Monday, March 28, 2011


You do not need spend very many days in Michoacan until you see the torito dance. There are many forms of this dance and with many viewings I have begun to appreciate the symbolism buried in this small event. The story goes that the figure of the little bull and its attendant characters was developed shortly after the arrival of the Spanish as a form of mockery of the importance the Spanish gave to the bull fight. In this post I examine some of the more common forms of the dance and attempt an archeology of the images.

The most frequent use of the dance is during carnival and it is here that one finds the largest array of characters and in this see the mockery of the Spanish. The characters are of the course the torito made of animal skin and real horns and perhaps the name of the dancer’s barrio written on the side. The figure is carried on the head and shoulders of a man who swings the torito wildly and chases after other characters. The second person is the maranguilla (little Mary) who invariably is a man dressed as a woman, sometimes with a mask and whose role is to taunt the bull. Another character is the cowboy (jinete) who may have a small figure of a horse head strapped to the front of his belt and the back end of the horse attached to the back of the belt. He usually carries a rope with which on occasion he catches the bull - usually when it is time to move on to another street corner. Then there are a number of strange characters who act as crowd control, create a sense of excitement by forcing members of the audience to dance with them and to collect donations. On at least one occasion I have also seen a devil character cracking a substantial whip. Cross dressing is a common element of carnival in many communities. In San Bartolo for example many men and some women engage in cross dressing and for a period exchange societal roles. These legitimized occasions for violating the rules are common to most societies and are not just to let off steam but to display what happens when you break the rules. A short aside - there is a common dance called the feos (uglies). In my favorite 6-8 men dress as women and go through the streets engaging in women’s activities like sweeping (they also look up each other’s dresses). The crowd reaction is much laughter which serves to reinforce the traditional gender roles. I will return to carnival in a moment but first another use of the dance.
Many times one sees the torito when all of the participants, except the torito dancer and the band, are women. Rather than dressing as maranguillas (little Marys), they are the guaracitas (literally mountain people, but refers to women in their traditional clothing). For example this happens during celebrations of the festival of San Jose (Joseph the other half of the ideal family). Here the dancer follows an image of the saint and the procession ends at the basilica. Joseph is a difficult image for men (wasn’t he the cuckold - husband of an adulteress) so they are conflicted by his image. In a patriarchal society like Mexico he is also a difficult image for women. They would rather talk to the Virgin Mary, so in this dance we see the woman teasing the torito but always backing away. Are they learning how to relate to men (and making this public)? The patriarchal father or husband in his disguise.
Now if we go back to the carnival image we see that the torito is more than the patriarch - he is temptation itself. In Spanish or perhaps Catholic tradition the devil is not understood as evil but only as sin or temptation. As temptation it can be avoided, mastered, or excused (confession). It came as a great surprise to me that in many barrios the torito is symbolically killed at the end of the evening. Remember that ash Wednesday follows carnival and so the slate has to be cleaned as the period of lent is undertaken. For a period at any rate temptation has to be driven out. One is about to embark on a period of dealing with your temptations - giving up smoking, drinking, eating bread, etc. Now if we return to the second image of carnival. In Santa Fe de la Languna, Michoacan, the carnival dancers are all women (except the bull of course). At the end of the evening the woman take long piece of freshly cut thorn bushes in their gloved hands and whip the back sides of the men (perhaps their husbands and the men in charge of the community events). We can see them whipping temptation into place but also the making a public statement about gender roles.
There are two or three other images that confirm these claims. In one town on the evening of carnival all of the cross dressers make a small procession in their tight dresses and high heel to the bull ring for the annual jaripejo (rodeo). Here brave men attempt to ride bulls without benefit of saddle or even a rope to hang on to. Once the man is dislodged the bull is allowed to run wild in the ring in order to give the cross dressers the opportunity to tease the bull (often kicking off their heel to quickly climb the fence). It is good fun but as almost all bull riders and bull fighters are men (there is a current and very competent woman bull fighter in Mexico) this routine also entrenches traditional gender roles - we laugh at women attempting to do what only men should do.

During carnival period there is also a competition of torito dances performed by children. This training is necessary of course if the community wishes to maintain traditions. But there are at least two other uses of the torito. First, it is not unusual after the castillo (literally the castle, but it refers to the tall Mexican fireworks with elements of awe and danger) to have a torito loaded with fireworks. Usually carried by a young man this dangerous creature runs through the crowds sending everyone scrambling. On occasion these toritos carry what are called “buscapies” - literally searchers for feet. These fireworks go straight out from the torito and travel in unpredictable directions, often resulting in burns to young children (most often boys). I also saw this type of torito used in Taxco by a group of young men who played tag with it, running and falling through the streets as they attempted to stay out of reach. If they are tagged, it becomes their turn to carry the torito. One final example. In her discussion of the Matachines dance Syliva Rodriguez (1996: 24) describes the role of the torito in this performance of Spanish conquest and resistance. At the end of the dance the torito is castrated - the symbolism of this is clear and dramatic.

Now I need to do some reading to understand the symbolism of the bull in Spanish culture and see how this transferred to New Spain.

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