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If all was right with the world, on this Día de Carnaval (aka, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday), the day before Christians celebrate the beginning of Lent, I would be in San Martín Tilcajete — where the streets would be alive with the sound of bells, as los encabezados (guys covered in motor oil or paint and wearing cowbells tied around their waist) roam the streets startling the unaware, making mischief, and welcoming all to the festivities.

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This predominately Zapotec village has seized on the holiday, brought to Mexico by Spanish Catholicism, to create elaborate masks to showcase its woodcarving skills. It is no coincidence that Carnival conveniently coincided with indigenous festivals celebrating the “lost days” of the Mesoamerican calendar, “when faces were covered to repel or confuse evil.” It is also no surprise that it caught on, “because it was one time when normal rules could be broken especially with the use of masks to hide identities from the authorities” — and make fun of them.

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The festivities revolve around a mock wedding — a parody of a traditional village wedding. It includes much pomp and circumstance, hilarity, music, food, and fireworks. Young and old move from the houses of the principal players to City Hall for the “civil ceremony,” dancing in the plaza, followed by another procession through the streets to another house where the happy “couple” kneel before a “priest” for the religious ceremony. You might want to take a second look at those beautiful wedding guests with the smoldering eyes and modeling the gorgeous gowns.  They are not what they seem — and neither is the bride.

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San Martín Tilcajete isn’t the only village in Oaxaca that celebrates Carnaval in its own wild and wacky way. Beginning in 2019, in an effort to promote tourism to other villages, residents and visitors in Oaxaca city have been treated to a boisterous parade down the Macedonio Alcalá on the Saturday preceding Fat Tuesday sampling the pre-Lenten traditions from various parts of the state. Though festivities were canceled due to Covid-19, the city’s tourism department put together a video of celebrations from past years by several villages.

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Mountain biking in the city.
Benito (Juárez) knows best.
Riding with the queen (Frida Kahlo).
Masked, they’ll be dancing in the street (with the “Rubios” of Santiago Juxtlahuaca).

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After only two weeks of semáforo naranja (orange traffic light), as of yesterday, the federal government ordered the State of Oaxaca back to semáforo rojo (red traffic light) in the ongoing battle with Covid–19.

To tell the truth, the move to orange had many of us scratching our heads. Closely following the data released by the state health department, we wondered if Oaxaca really was experiencing a downward trend in the four metrics used to move from one traffic light to another: numbers of new cases, hospital occupancy trends, current hospital occupancy, and percentage of positive cases.

As for cubrebocas — a misnomer, if there ever was one for reasons to follow: Sunday’s stroll about town revealed 15% of people not wearing masks; 50% wearing them correctly; 35% wearing the “cubreboca” ONLY over their mouth, just like the name implies. In Cuba they are called “nasobuco,” indicating they need to cover both nose and mouth — a much better name, methinks!

By the way, according to Richard Grabman over at The Mex Files, “85% of Mexicans are wearing masks in public, compared to 67% of people in the US.”

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Even if you’re just going out for coffee, mask up!

A reminder from the shutters outside Café Brújula in Plaza Santo Domingo on Macedonio Alcalá. Artist: Mister D.

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It’s official, face masks (cubrebocas/tapabocas) are mandatory. At today’s press conference, the governor of Oaxaca announced the steps the state government is taking now that Mexico has entered Phase 3 of its Covid-19 emergency plan. I must say that I was impressed by the visuals as I watched — reporters, the governor’s team of experts, and even the governor at one point were modeling good mask behavior.

And, street artists have been plastering the walls of the city with mask-wearing messages.

A medical masked Batman says, “stay in the house” — by the artist, Yescka.

Former Governor of Oaxaca and beloved former President of Mexico, Benito Juárez rocking a mask.

Not sure this couple is practicing proper mask protocol, not to mention, sana distancia (physical distancing) — by artist Elise Rubin.

Unfortunately, this last image represents what I have observed in my wanderings through the empty streets of the city. On today’s outing to my neighborhood produce truck and then to various tiendas (corner stores) in search of mineral water, eggs, and butter, at least 30% of the people I encountered were not wearing masks. For the most part, it’s not because they are not available. They are selling for ten pesos each (40¢ US) and there are numerous projects making and distributing free cloth masks, including those spearheaded by my amiga Norma Schafer over at Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. I brought a couple of extra masks with me and offered one to the gal at the produce truck, but she declined, saying she already had one. I responded that it was really important that she wear it, but she just shrugged. It’s frustrating!

