Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Original Villages | Iztapalapa: Carnaval in Santa Martha Acatitla

Discovering Carnaval in Mexico City

Traditionally, Carnaval is held just before the Christian Liturgical Season of Lent, the forty-day period of fasting and penitence preceding Holy Week and Easter. It is "a reversal ritual, in which social roles are reversed and norms of desired behavior are suspended" (Wikipedia). Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the well-known example in the U.S. In Mexico, a large, week-long Carnaval is held in the City of Veracruz. Elsewhere in Mexico, Carnaval is celebrated to a lesser degree, if at all. This is a bit curious, given the Mexican love of fiestas and that Carnaval provides an opportunity where the usual limits on public behavior are suspended.

So, in Mexico City we have not been surprised that we haven't encountered Carnaval. We've even read that there is little practice of the tradition here. However, with our ongoing focus on original pueblos and their fiestas coupled with our subsequent discovery of multiple Facebook pages sponsored by the pueblos, this year we learned otherwise. There are actually several carnavales, mostly held in the more traditional, formerly rural delegaciones (boroughs), in the south and west of the city. And, while traditionally, in Roman Catholicism, no fiestas are held during Lent, these in Mexico City's pueblos are not restricted to the days before Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2018), which begins Lent. Instead, they run from early February until after Easter (April 1 this year), primarily on weekends. So we now have a two-month-long schedule of Carnavales to attend (if we have the stamina)!

Traveling Through Another Labyrith to Find Carnaval in an Old Pueblo in Iztapalapa

As the celebrations are held in traditional pueblos and barrios, they also open the door for us to visit places we have not previously visited, or, in some cases, even known of. This turned out to be particularly true for Delegacion Iztapalapa. We have been in the western parts of the Delegación a number of times, but never to its eastern sections.

Our ambles there have been centered on and around el Cerro de la Estrella (Hill of the Star), site of an important ancient indigenous temple and the original barrios of Pueblo Culhuacán and the original altepetl (city-state) of Iztapalapa, which lie immediately to the south and north of the Hill. The Hill and these pueblos lay at what was the strategic western point of the peninsula of Iztapalapa, which separated Lake Xochimilco, to the south, from Lake Texcoco to the north before they were drained.

Pueblos Iztapalapa (north) and Culhuacán, (south)
on the peninsula of Iztapalapa

Last year, during Semana Santa (Holy Week), we witnessed Iztapalapa's famous and impressive Passion Play, which begins in the center of ancient Iztapalapa and ends with a reenactment of the Crucifixion of Jesus on the slopes of Cerro de la Estrella. As both pueblos are not far from our base in Delegacion Coyoacán, they are relatively easy to get to by taxi and/or Metro. 

Serendipitously, the Facebook announcements of Carnavales included a group of original pueblos near the eastern border of Iztapalapa, adjancent to the State of Mexico. For several reasons, we have not been to that "distant" area of the delegación. Culhuacán and the original Iztapalapa are the best known of original pueblos in the delegación. Also, Iztapalapa is a large delegación, of some 45 sq. miles, almost the size of Boston or San Francisco.

With a population of over 1,800,000, it is the most populated of Mexico City's sixteen boroughs (in the U.S., it would be the fifth-largest city.) Traveling across the densely populated, heavily trafficked area presents a challenge, at least for outsiders. Line 8 of the Metro only goes halfway across the delegación. Finally, we had not previously come across information about original pueblos in the "far east".

Delegación Iztapalapa
Pueblos and Colonias

The multi-lane Calzada Ermita-Iztapalapa (blue line) goes from Ermita (Hermitage, mustard/yellow star) at the border with Delegación Coyoacán (in the west)
to the border with the State of Mexico (east).

Coming from the west, where the Calzada makes its first bend,
is the center of the original altepetl of Iztapalapa.
Immediately south of it is Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star,  (dark green area)
site of Mexica/Aztec temple and the Passion Play.

Metro Line 8 goes about to the second bend in the Calzada.

Pueblo Santa Martha Acatitla is dark blue area marked by green/yellow star.

