Thursday, February 23, 2017

Original Villages | Xochimilco: Xaltocán's Virgin of Sorrows, Flying Men and Aztec Dancers

In our initial post on the Delegación of Xochimilco, we related its indigenous origins. Around 900 CE, the Xochimilca people—considered one of earliest of the seven Nahuatl-speaking tribes to migrate into the Valley of Anahuac, now the Valley of Mexico—settled on the south shore of the lake that would come to bear their name.

Xochimilco was originally settled on an island near the southwest shore
of Lake Xochimilco

The altepetl, city state, of Xochimilco was founded in 919 CE. Over time, the city came to dominate other areas on the south side of the lake and across the mountains to the south, toward Cuernavaca in what is now the State of Morelos. In 1352, the tlatoani, "speaker", Caxtoltzin moved the city from the mainland to the island of Tlilan. Possibly, this was done to make it more defensible—like the island city of the Mexicas, Tenochtitlán, which was coming to be a rival. 
At the core of present-day Xochimilco are some sixteen barrios that formed the original indigenous altepetl on the island of Tlilan. To the south of them are another fourteen or so pueblos that were originally settlements along the lakeshore. The contemporary delegación or borough also includes newer colonias.
In this Amble, it is to one of the barrios in the center of the original city that we return.

Xaltocán (shahl-tow-KAN) is a relatively large barrio that begins a few blocks southeast of the center of ancient and contemporary Xochimilco. From a most helpful local website that lists the numerous fiestas of the barrios and pueblos of the delegación, we have learned that two Sundays before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Easter Season on the Catholic Church calendar, there is a fiesta in Xaltocán. So on that recent Sunday morning, we head there.

Getting there

As it happens, our taxi driver turns out to be young and new at the job, so he doesn't know how to get to the center of Xochimilco, a very rare occurrence. So we have him take us down the Calzada de Tlalpan, the route of the former Mexica cuepotli, causeway, to San Lorenzo Huipulco, another orginal pueblo that we visited last August on its saint's day. From there the way turns east. We leave the cab and take the Tren Ligero (lee-HAIR-o), Light Rail Train, to our destination, at the end of the line.

We don't know the location of Xaltocán's church, so from the Xochimilco station we walk north and east toward Centro, looking for Avenida 16th de Septiembre (commemorating the anniversary of Mexican Independence), the barrio's western boundary. As always, some helpful people standing at a street corner tell us the avenue is two blocks straight east.

Arriving there, we turn south looking for streets that enter the barrio and for papel picada, cut paper (or plastic) decorations hung above the street announcing a fiesta. We also keep our ears out for cohetes, rocket-style firecrackers that are another indispensible announcement of such festivities. We neither see nor hear such signs, so we query people walking along. They tell us the church is just a couple of blocks straight south. It turns out that the church isn't in the usual location at the center of the barrio, but at its edge.

Very soon, as we reach a major intersection, we see a large number of  juegos mecánicos, fair rides, and puestos, street stalls, selling all kinds of traditional food and filling what is evidently a sizeable plaza. So we know we have reached our destination, la fiesta de Xaltocán. We still don't know, however, what saint is being honored, as it isn't included in the pueblo's name and the website gave none. We do know that it somehow relates to the approach of Lent, the forty days of fasting and penance preceding Easter.

La Iglesia de la Virgen de los Dolores de Xaltocán, The Church of the Virgin of Sorrows

To the rear of the plaza, at its eastern end, above the so typically Mexican batiburillo, hodgepodge, we can see the steeple of a church.

We wend our way through the labyrinth of puestos and find the entrance to the church atrio, atrium.

Portada de la fiesta
"May you be blessed, Little Mother of the Sorrows"

The entrance is marked by a portada, a colorful, temporary arch celebrating the fiesta. This one is not made of flowers, either fresh (our favorites) or plastic, but it is colorfully painted in the same folk art style as the flowered ones. It is clearly less expensive than one of real flowers, but, to our taste, much prettier than ones of plastic flowers. It also tells us who is being honored, the Virgin Mary in her status as the suffering mother of the Christ during his Passion leading to the Crucifixion. 

Church facade
In the niche above the door, the Virgen de los dolores

A large awning covering the atrio, to keep out the hot sun,
makes taking a photo of the church a challenge.

The sancturary is packed with feligreses, parishioners, attending a Mass.

Two wonderfully colorful, hand-painted portadas rise above the altar
and surround La Virgen

The Virgin of Sorrows

La Virgen de los dolores,
The Virgin of Sorrows,
dressed in a gorgeous, Spanish-indigenous style
embroidered gown.

