Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Original Villages | Xochimilco: Barrio de Belém - Dancing Through Bethlehem

The announcement posted on the Facebook page of the Fiestas Mágicas de los Pueblos y Barrios Originarios del Valle de México (Magical Festivals of the Original Pueblos and Barrios of the Valley of Mexico) caught our attention for two reasons. It was an invitation to a "Brinco de Chinelos"—a "Jumping" (Dance) of Disguised Ones, those colorful, masked, inventively costumed Moor-like dancers who frequently appear at fiestas in and around Mexico City.

And the event was to occur in the Barrio de Belém, the small neighborhood of Bethlehem, in the Delegación Xochimilco. This combined two things that nos encantan, enchant us: chinelo dancers and an original indigenous neighborhood in Xochimilco, one of the delegations or boroughs most connected with its indigenous past and traditions.

The announcement said the event would begin at 5:30 on a recent Saturday afternoon, so at 4:30 we took a taxi down the Calzada de Tlalpan highway to San Lorenzo Huipulco, in the Delegación Tlalpan, where we caught the Light Train to the center of Xochimilco. Exiting the station, we walk east on Avenida Cuauhtémoc (commemorating the last Mexica ruler) a couple of blocks to Avenida 16th de Septiembre (commemorating the beginning of the War for Independence) and turn north for a couple more blocks to Nezahualcóyotl (commemorating a 15th century ruler of the altepetl, city-state, of Texcoco who allied with the rulers of Tenochtitlan to defeat the dominant power in the Valley, Azcapotzalco).

There, we turn right and enter the Barrio de Belém, the Barrio of Bethlehem, heading towards its church. As we walk through the working class neighborhood on this Saturday afternoon in late May, we wonder what is being celebrated, as the patron saint of the barrio is el Niño de Belém, the Child of Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ as a newborn, whose fiesta day is, of course, Christmas.

A short block and a half farther along, we come to a small, barren plaza. In one corner at the rear, facing perpendicular to the street, is a small chapel.

Church of Barrio de Belém, Bethlehem

Walking across the plaza and around to the front of the simple building, we see a group of maybe twenty people seated at tables on a narrow street that begins in front of the church. They are evidently enjoying a merienda, a light, late afternoon meal. 

It is 5:30 but there is no sign of any chinelos. Approaching the group, we ask a gentleman who is pouring drinks if there is going to be a brinco de chinelos. He assures us that there will be, at 6:00, and offers us a drink of agua de jamaica, Jamaica or hibiscus water, a cold tea made from red hibiscus petals. Full of vitamin C and quite delicious, it is our favorite "agua" (flavored water). Our host also invites us to enter the house and pay our respects to el Niño de Belém. 

We thank him for the information and his hospitality and stand to one side, sipping our agua and wondering what will transpire. Suddenly we are surrounded by five or six kids, ranging from about five to ten or eleven years old. They begin peppering us with questions. 

"Do you speak Spanish?" ... "Sí".
"Where are you from?" ... "Estados Unidos" (the United States).
"Do they have tornados there?" ... "Yes, in the middle of the country."
"Did you ever experience a tornado?" ... "No, we lived in New York, on the East Coast."
"Do they have earthquakes there?" ... "Yes, in California, on the West Coast, just like here."
We have the distinct feeling that although their barrio is near the center of Xochimilco and home to some of the embarcaderos (piers) from which trajineras (flat-bottomed boats) depart taking tourists for rides on the canals around the chinampas (man-made islands), these youngsters have never been up close or engaged with an extranjero (foreigner). To them we are some kind of alien from another world about whom they have great curiosity. We ask if we can take their photo. Some skirt away. Others are happy to pose.

Having finished our drink and the conversation, we enter the house.

"This home gives you welcome, Child of Bethlehem."

Señora Yadira Escobar

A woman, perhaps in her late forties, with bleached blond hair and nearly golden skin, is holding a small figure dressed in a pale blue gown. It is el Niño de Belém, the Child of Bethlehem, the patron saint of this barrio. The woman is strikingly dressed in a tight-fitting, gold lamé dress that stops above her knees. She is clearly a woman accustomed to displaying her physical attractiveness. She is Señora Yadira Escobar. She and her family are hosting el Niño. Tomorrow he leaves for a visit to a church in the far away state of Guanajuato. And today is her birthday.

This is something new in our experience. We have met, now three times, another Niño of Xochimilco, el Niño Pa', the Child of This Place. We met him first in Barrio Xoco, in Delegación Benito Juárez, just north of our home base in Coyoacán, where he was on a visit to the local parish. Then we joined his major celebration on February 2, the Feast of Candelaria (Candlemass), here in Xochimilco, when He was transferred to the care of a new mayordomo for the coming year.

Subsequently, in a kind of postscript to our Candelaria encounter, we came across El Niño Pa' a few weeks later as he was staying in the home of the new mayordomo, and being venerated, in the Barrio of St. Peter, just a few blocks down 16th de Septiembre from where we are now.

As we have learned, El Niño Pa' is a primary, centuries-old symbol of communal faith, identity and pride for the barrios and pueblos of Xochimilco. As such, he is venerated with large fiestas and a very formalized process of staying in homes. So we wonder about this less preeminent manifestation of the Child God, protector of this single small barrio, and His participation in a birthday party.

But this is not the time or place for questions. Señora Escobar is busy showing el Niño to his visitors and, as we leave the house, we see that the chinelos have arrived and are putting on their costumes. Soon a banda joins them and begins to play. It is time for the fiesta—whatever its reason—to begin.


The band begins to play,
The fiesta gets underway.

Once the chinelos are dressed, the procession heads off up the street.

Procession is led by banner of the comparsa, the dance group.
Ribbons and buttons on the robe
are mementos of participation in various fiestas.

There is much spinning and jumping.


At the rear, Señora Yadira Escobar and her family
carry el Niño de Belém.
A large umbrella protects the Holy Child from the sun.

At one point in the procession, the oldest boy in the group that quizzed us gets to hold el Niño de Belém.

Son of Señora Escobar

Children of Bethlehem

Eventually, the procession returns to the church.

A good time was had by all.

Xochimilco Delegación
is large, pink area in southeast Mexico City

Barrios and Pueblos of Xochimilco

Barrio of Belém, Bethlehem,
green and yellow star,
sits virtually at the center of the original indigenous city.

Dark green area to the northeast is composed of the chinampas, man-made islands
in what is left of Lake Xochimilco.

Dark, gray-green area to the south is the foothills of the mountains
that form Mexico City's southern boundary.

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