It looks like Carnival. Some people call it Carnival. But, it isn’t. El Baile de los Viejos — Dance of the Old Men — is an ancient annual Zapotec pre-Hispanic tradition. The “dance” is a ritual communication to ensure the stability and survival of a people. The dancers remind the volunteer elected village leaders and especially the president to attend to their own behavior and the justice of their decisions.
The oral history of this dance, also called “disfrasan de vestementas,” is passed from generation to generation. I asked Pedro Montano Lorenzo to tell me the story of the Dance of the Old Men. We are sitting all together around the table for comida (lunch) during a giant afternoon thunder and lightening storm. The heavens are pouring rain. Listen! he says to his nearly adult children. This is important for you to know.
The spirits of the Old Men first came to the village to save the people. They return each year to celebrate life and remind us that we must be good people. The Old Men have the right to represent the people, and speak honestly and directly to the authorities on their behalf. They must have the courage to tell the president of the village about what needs to be improved. They transmit to the leaders specific areas of concern after going from home to home in their section of town to talk directly to the people. Pedro says this tradition is “muy fuerte” — very strong and powerful. It is a reminder that the people are more powerful than the leadership, and it is the people who put them there.
The Old Men are masked and anonymous. Each of the five sections of the village select their “old man” representatives. These are trusted individuals who speak Zapotec and know the traditions and customs. They must be be strong enough to hear the issues and complaints of the people in their section and transmit the information honestly to the leadership. Theirs is a serious responsibility.
Each section hosts a party that is financed by the people of the section, every household giving according to their means. It could be money, a bottle of mezcal or a chicken. The party is to welcome the Old Men from the other world, to celebrate them, and to feed them and give them strength before they leave the host house and proceed to the municipal building where they will meet with the president to give feedback. Each section goes to the municipal building on one of the five days to speak to the president and dance the ritual, hence the five-day celebration.
The Old Men and their two other-worldly assistants, men dressed as women (to represent the women of the village, I am told), laugh with a ribald, stylized “risa” that tells everyone they are present and to pay attention. The laugh is called a broma sannas — a good joke — to remind the pueblo that is needs to be in equilibrium and to restore good feelings if relationships need mending.
The Old Men wear traditional manta cloth out of respect for the old ways. They perform a ritual dance in the municipal palace with the president and village leaders to mime the relationship between the leaders and the village people. The dance says that there is mutual respect between the leadership and the people, that they agree to fulfill the obligations to the village, responsible for each others’ behavior and the behavior of the leadership. The dancers give an offering of mezcal, sweets and beer to the president of the village. This is a ritual exchange to offer congratulations if everything is going well. It can also be a reminder that the balance of power is out of equilibrium and needs correction.
Some people think that the fiesta celebrates the resurrection of Jesus because it falls on the Monday immediately after Easter Sunday and call it Carnival. Others say it has no relationship to Christianity and is an ancient pre-Hispanic practice. All say that the children need to know this story in order to sustain the culture.