The Facebook announcements inform us that the first Carnaval in Iztapalapa is to be held on Sunday, February 11, in Pueblo Santa Martha Acatitla, virtually on the border with the State of Mexico. The main event will be at 4 PM, a desfile (des-FEE-leh, parade) of many comparsas (marching groups) in various styles of disfrazes (disguises, costumes). It sounds wonderful, but because of the distance (some eight miles) and complexity involved in traveling there, it will be a challenge for us to get to Santa Martha.

Our route will be labyrinthian. It will begin with a short taxi ride up the Calzada de Tlalpan to the Ermita Station of Metro Line 12, near where the line enters the west side of the delegación. The subway ride is a short one, passing under what used to be the channel between Lake Xochimilco to the south and Lake Texcoco to the north. At the second station, Atlalilco, we will have to walk at least a kilometer-long correspondencia (transfer passageway) to Line 12. Then, traveling all the way to the end of Line 12, we will get another cab to reach Santa Martha. It is daunting, but we are determined.

When Señor Sánchez, a driver who has taken us on many of our excursions—all of them less complex and long than this—, arrives to pick us up, we tell him our plan. He responds by saying, "está bien", it is fine with him to drive us all the way across Iztapalapa to our destination. We thank him profusely. (As does our wife, when we call her to tell her of Sr. Sánchez's offer.)

The drive, on a Sunday afternoon, is lengthly but turns out to be much easier than we expected. The six-lane Calzada Ermita-Iztapalapa goes more or less in a straight line from one side of the delegación to the other. There is little traffic. We arrive in the vicinity of Santa Martha in forty-five minutes, shortly before 3 PM.

Entering the Labyrinth of Pueblo Santa Martha Acatitla

However, then the challenge begins. Being an old pueblo, the streets of Santa Martha are an intricate and—to the outsider—unfathomable web of callejas, narrow streets. There is no obvious main entrance or path to the center, where the festival will be held. Señor Sánchez stops to ask various people on the street the way into the pueblo. They direct us to Calle México. However, a short way along, we find the street blockaded, not unusual when a fiesta is being held. So we pay Sr. Sánchez, thank him again for bringing us so far toward our goal, get out and begin walking, hopefully in the direction of the center of the pueblo.

We confirm our pathway with various people on the street who keep telling us to proceed todo derecho, straight ahead, to some corner where we will need to turn right and take a street uphill to the Church of Santa Martha. It is another historic one from the period of the Spiritual Conquest, founded by Spanish friars in the 16th century. The walk turns out not to be a short  one. Eventually, we come to a corner and up the side street we see quite a few people standing along both curbs. Beyond them, the street goes uphill.

They look like a crowd waiting for a parade to pass by. Walking a couple of blocks up the street, we reach the crowd, just where the street begins to go uphill. We confirm from a couple standing with others on the corner that, yes, the carnaval parade is to pass by here. We think of just staying here and avoiding the climb up the hill, but after resting a bit, we decide that we cannot have come so far without seeing the historic Church of Santa Martha.

Street running down hill 
from the gates of the atrio (atrium)
of Santa Martha Acatitla

Arriving at the top, we find the cross-street crowded and a small stage filled with loudspeakers, microphones and a few people, also waiting. We spy several people wearing bright yellow chalecos (vests), identifying them as workers from the delegación government offices. As it is now about 3:30 PM, we ask a couple of the workers about the parade's beginning and length. They say it will begin soon, but seem unsure as to how many comparsas (marching groups) will be involved. Their estimates range somewhere between ten and twenty.

Already tired from our drive and long walk, we enter the atrio of the church where we find a bench in the sun to rest and wait for the parade.

Church of Santa Martha Acatitla.
As it sits at the very top of the hill, in an area that is otherwise flat

and near the entrance to the Iztapalapa peninsula, a strategic location,
we think that it likely occupies a site previously occupied by a temple
of this ancient 
indigenous pueblo. 


Soon, we hear a banda approaching in the street, so we know the desfile is beginning. Descending the steps from the atrio, we seek a good position to take photos. Given the crowded sidewalk, we soon discover that the best place is right in the middle of the street! The paraders just march around us, with nary a hesitation or objection. In fact, many stop to pose for us, so we get head on shots!