We have encountered the Virgin of Sorrows before, not here in Mexico City, but in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, the small town in southwestern Mexico where we lived for the first three years we were in the country. It is a quintessentially traditional and charming Spanish Colonial pueblo, in fact a federally designated Pueblo Mágico, with ancient indigenous foundations in the still vital Purépecha culture.

Semanta Santa, Holy Week, is a very big deal there. As non-Catholics and U.S.ers, we were initially puzzled when, the week before Palm Sunday, we saw a large, elaborate altar being set up in the portal, covered sidewalk, in front of the ayuntamiento, municipal hall(!). It centered on a statue of the Virgin, surrounded by hanging glass globes filled with liquid, an image of a heart pierced by several arrows and various other symbols about which we were clueless.

Our ever amable, helpful, kind, patient Spanish teachers explained that the Friday before Palm Sunday is dedicated to la Virgen de los dolores, the Virgen of Sorrows, or Lady of Sorrows, Christ's mother, Mary, commemorating the seven times her heart was "pierced" with painful moments in the life of her child. The first three occurred in His infancy, when he is recognized in the Temple in Jerusalem as the Christ who will suffer and the family had to flee to Egypt to avoid his murder. The last four are events of Holy Week, centered on His passion, crucifixion and burial. The liquid-filled globes represent her tears.

So meeting her here in Xaltocán, we recognize her and understand why her fiesta is taking place two weeks before Lent. Fiestas honoring saints are usually not held during Lent, so this one is held on the threshold of the Season. Speaking to some people in the atrio, we learn that the fiesta lasts for two weeks, until four days past Ash Wednesday. 

Huge anuncio listing fiesta events
hangs from the side of the bell tower.

In addition to Masses, they include:
band parade to honor families supporting the fiesta,
burning of salvia, sage (which we seem to have just missed),
a meal honoring the voladores de Papantla
(more of that in a moment!),
the burning of "wheels" (pyrotechnics),
lucha libre, free-style wrestling, a most popular "sport",
various popular dance parties,
la quema del castillo, the climatic burning of a "castle" of fireworks.
A "grand popular dance" ends everything on March 5.

"Come and enjoy yourself with your family"

Turning our focus from the Mass underway in the sanctuary and la Virgen de los dolores, and looking across the atrio, we see groups of Aztec dancers putting on their costumes and face paint in preparation for dancing. Speaking to one, he tells us they will begin, with the loud accompaniment of drums, when the Mass is over. So we know we will soon have something to watch and photograph.

Just then, in a narrow space above the front wall of the atrio and below the awning that covers it, we catch a glimpse of someone wearing bright red pants swinging upside-down through the air on a rope. 

Los voladores de Papantla, the Flyers of Papantla

Working our way around a stage set up near the front entrance and making our way through the crowd, we exit into the plaza. There we are most happily surprised and excited to see a thick, tall concrete and steel pole, rising perhaps fifty feet or more, and swinging around it, hanging upside down from ropes, four men in traditional indigenous dress. On the top of the pole, on a kind of stool, sits (!!) a fifth man, playing a wooden flute.

We have seen these voladores, "flyers" before. On weekends, they come to the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Woods, near El Centro of Mexico City, where they "fly" for an audience of city residents and tourists, both Mexican and international.

We also encountered them a few years ago, when we stayed in Papantla, a small city in northern Veracruz, while visiting the nearby ancient site of El Tajín, "The Place of Hurricanes". It was a city built by the Totonaca people, who speak a unique language, unrelated to any other. Established about 300 CE, El Tajín continued to grow and flourish for nearly a thousand years, until the early 13th century. Thus, its life spanned Mesoamerican history from the time of Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, almost to the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325. 

The Xochimilca, who established themselves in the Valley of Anahuac in the tenth century, surely must have had relationships of trade with the Totonaca of El Tajín. The Totonaca still live in the area around their ancient capital and actively maintain their culture. Los Voladores are the most striking manifestation of this millenary people. Here they are, apparently returning every year for this fiesta, in Xaltocán. We have never seen them at any other pueblo fiesta in the City. 

Now the "flyers" are almost to the ground, so we have missed "the show". At this moment, another man in the same dress comes, holding out his traditionally decorated cap, asking for donations. We give him ten pesos (US$0.50) and ask anxiously if they will perform again. He replies, "En quince minutos", in fifteen minutes. We can hardly wait. We look around for the best vantage point, where the sun will be behind us, and perch on the narrow ledge of a building, camera ready. 

