Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The feos are also called the “chiles” and are costumed characters in many traditional fiestas which provide comic relief to the more serious aspects of the greater dance event.  For example, the pastorlea is a serious dance performed during the Christmas season.  Although the dance has become quite stylized it represents the shepherds trying to get to Bethlehem to see the new born baby Jesus.  Forces represented by devil characters are determined to block their way.  It is only with the help of the priest holding his cross and San Miguel with his sword that the devils are killed or transformed.   Once the serious business is finished the feos appear in unusual masks (these days there is great use of preformed rubber masks of monsters and so on) and interact with crowd to provide some comic relief.   In one pueblo which we visit often I believe the feos have morphed into a form of political theatre which is great fun for the audience.  At one event dancers were dressed as “Bush’s army” riding around in card-board cars.  They stopped to search people, always finding a weapon which they had just planted in the victim’s  pocket.
At another event all of the dancers are cross-dressed (men dressed as women as women seldom participate in the dances).   Again, they roam the streets providing entertainment but also clearly violating gender roles so that one can see that by violating the norms or customs they are indeed reinforcing them.  Don’t do what we are doing or people will laugh at you.    Here one might argue that the cross dressing is a statement about homosexuality or, if we think of it as aimed at the women,  an encouragement to stay within their roles.

Having said all of that I want to describe an event we attended recently in which there was a competition of feo dancers.   So, the dance wasn’t directly connected to a another more serious dance although at the same event there was a competition of Kurpites dancers, a dance which is indeed serious and beautiful.   I was not sure quite what to expect but to our surprise there were only one or two masks of the rubber-monster type.   The remaining 30 masks were hand made, which is not unusual, but were made of the products of their immediate environment.  The pueblo is located in a stunningly beautiful area of mountains and thick forest.  The masks were made of wasp nest, wood, bark, maguey, deer’s head, sheep’s head and more.   One dancer carried a 5-6 foot snake (recently alive) and another carried a stuffed owl holding a squirrel.

The dancer with his head down is carrying a 6' snake.
This mask is made of a section of maguey.

Now,  the punch line.  Our informant told us that the feos danced to bring on rain.   If by the middle of May there was no sign of rain, the feos would be called up.   Rain dances are not uncommon in Mexico and usually take place around Easter or in May.  I am not sure how the dance is too change the minds of the gods and let the rain appear.  Do the masks scare the gods?  Do the masks enthrall the gods so the rain can sneak by them?   Are the gods pleased by the dance and thus return the pleasure in the form of rain?   It turns out the process is similar to asking a favour of the Virgin of Guadalupe; the dance itself is a form of petition.  One can see why the indigenous peoples took so readily to the new European religion.   What we saw was a competition of dancers but the real dance of the feos would be danced during the night

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