A brief discussion of some of our experiences while living and traveling in Michoacán, Mexico.
Friday, April 10, 2009
RITUAL PERFORMANCE IN TZINTZUNTZAN
I arrived in Tzintzuntzan around 9:00 AM on Holy Thursday in order to see the spies (espias) on their horses. I really did not know what to expect as I had not heard anyone speak of this event. I positioned myself at an intersection behind the church and waited. I soon saw a large number of men on horses go through an intersection three blocks away, so knew they were approaching. These riders begin around 9:00am and go systematically through every street in the pueblo, repeating the journey three times. When they approached me I was astounded by the spectacle. There were at least 60 riders on attractive horses and dressed in coordinated colours. They wore red satin hats which covered their face with the exception of a slit, outlined in green, for the eyes. The hat was some what like a bag tied at the top with a yellow or green ribbon. They all wore a tunic which came part way down the legs. The tunics were made of a silk like fabric in colours of gold, red or purple. Some of the tunics were decorated with small white, black or red bows (similar to what is worn in Canada for Aids awareness days or various women’s causes). Some of the men also had a gold breast plate. The pants were white cotton although mostly covered by long red stockings, and their feet were covered with sandals, some with laces going part way up the leg. They then had a coordinated cape that flowed over the back of the horse. They all rode bareback. What a sight.
They entered the olive tree filled atrium of the church and spread out the width of the yard. They stopped every 50 feet and some of the riders appeared to whistle with their hands or using a small clay whistle. As one man’s sound faded the next would repeat the sound, and so on. It was a sight right out of a movie or from a previous life.
So, what was this about? Foster (1945) and Brandes (1988) tell us that this event has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. People claimed the spies were originally to watch for people working on Holy Wednesday or Holy Thursday. They had the right to impound the tools of the worker who must pay a fine to have them returned. It was clearly no longer about this as many people were working – a group of people were sweeping the entire church yard and others were building the stage for the performance of the passion play. So it appears to be entirely performance with the entire pueblo as the set. Brandes suggests that the performance continues because it brings prestige to the community and it was clear that the community was expecting large crowds on Good Friday. I was not aware of tourists but many people had cameras.
The performance has become more elaborate with the passing of time. Foster describes the riders in 1945 wearing silk dresses borrowed from their mothers and having a red felt hat covering the face. Brandes describes the event from 1981 and saw the same hats but the dresses had been replaced with white cotton shirts and pants. In 2009, I saw the beautiful performance described briefly above. What was at one time a functional ritual has evolved into an entirely ritual performance.
To complicate this story there is another dimension. Before going to this event a friend reported that the riders were Jews looking for Jesus (since he was a Jew I hoped he was joking since this would stir-up the controversy between Christians and Jews). Later another friend reported that a tour guide told him the riders were looking for Jesus. Since the costumes do seem to have changed quite dramatically from those described by Foster and Brandes could it be that the community has created a new role for the riders and made the costumes look much more like Roman riders in order to fit the story?
As a small aside: On one street a family erected an alter with a manequin dressed as a spy along with a photo of the dead family member. The riders stopped to this alter and blew their whistles. Of note is that the dead rider was shown in the clothing of a slightly earlier time period. While much of the costume was familiar it was not identical to those on the street today.