Los Voladores, including the flute player (in foreground)
begin by carrying out a ritual dance around the pole.

The flutist also taps a small drum, hooked to his baby finger,
setting the rhythm.

One by one, five men climb the pole.
Others stay on the ground to manage the ropes they will use.

Once on top, they pull up the ropes from which they will hang
Note the Christian cross on the cap at the top.

With the flute-playing musician atop the pole,
the four drop backwards, headfirst,
and begin their spinning descent.

As a Mexican of indigenous origins recently wrote:
"What is really happening is an invocation by the birdmen to their gods that those gods favor the people with the rain so they can obtain the corn they need to feed themselves. They are performing a dance of fertility. The offering is made by four flyers to the four cardinal points, asking the winds to drop the rain. In their descent to the ground, each dancers turns around the pole 13 times, for a total of 52 times, which represents the 52 years that form the solar cycle. (i.e. when the first day of the 365 day solar calendar and the first day of the 260 day divintory calendar, based on the human gestation cycle, coincide, thus when human and cosmic destiny intersect)" Entre la identidad cultural y el mercado, Between Cultural Identity and the Market, Francisco López Bárcenas. La Jornada, Apr. 6, 2017




Awed and appreciative, we give another fifty pesos (US$2.50) and return to the atrio where the drums are already pounding.

Aztec Dancers and Concheros


Aztec dancers are a fairly common sight in Mexico City. They dance every weekend in the Zócalo, the City's main plaza, as well as in other plazas around town. They also participate in barrio and pueblo fiestas. We encountered them most recently in San Sebastián Axotla, in Delegacíon Álvaro Obregón. They do not, at least primarily, aim at entertaining tourists. They actually have a long and continuous history going back to the early days after the Spanish Conquest.

After the Conquest, the indigenous people adopted their ritual dances to Spanish Catholic symbolism and were included in church fiestas. Formal dance groups were formed, with limited membership handed down along family lines. They were called concheros, after the lute-like stringed instruments they played, made from armadillo shells. They traditionally wore simple white tunics, like those of Mexican campesinos, peasant farmers.


It was not until the 19th century that people moving into Mexico City from the countryside brought conchero dancing to the capital. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917)—with its repression of public religious displays and its glorification of the indigenous past in an attempt to forge a shared national identity—some of the dance groups became more focused on their indigenous heritage and set aside the Catholic religious components of their dances.

These groups adopted the name Azteca to make their indigenous roots explicit. As the name Aztec is one that was applied to indigenous Mexicans by foreign anthropologists, other groups proudly declare that they are Mexica (Meh-SHE-kah), the original name of the residents of Tenochtitlan. Both Azteca and Mexica dancers wear costumes modeled on those portrayed in original Aztec codices compiled by the Spanish. (Wikipedia)

A conch shell horn is blown to announce the ceremonial dance.
Ancient, carved conch shells are on display in museums of Mexico's indigenous past.

The woman in black is tending burning copal, incense from the native copal tree.

Offerings of dried maize, corn.
with blossoms of poinsettia, a native Mexican flower.

While the first comparsa, group of concheros, dance, two other groups prepare themselves.

The yellow face with the black bar is that of the Mexica god Tezcatlipoca,
god of the night, hence of "dark" forces of sorcery, conflict and war.

One comparsa, dance group, is from
San Juan Ixtayopan (Ish-tah-YO-pahn).
It is an original pueblo of Tláhuac,
now a delegation, borough, east of Xochimilco,
on what was the north shore of Lake Chalco
(see Lake map above and Delegations map below)

This señor, gentleman,
is preparing to dance with the third comparsa.
Muy amable,
very kindly, he happily explains to me
that the four jewels in his crown
represent the four primal elements,
earth, water, air and fire.

"And your blue eyes?" I ask.
"My great-grandmother was a cousin of Empress Carlota,
wife of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico
(during the French Intervention, 1861-67).
She was from Belgium."

You never know what combinations of peoples and their histories
you will encounter in Mexico.

And then there is el pueblo, the people,
which is what this is all both for and about.

And of course, there is always plenty to eat!

Xochimilco is the large, pink delegation in the southeast part of Mexico City.
Tláhuac is the reddish-brown delegation to its east.

(green and yellow star)
is just south of the center
of ancient Xochimilco
(small, dark purple area)

Dark green area of the northeast corner
is that of the chinampas, "floating gardens", 
i.e. man-made islands
 of Lake Xochimilco

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