Banner preceding a comparsa,
The "Original Ixtlahuaca" refers to an indigenous altepetl near the eastern base of the Iztapalapa peninsula, 
on the southeast shore of Lake Texcoco. On the above map of original settlements around the lakes, it is named Iztauacan,
So here, again, a pueblo demonstrates its knowledge and celebration
of its prehispanic history.

The first comparsa is truly spectacular, absolutely "canavalesque", immediately making our trek totally worthwhile. And it is just the first!

The real animal head above the calavera (skull  head)
is a wild boar.

An owl, a messenger from the Underworld of Night and Death,
and a caiman (type of alligator) endemic to Mexico and Central America,

also a symbolic creature of the watery Underworld. 


The first of many bandas.
Each comparsa is accompanied by one. 

The ear plug worn by the joven (youth) is a traditional indigenous style.

Floats and Princesses

Float featuring the Egyptian god Anubis,
a wolf-man who ushered the souls of the dead into the Underworld.
In Greek mythology, the dog Cerberus guarded the gates of Hades.
In indigenous Mexican mythology, the hairless, black dog, the Xoloitzcuintle,
led souls to Mictlán.

Our hunch is that other ancient civilzations are chosen in order to group
the Aztec Empire and all of Mesoamerican civilization with them
as one of the great, primary ones of world history and culture.

We don't know the significance of the word "chupones" in this context.
A chupón is a sucker or, in Mexico, a baby's pacifier.
The letters S.G.M. perhaps stand for a "grand society of marchers".
Each float also bears a female name like this Paola, possible the name of the princess;
"1 ra." may mean "first reina, queen.

Princess or Queen Paola.
The parade is to end with the
crowning of the Queen of Carnaval.

Disfrazes, Disguises, in Many Styles

The members of each comparsa are disguised in a wide variety of styles and themes.

A bit of Halloween, Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland!


This mask is much like those of
Mexican lucha libre, free-style wrestlers.

The Queen of Hearts?

Charros: Spanish Caballeros, Gentlemen Horsemen and Their Ladies

One charro tells us that the elaborately embroidered attire, often including masks,
represents an appropriation, a taking over, of the Spanish 
tradition of wealthy owners of haciendas (agricultural estates), 
known as caballeros (gentlemen horsemen).
"Los indios", Mexican indigenous, worked for them as serfs. 
The adoption of the dress, with masks, is also a very Mexican-style burla, mockery, 
of los de arriba, those from above, 
who formed the Spanish ruling class (and all subsequent Mexican ones).

Charros de muerte.
Gentlemen horsemen of death. As death brings everyone 
down to an equal level, 
its representation mocks los de arriba, as well as all pretensions of the living.

The embroidery on their sombreros and trajes (suits) is as fantastic as their masks.

Back of a charro jacket.
A mermaid, symbol of the merging

of the human level with the primal depths.
Egyptian King Tut.
Again, adoption of 
symbology from
another original civilization.

Mexica/Aztec Eagle Warrior.
Warrior's head is inside eagle's beak.

On his chest are faces of two gods.
He holds a shield and obsidian knife.

Peacock, symbol of royalty. 
¡Charras muy bellas!
Very beautiful, lady horsewomen!

Mexican Pride and Joy!

And the Tradition is being passed on.

Cartoons and Comedy

A cartoon calavera.
Such cartoons of death are very Mexican,
typical on Day of the Dead, Nov. 1-2.

U.S. acculturation: the Paw Patrol


More "Mardi Gras"-style

More Floats, More Princesses

Float of two tigers, leaping though circus rings.
The princess stands atop an elephant.

Princess Jatziri

The elephant and a masked jester to the rear.

Aztec warriors
with fire shooting at their feet.
(It was too dark by now to capture a photo of the princess.)

At the end, comes last year's Queen, riding in a traditional, horse-drawn carriage.

La Reina
Fortunately, spot lights enable us to
photograph her. 