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My mask is hanging by the front door, ready to be called into service when I have to run those unavoidable errands.

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If nothing else, I’m hoping it will scare folks into realizing that I’m serious about physical distancing!

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Día de Carnaval (aka, Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival) in Oaxaca is muy especial — especially in the village of San Martín Tilcajete. The Spanish brought the tradition to Mexico and, like may other seasonal celebrations, it conveniently coincided with indigenous festivals celebrating the “lost days” of the Mesoamerican calendar, “when faces were covered to repel or confuse evil.” Apparently, it caught on “because it was one time when normal rules could be broken especially with the use of masks to hide identities from the authorities.”

Masks waiting to be worn at the workshop of Victor Fabián Ortega (click on image to enlarge)…

Not only were there masks at the workshop, there were bodies to be painted and it was a family affair — brothers, sisters, cousins, children, wives, and Victor himself who painted, was painted, and donned a mask.

Other family members (including women, new in the past couple of years) came painted and masked to gather to begin roaming through the village with other families, inviting one and all to the festivities!

And, it’s not just the adults. As with all celebrations and rituals in Oaxaca, children are encouraged to appreciate and participate — hopefully, ensuring these traditions continue.

The devils of San Martín Tilcajete laughed at everything: baptisms, weddings, solemn acts. Surrounded by devils with masks, old shoes, clothing of sacks, paintings that come from the earth and ancestral plants, they roam the streets chattering and everywhere they walk the streets laughing and appear either as devils or animal spirits.

That is why in SMT in carnival, it becomes a poetic dimension of shapes, colors and sounds; a fun and educational community that teaches us how imperfect we are, and to ask the good not to be so solemn and boring. Chamucos: Carnaval de San Martín Tilcajete Oaxaca, by Adolfo Pérez Butrón. (My translation.)

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If you live in Oaxaca, the characters of Carnaval are coming to a village near you. And to get you in the mood and entice you to one of the wild and whacky celebrations, the citizens of the city were treated to a parade sampling the various traditions — no two villages are the same.

Villa de Zaachila, “Grupo Natividad”

Putla Villa de Guerrero

Ánimas Trujano

Macuilxóchitl de Artigas Carranza

Santa Catarina Minas

Santa María Coyotepec

San Juan Bautista La Raya

Cuilápam de Guerrero

And, last but not least, San Martín Tilcajete…

That’s where I will be tomorrow!

 

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Scenes from the streets of San Martín Tilcajete during yesterday’s Carnaval craziness.

Jacobo Ángeles

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“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” – Eliott Erwitt

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Given that Oaxaca loves parades and processions (the numbers of Muertos comparsas and Guelaguetza desfiles seem to grow every year), yesterday the 1st Muestra de Carnavales de los Valles Centrales took over the Macedonio Alcalá walking street with costumes, devils, painted bodies, cowbells, bands, masked men, mezcal, and more.

Santa Ana Zegache

Santa Ana Zegache

In an effort to promote tourism in the villages, residents and visitors were treated to sampling the variety of Carnaval traditions from five of the Valley of Oaxaca’s communities.

San Jacinto Chilteca

San Jacinto Chilteca

The Spanish brought the tradition of Carnaval to Mexico.  However, like many other seasonal celebrations, it conveniently coincided with indigenous festivals celebrating the “lost days” of the Mesoamerican calendar, “when faces were covered to repel or confuse evil.”

Santa María Coyotepec

Santa María Coyotepec

Apparently, it caught on “because it was one time when normal rules could be broken especially with the use of masks to hide identities from the authorities.”

Barrio de San Pablo Zaachila

Barrio de San Pablo Zaachila

This Día de Carnaval (aka, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival), like previous years, we will be heading out to San Martín Tilcajete.

San Martín Tilcajete

San Martín Tilcajete

However, now I’m thinking we might want to add another stop (or four?) to our itinerary.  We shall see…

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During la Guelaguetza, the Desfiles de Delegaciones brought masked men (appearances to the contrary, most are men) to the streets of Oaxaca.  From San Andrés Zautla delegation, the Danza de los Jardineros…

 

along with the village viejos (old men).

 

The guys and “gal” from the Danza de los Diablos of Santiago Llano Grande.

 

From the delegation of the Diosa Centéotl, Santa María Zacatepec.

