Monday, June 11, 2012


Let me be a little personal to start this post.   I have spent quite a bit of time in the state of Michoacán, Mexico and quickly became enamored of the dances and festivals.  Now that I think about my own reactions/perceptions I note two things somewhat unusual:  I never went to Janitizio except to allow visitors to have a look and I much preferred events where there were no tourists and especially no “gringos”.  The later often required trips somewhat distant from Pátzcuaro.  Although I am a news junkie I had never been aware of how central Michoacán was to national tourist promotion and even to national unity.  It is after all one of the poorest states in the republic, has more than its share of narco-traficante action and the indigenous peoples are amongst the poorest of the state. I arrived in Michoacán with no preconceived ideas of the peoples or events and very gradually came to love the place.  It should be noted that I am Canadian and Canada's relationship to Mexico is still quite different that that of the USA.

It was with surprise and pleasure that I read Ruth Hellier-Tinoco’s book, Embodying Mexico:  Tourism, Nationalism and Performance (2011) which provides a very well researched and documented study of Michoacán from about 1920 to the present.  She shows very clearly how the Island of Janitzio was “discovered” by state intellectuals and the media in 1922 (see note) and their realization that both the night of the dead celebrations and the dance of the viejitos could serve much broader purposes for the nation.  The context for all of this was the virtual civil war that occurred from 1910-1920 with the overthrow of the Porfirio Diaz (president from 1876-1911) regime.   With the new found stability of 1920 came the need for a truly national state and this depended upon Mexicans having a strong sense of who they were and something to share that might provide for unity.  In a sense there was a need to create an “imagined community”.  Into this vacuum and this need came Rubén Campos [musicologist], Francisco Domínguez [artist], Frances Toor [anthropologist], Moisés Sánez [undersecretary of education], Carlos González [also a state representative] and I.L. Kandel [a guest].  (Two of these members received government funds to return to Michoacán in 1923 to collect folklore.) On that night they arrived by canoe to the Island of Janitzio in lake Pátzcuaro as simple observers for a short while before returning to shore.  The island at that time was not appreciative of visitors and it a marvel that the newcomers were not thrown off; perhaps the visitors were protected by their official look.  They managed to take some photographs and saw the night of the dead activities.  They also took a canoe to the island of Jarácuaro where they saw the dance of the viejitos (the old men) and in 1924 took Nicolás Bartolo to Mexico City to teach others to perform the dance and the first stage event took place that year.  Nothing was to be the same and at the same time everything had to be same.  Approximately 100,000 visitors arrive each year to observe night of the dead in the region, exactly as did the six visitors in 1922, and the viejitos dance, or their image, is everywhere.  At the same time it was important that these two events not change and tourists today can recreated the 1922 trip  for themselves.
Shot in Jaracuro rather than Janitzio but showing the classic scene-women wrapped in rebozos and kneeling before candles.  However now they almost always bring small chairs.
This is not close to the classic scene as it shows a man before the grave, a not uncommon sight.

Who were the Mexicans?  Porfirio Diaz (president from 1876-1911)  identified with France and one can see many signs of this in the avenues and architecture of Mexico City.  The elite typically looked outside of Mexico for models with which to identify.  Now what was needed was something from within.  Why not look to the past, to an indigenous past?  If so the right narrative, and image, had to be constructed.  The indigenous of Michoacán provided the model especially those around lake Pátzcuaro.  The viejitos danced in what can be seen as typical indigenous clothing (white pants and top with embroidery, sandals, a beribboned hat and pink mask) so they can be presented as pan-Mexican.  The clothing contains the image of the past and of truly “authentic” indigenous peoples.  The night of the dead provided a female image, rather than the male image of the dancers, and again the simple image of indigenous women wrapped in a rebozo kneeling before candles and a grave met the need for something “authentic” and yet indigenous.  Finally the ability to create a sense of remoteness or isolation and thus pre-modern was easy with canoe trips and even with modern launches. 
This shows the most typical scene in the Patzcuaro area-4-5 dancers and the band behind them.
This a group far from the lake region: the clothing is similar but there are more dancers and they tend to dancers in lines or with other dancers.
Here we have an example of the entertainment aspect of the dance, the dancers dancing fast and appearing to levitate.

The narrative suggests that this is where all of Mexico originated - in rural and indigenous communities.  What of course was implied in all of this was that the real people (not the imaged) were primitive and underdeveloped.  Primitive or backward rather than modern, rural rather than urban, indigenous rather than mestizo.  How to make all of this fit?  One option was to promote economic development. We saw this in the 1936 construction of the enormous image of Morelos by president Lázaro Cárdenas (born in the state and president from 1934-1940 and governor of the state prior to that), an indigenous hero of the first revolution, atop the Island of Janitzio, construction of roads to allow visitors access and the creation of CREFAL in 1950 (located in the Pátzcuaro house of former President Lázaro Cárdenas) to foster economic development projects around the lake.

The discussion above is short on specifics whereas Hellier-Tinoco is long (so to speak).  Much of the above activity took places under the auspices of the federal secretary of education (the same agency that hired Diego Rivera in the 1920-30 to create mural images that spoke to who Mexicans were) since education was seen as central to the construction of a national identity.  Students were taught about the two activities discussed, images of the dancers and night of the dead were used extensively in advertising (and as she points out the people seldom paid), world fairs presented these images as the “soul of Mexico", corporations used the images, and beginning in the 1930 dance performances were staged to highlight the viejitos and then in 1950 the national Ballet Focklorico was created to present the viejitos on a grand scale in the Bellas Artes building in Mexico City.  The viejitos were taken on tours of the United States and Europe and anthropologists and archaeologists were invited to Michoacán and to much of Mexico to uncover the indigenous past with work on the site at Ihuatzio, Michoacán (excavated and opened to the public in 1937-38 and currently undergoing further development) and the ruins in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán (also excavated in the 1930s).

Little did I know that two events from Michoacán would come to stand for the “soul of Mexico”.  The trouble for Michoacán of course is that it becomes difficult if not impossible to escape the framework created almost 100 years ago. It's folklore and folk art or starve as other cultural activities and artistic endeavors are ignored and economic development still waits.

Note: #1.  The author does not say exactly when the trip to Janitzio occurred but I have selected 1922. It may have been 1923 as Frances Toor an American anthropologists only arrived in Mexico in 1922.  One wonders how she so quickly achieved the confidence of those in power.  In 1925 three of the people involved published articles related to their journey and in the same year Toor began publishing her famous journal, Mexican Folkways.

Note #2:  One often hears that the dance of the old men has its origins in the encounters of the indigenous an the Spanish with the dance been a bit of a spoof.  This may not be true as a reference to the dance is made as early as the 16th century and it appeared to serve very local purposes.  However, the dance is uniquely Purépecha.

You can expect me to return to this subject as reading about Frances Toor has led me to the excitement of the 1920s in Mexico City.

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