for the Mexicans took over completely. The truly Mexican puppets and stories like Vale Coyote started to die out . The museum in Huamantla is dedicated to “re-Mexicanize” puppetry in the country.

Photos of the voladores, (flyers) and dancers in costume. Text in Spanish
Go to book review of A War of the Witches
Photos of Cuetzalan and things to do there. (English)

About herself, Flo Ariessohn says:

My love of Mexico is very deep and very long-standing, starting with my first visits as a child with my parents many years ago, and continuing through many subsequent trips, most recently last fall when I went to the fair in Cuetzalan

I taught Spanish for over 25 years at the junior high, high school, community college, adult education and university levels, most recently at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. After taking a few months off (the sabbatical I never had?) I just started work supervising student teachers for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA.

Incidentally, I bought your first edition of the "People's Guide" when it came out and recognized kindred spirits in you...and especially appreciated your wonderful sense of humor and tale-telling skill combined with very practical and useful advice. I have given many copies since then as gifts to friends and students, and the page of gestures was a regular part of my teaching of beginning language and culture

Cuetzalan links and information Color pictures of the voladores, the flying dancers, with Spanish text. This site has a few photographs of Cuetzalan and a list of things to do there. (English)
©1972-2001 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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