First and Last, la Gente, the People

As always, one of our main goals in visiting a pueblo´s fiesta is to encounter and photograph ordinary Mexican people.

Mexican families watching the parade.
(There's a baby in a stroller under the blanket)

Heading Home Full of Feelings and Thoughts — and Wondering How We Will Get Back to Coyoacán

By the time the Queen from last year's carnaval arrives in her horse-drawn carriage, it is getting quite dark. We probably should have left the parade earlier, because we know we will have to walk quite a distance back to the main roadway, Eje 6 Sur (Axis Road 6 South) to get a cab to take us at least half-way across Iztapalapa to the Metro, or, if we´re lucky, all the way back to Coyoacán.

But this Carnaval parade has been so wonderful, so full of the creativity, humor, beauty and animo (spirit, energy) of the people of Santa Martha Acatitla, that we could not tear ouselves away. Here, in the "far east" of the delegación, we have discovered a completely new (to us) original indigenous village, called Ixtlahuaca or Iztauacan before the arrival of the Spanish

We know, from our prior investigation via the website, El DeFe, La Ciudad de México a través de sus colonias (The Federal District, Mexico City Through Its Neighborhoods, our essential tool for locating neighborhoods) that Santa Martha Acatitla is surrounded by other pueblos and barrios with dual Spanish/Christian saints' names and original Nahuatl names. These, we now believe, were original barrios of Ixtlahuaca/ Iztauacan. 

What Ixtlahuaca's history is, when it was founded, by what people (tribe), what its role was in the dynamics of the Iztapalapa peninsula, we have no idea. (Initial online research after we get home turns up nothing in English or Spanish). In any case, we know we have a whole new set of pueblos to visit, to encounter and photograph their people and their traditions. Hopefully, in the process, we will learn something of their original, prehispanic history.

Seeking, And Being Given, the Way Back Home

So, happy, full of gratitude to the people of Santa Martha Acatitla, and excited about further Ambles to this new part of Iztapalapa and Mexico City that their Carnaval has opened to us, but also very tired, we head down hill in the dark. The street is well lighted and there are families walking home and shops still open for business, so we feel safe, but it is a very long way, before we finally arrive at Eje 6 Sur (later, via Google Maps, we find out we walked virtually a mile). We cross its four lanes, full of traffic, to get to the side headed towards Calzada Ermita-Iztapalapa, our route home. Many taxis pass, but they are all occupied by other people heading home. We begin to get nervous. We are far from home, with no other options for transportation. It is night time.

After several minutes, a taxi finally stops in response to our outstretched arm. We tell the driver our distant destination of Coyoacán and ask that he at least take us to the Metro, hoping that he doesn't refuse us completely as a fare. His answer isn't clear to us, but much to our relief, he turns on his meter and we start off. As we reach the Calzada and turn west, he responds minimally to our standard opening gambits to elicit a conversation. Finally, we risk our ultimate gambit, about Mexican politics. It triggers a whole stream of vehement commentary from him, and we only have to express sympathy to keep him talking.

At about that point, we notice that we are riding parallel to a Metro train headed into the center City. We have obviously passed the station at the beginning of the line. Soon we recognize that we are back in our familiar western part of the delegación. He carries us onto the Calzada de Tlalpan and soon we are telling him which street to turn in to enter our home colonia of Parque San Andrés. Getting out of the cab in front of our building, we pay him a goodly tip and thank him profusely—even more than we had thanked Sr. Sánchez earlier in the day for taking us to Santa Martha Acatitla—for bringing us all the way home.

Once Again, An Amble to the Past and Back

Once again, thanks to two Mexico City taxi drivers, online maps and Facebook, we have traveled from the world of modern, upper middle class Mexico City to one of its barrios populares (working class neighborhoods) which is, in fact, an original indigenous pueblo. Santa Martha Acatitla still maintains cultural traditions and a communal identity rooted in its prehispanic past as Ixtlahuaca/ Iztauacan, but transformed by the Spanish Catholic Spiritual Conquest of five hundred years ago. It has been another amazing Amble through both the physical and historical batiburrillo (hodgepodge) that is the horizontal archeological site of Mexico City

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