December 12 was a big day in Oaxaca. First of all, it was Virgin of Guadalupe Day – the day marking the appearance of the Virgin Mary to indigenous peasant Juan Diego in 1531, a huge deal in this state of 16 different indigenous groups. But it was also one of the few annual presentations of the Danza de la Pluma (Dance of the Feathers) in Teotitlán del Valle.
We met at the bus and collectivo stop by the baseball stadium, five of us gringas of all ages, to do a little shopping for Christmas, have lunch and catch at least some of the danzantes – as it’s the danced story of the conquest of Mexico, it goes on quite a while (and like the movie Titantic, you know how it’s going to end: the Spaniards rule). We tried for the direct bus – the green one they sometimes call the guacamole bus – but when it didn’t come along a half hour after schedule grabbed a collectivo who would take us all the way into town. The two smallest women in our group sat double up front, the inside chica almost able to shift with her butt.
First stop was Lupita’s house up on the hill; she’s one of the borrowers in En Vía, the women’s microfinance organization I volunteer for. My friend Micky and I wanted to check up on her following her second chemotherapy treatment after a breast cancer diagnosis in October. With no heat and temperatures in the low sixties, she was bundled up in a hoodie, scarf and some of the only pants I’ve ever seen her wear.
We unloaded a few presents for her three sons – she’s a widow raising them alone on a weaver’s salary though now she can’t work for six months – and bought a few of her cosmetic bags; I walked down the hill feeling that whatever my issues, they’re nothing to complain about. The bonus was that it was Lupita’s birthday and saint’s day, so it was a good day to arrive with presents and well wishes.
There was some wandering around the shops in town where we’re so visibly tall and white that we’re hit up on every corner to buy something at a special “friend’s” discount. A long lunch in one of the few restaurants in town, on Mexican time compounded by a miscommunication on where to meet and excruciatingly slow service (though in truth, we had no appointments to keep and dawdling over food is one of the pleasures of a vacation day). Then on to the danzantes, who were performing in the plaza in front of the church, La Sangre Preciosa de Jesus, built in 1751, well after the Spaniards had come through and introduced large treadle looms to this town of already established weavers.
I’m pretty sure there were a dozen dancers, though there could have been a few more or less, because I couldn’t get the 12 Days of Christmas song out of my head . . . twelve dancers dancing, eleven weavers weaving . . . like a Passion play, everyone knows the story as it’s danced out. There are two little girls who play the parts of Spain and Mexico, conquerer Cortez and his translator-courtesan La Malinche, native ruler Moctezuma and a couple of masked buffoons who stir up trouble and function a little like rodeo clowns, deflecting attention if something goes awry.
The headdresses weight about 25 pounds so that even the fairly easy steps of jumping and turning are an effort, and each danzante is also wearing fringed leggings, a Virgin on the back of his vest, and printed chiffon scarves hanging by their points so that they flutter and float at every turn. Plus the feathered headdresses over a biker-tied head bandana.
It’s a fascinating slice of culture if you’re in the right mind for it, a little slow if you’re not (like thinking fondly of the Nutcracker Suite but forgetting all the parts where it’s really not all that interesting). This particular day of sunny skies, cool air and a view toward the town peak of Picacho – and especially a planned vacation day from my home office of free-lance work – was one of the best.
We were back in Oaxaca by 5; I wanted to get down to Parque Llano by early evening to catch the Virgin of Guadalupe festival. This is one of my favorite fiestas in Mexico, a wonderful juxtaposition of the religious and secular worlds and a totally over-the-top event.
The Templo de la Virgin of Guadalupe, on the north side of big, beautiful Llano Park, was decorated for Christmas with a line waiting to get in to pay their respects to the Virgin on her special day. Outside, you could buy religious artifacts that strayed quickly to the kitschy with flashing lights, especially the points of light always portrayed as emanating from the Virgin (the ones that burned an impression into Juan Diego’s cloak).
You could get your kids’ photos taken in booths that featured variations of a pastoral setting with waterfall and Juan Diego’s donkey, though one was actually the Disney Shrek donkey, the one Eddie Murphy voiced in the movie, and one was a live burro. There was a flashy array of cheesy carnival rides, booths like you’d find in any state fair (dart balloons, air-rifle gallery and duck bobbing), and all kinds of stuff for sale from toys and Tupperware to the folding stool I wish I’d bought for the fireworks later.
None of it, according to the photos I showed my son who’s something of an expert in risk management, which would have passed OSHA inspection with extension cables everywhere, over and under steaming comals and vats full of boiling pork fat.Yeah, the food: a tasty but fat-laden array of everything you can imagine fried, hotcakes and crepes, huge deep-fried tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, ice cream and even a booth selling all flavors of mescal. State fair stuff with Mexican attitude.
The Virgin of Guadalupe probably would have been horrified at all going on in her name, though she might have liked the sugar tortillas and would have shared them with Juan Diego.
José and I snagged seats on the curb waiting for the fireworks castillo, but miscalculated the time – sometimes they start at 9:30 or so, but there wasn’t a spark to be seen until 11:30, by which time the restless (and cold) crowd was whistling loudly for it to start already.
Flowers turned into angels, wheels spun, sparks traveled up and down and a spinning band of letters spelled out something about Our Lady and a world of peace (unfortunately we had chosen the back side of the castillo to watch, so the letters were all backwards). At the end, a top layer levitated into the night sky where god knows where it came down. Then there were fireworks in the sky.
I only had a couple more nights in Oaxaca before heading back to the U.S. for the holidays; the last night we took a stroll into the zocalo where there are still a few protesting maestros’ tents ringed with vendors and food stalls. From out of nowhere, one, two and then three sky lanterns floated luminously up past the trees to disappear into a velvet black sky. You can wish on those.
It’s probably bad luck to reveal your sky lantern wishes, but while I’m incredibly happy to be spending the holidays with loved ones in Texas, I can only say that it had something to do with getting back to Oaxaca.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org