 

The masked Danza de los Diablos dancers of San Sebastián Tecomaxtlahuaca.

 

Danza de la Pluma subalternos from Teotitlán del Valle and Villa de Zaachila.

 

Carnaval dancers from Putla Villa de Guerrero.

 

Never a dull moment in Oaxaca!  Click on photos for enlarged images.

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In the hour leading up to the Guelaguetza Desfile de delagaciones, last minute prep work…

marmota assembly

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Mask

Makeup application

Props at the ready…

torito

Monos

Mezcal containers

boy and turkey

Human parade participants sit and wait…

Cart and gals

Danza de la Pluma danzante

Musicians

Women and masked man

And, spectators hang out on the sidewalks…

Women on cell phones

What did we all do before cell phones?

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Día de Carnaval (aka, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival), a day to let the good times roll before the sacrifices of the Lenten season, has come and gone.  And, again, blogger buddy Chris and I headed out to the surreal celebration in San Martín Tilcajete.  Driving into the village, one soon hears, rather than sees, that this isn’t a normal day in this wood carving village 17 miles south of the city — the streets are alive with the sound of cow bells.  Roaming the dirt back roads and paved main street, los encabezados (guys covered in motor oil or paint) come running past — with cow bells tied around their waist — making mischief and startling the unaware.

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Masks, all the better to hide one’s identity when making fun of the powers that be, are an international carnaval tradition.  Thus, in this village, known for its fantastically painted wood carvings, wooden masks play a big role in the celebration — including several by our friend Jesus Sosa Calvo and his family at Matlacihua Arte.

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This is a town where creativity reigns supreme and the costumes seem to get more whimsical and weirder every year.

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Oh, and did I mention there is a wedding?  Well, actually a parody of a traditional village wedding.  There is much pomp and circumstance, hilarity, and music — not to mention, breakfast and lunch for wedding guests — as participants move from the house of the mayor, to the home of the bride, and to City Hall for the civil ceremony.  Dancing in the plaza follows and then, at some predetermined time, there is a procession through the streets before arriving at another house where the happy “couple” kneel before “priest” for the religious ceremony.

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And, you might want to take a second look at those beautiful wedding guests with the smoldering eyes and modeling the gorgeous gowns.  They are not what they seem — and that includes the bride.

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The Spanish brought the Carnaval tradition to Mexico because, like many other seasonal celebrations, it conveniently coincided with indigenous festivals celebrating the “lost days” of the Mesoamerican calendar, “when faces were covered to repel or confuse evil.”  Evidently it caught on, “because it was one time when normal rules could be broken…”  And, San Martín Tilcajete certainly knows how!!!

By the way, many from the creative team of the movie Coco came to enjoy the festivities and renew acquaintances in this town that provided the inspiration for the alebrijes in the film.  “De Oaxaca tomamos los alebrijes, la celebración del Día de los Muertos, toda esa energía y colores están en los paisajes de la película. Quise ser lo más fiel en esta investi­gación y plasmarlo en la cin­ta…”  (“From Oaxaca we take the alebrijes, the celebration of the Day of the Dead, all the energy and colors are in the landscapes of the film…”) (NVI Noticias, 2/14/2018)

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Well, actually, they came, they saw, and they set the village straight.

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Stay tuned…

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Besides a mock wedding with men dressed as women, mentioned in my previous post, Carnaval (Carnival, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday) in San Martín Tilcajete also means young men covered in motor oil (yuck!) and paint running through the village with belts of cowbells ringing.

And, it means muchas máscaras de madera — in this village famous for its fantastical hand-painted alebrije woodcarvings and masks.

Some of my favorite masks and body paint were done by Jesus Sosa Calvo, his talented wife, Juana Vicente Ortega Fuente, and their gifted children.  (See the mask I gave to my son, carved by Apolinar, one of their sons.)  If you are in San Martín Tilcajete, be sure to see their work at Matlacihua Arte (right across from the zócalo on the main street).

The Spanish brought this pre-Lenten tradition to Mexico and, like many other seasonal celebrations, it conveniently coincided with indigenous festivals celebrating the “lost days” of the Mesoamerican calendar, “when faces were covered to repel or confuse evil.”  Apparently, it caught on “because it was one time when normal rules could be broken especially with the use of masks to hide identities from the authorities.”

Masks, motor oil, face and body paint, you name it, disguised and anonymous was the order of the day!

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