Of Light and Darkness, Devils and Angels, Saints and Sinners
The Christian feast of Candalaria, Candlemas Day, is coming February 2nd. I thought I would share with you notes from my attendance at the unusual celebration of that festival in the Purépecha village of Tocuaro, Michoacan in 1982.
Tocuaro is located in volcanic mountains near the iconic and picturesque Lake Patzcuaro, a 100 square mile lake that is one of the world’s highest at 7,200 feet. Only several hundred inhabitants live in Tocuaro, which is about a half-hour bus ride from the larger town of Patzcuaro, 98,000 inhabitants. The village is known for its mask-making craftsmanship.
Purépecha people have inhabited what is now the Mexican state of Michoacan (“Place of the Fishermen”) since at least the 14th century. The uncommon circular pyramidal remains of its ancient capital can be seen near the present-day village of Tzintzuntzan.
Concluding the Christian Nativity cycle, the feast of Candalaria falls on the 40th day after the birth of Christ, and marks His ritual presentation in the temple. In recognition of the Child as the new Light of the World, candles are lit on this day and are blessed for ceremonial use in the coming year.
Walking up the dirt road from the highway to the village on the sunny morning of February 2, the sounds of rockets whistling through the air and their loud explosions could already be heard, alerting everyone to this day of festivity. The bright full sound of a band could be heard coming from the earthen yard of a nearby house.
Four of us had traveled together from Patzcuaro to experience the fiesta. The people in the yard welcomed us and generously took us in, feeding us, along with the musicians, bowls of a delicious and savory fish soup.
The band, 16 pieces in all – 3 clarinets, 2 alto and 1 tenor saxophone, 2 trumpets, 2 French horns, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 1 bass drum, 1 snare drum and cymbals – came from Paracho, Michoacan. After the meal, the players walked a short distance to the center of town where they assembled in a circle in front of the church. They played more or less continuously throughout the day and into the night – different types of polkas, marches, waltzes – with lengthy pauses between tunes. The tunes featured sectional rhythmic variations between the instruments. The tuba would keep the beat, the brass horns played low and circuitously while the thematic lines were generally maintained by the reeds, voiced in a wide range with an uncommonly woody and, at the same time, pleasingly squeaky timbre. The intonation of the instruments was just off the edge of western tonality, adding to the harmonic richness of the band’s sound. Buckets and glasses of pulque often made the rounds between tunes.
Around 5:00 in the afternoon, a church service began. More rockets were fired and explosions set off at ritual intervals. When the mass ended, an hour later, everyone left the church and, along with the band, gathered around the perimeter of a small courtyard next to the church and crowded onto a balcony overlooking the yard.
In the courtyard were eight young boys and girls dressed immaculately in white holding tall, thickly decorated white poles hung with colored tinsel and multi-colored plastic flowers. They formed two parallel lines. Between them stood a small boy dressed in white with a cap covered with protective mirrors, holding a sword in his hand. He represented the Christ Child, or the Force of Good.
Suddenly, El Diablo broke through the crowd. He was dressed in red and black and wore a colorful and bizarrely decorated horned mask and large black wings. Brandishing a black pitchfork, he ran about the space and through the lines of boys and girls in an attempt to torment the child. He provoked and lunged into the crowd. And when the large band played, he would hold his ears in pain.
He was joined by his Helpers, in equally bizarre black costumes with silver and colored sequins, and wearing black masks with horns and large white teeth.
And there were other masked participants: a Saint figure or Spanish Friar with cross in hand, two prissy female impersonators, and several “drunks” with Mexican or Ladino type masks.
There was a struggle between the Devils and the Friar to win over the other participants. The Devils, however, had the greater numbers and, in this version of the dance at least, appeared to triumph in the end.
The next day, different stages of the dance were performed in the yards of different host-houses. In the first yard, there were two or three more characters in the dance than the day before, and the latter part of the dance was much more chaotic, right on the verge of going out of control. As had happened the day before, all kinds of mock battles were going on. But a day and night of drinking had taken its toll. The actors tumbled over each other and stumbled about in drunken fashion, half in jest and half for real. They threw dirt in the air and at each other, threw hollow rubber balls at themselves and into the crowd. They threw large rocks over the roofs of nearby houses, and one actor, El Diablo, even broke a bottle against a brick fence. There was some taunting and physical jostling of members of the audience, particularly of any photographers. (My own camera was knocked from my hands, causing the film to come off its spool. The sketches I’ve included here are re-creations of photos I imagined I took before I was aware of the problem.)
During all of this, the band played a drunken, slightly out-of-phase melodic line. And there was truly an air of madness about the event, one barely held in check by the bounds of the performance.
Then the dance commenced again in two other yards, where the action took place solely between El Diablo and the Child. The young boys and girls in white with their decorative poles were also in attendance. (I came to view these actors as Angelic Protectors of the Child.)
The band played a more upbeat tune, alternating between slow and fast tempos, while El Diablo danced loosely, agilely, and menacingly around and about the Child. The Child, in spite of the devilish leaps directed at him, calmly held His own. The Christ Child’s inner spiritual strength in the face of the demonic outer turbulence brought into high relief the spiritual core of the dance which was, by extension, the spiritual core of the festival itself.
February 2-3, 1982, January 2023. All Rights Reserved.