Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Having visited Tzintzuntzan for the fiesta del Senor Rescate at least three times I was excited to discover Brandes’ book of 1988 on fiestas and social control in Mexico. He has done field work in Tzintzuntzan for many years and this pueblo was the focus of his analysis. What had previously seemed like a Pastorela gone bad now began to make some sense to me. So a few weeks ago I returned to the pueblo to watch La Danza to see if I could find the elements he described or to see what might have changed over 30 years.

The dance was revived in 1974 and the work by Brandes comes from observations in 1977 so much may have changed. It does have some of the elements of the Pastorlea common throughout the state but there are elements that make it unique to Tzintzuntzan. There are about 100 dancers with a few specific roles. There are two to three angels all played by young girls, about 60 cristianos who dress in long white dresses, wear a long red cape with religious symbols embroidered on them. Four of these dancers are leaders who appear at the heads of the lines and have slightly differently costumes. Brandes reported that two were women and two were men but on this occasion they were all women distinguished by a high collar trimmed in fur on their capes. Then there are at least two devils who may or not be in red and at least two death figures. Finally there are an unlimited number of others in black capes and wearing monster masks. Have no fear however as the monsters and devils usually have religious symbols on their backs as well. All of this is consistent with Brandes.

The cristianos begin the dances by moving in quite well organized lines, at times going in circles and then doubling back, sometimes holding hands as they move down the centre of the field and other times appearing to weave in and out of their own lines. Brandes explains that they also make lines to form a cross and at other times weave to illustrate the symbol of the snake (a representation of evil). This part was not obvious to me but the field was so crowded, and much dust was rising, that it may have just been impossible to recognize the patterns. While this is going on the “others” danced in a very disorganized fashion around the outside of the lines formed by the cristianos and at times getting in their way. There appeared to be little interaction with the organized lines but they did interact with the audience. The younger dancers would occasionally grab a young member of the audience and try to pull them into the group or they would push a snake in their face or offer them something that looked like an attractive gift but was dangerous. Frequently these dancers would then briefly remove their mask to reveal their identity to a friend. All of the non-humans avoided human speech and only expressed themselves in shrieks. What I did not see, but which Brandes makes much of, were examples of rude behavour or even of forbidden behaviours. There were no signs of homosexual gestures or gestures of sexual intercourse. No intimations of toilet behaviour or of using their swords or scythes as symbols of the phallus. The other significant difference was that all the masks were now made of plastic while in the past the majority had been of wood.

In spite of these missing elements one could see indications of ways in which the dance reinforced cultural ideals and displayed what could be seen as the ideal behaviour. The ideal dancers for example, were organized and danced in a coordinated way while the others danced in a chaotic fashion. All of the devils, death figures and the monsters were men which says a great deal about expectations. The fact that the “troublemakers” are all boys and men may say to boys and men that the society understands their true nature but also informs them that this day is the only time this behaviour will be tolerated. It also shows that the things people fear the most – death, evil and aggression can be looked at squarely and laughed at for one day at least.

In all, however, one can see a dance of contrast: Christians and non-Christians, humans and non-human, order and disorder, culture and nature, light and dark. All of this is given religious approval on the previous night when all of the dancers walk in procession with people of the town carrying their religious image (here call the “coronitas” ) through the street and enter the church for mass before performing the dance for the first time during the fiesta.

One thing I did notice which seemed to challenge the underlying assumptions was that at least one of the cristianos, who are supposed to be unmarried women and men, was carrying her baby. Another young women had a stud in her lower lip, a sign of a wider culture creeping into the pueblo.

If you want to see more photos from this and other dances go to:

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