Dance of the Little Old Men–Baile de Viejitos, Oaxaca

After a spectacular week of Semana Santa celebrations in Teotitlan del Valle, the village gathers for yet another tribute.  Dance of the Little Old Men, or Baile de Viejitos, begins on the Monday after Easter Sunday and goes for five continuous days.  It is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ritual centered around the way the community is organized and how well the voluntary leaders mete out justice and fairness.  The village leaders are assessed by each one of the five administrative sections of the village through an intricate process of information gathering, question asking, and feedback.

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Each section has an opportunity to give feedback to the leaders through the men selected by each section to speak for them.  The men are dressed in disguise as elders, wise, strong, able to take a stand and tell the truth.  It is a power-leveling mechanism that is designed to humble the arrogant.

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Some call it Carnivale, like the pre-Lenten celebration, because there are masquerades and cross-dressing.  To the uninitiated, it looks like a springtime version of Halloween with costumed, dancing young boys.  They join the official masquers who accompany the Old Men as they act out their message through the dance and the tribute they pay to the leaders.  It is ceremonial and formal.

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And, it is fun.  There is excitement in the air.  The village gathers on stone steps that were once the foundation of a Zapotec temple.  The Municipio Building is ringed with folding chairs and behind them, vendors selling fresh-made fruit-flavored ices, cones stuffed with cream, do-nuts, and other sweets.  Another vendor sells steaming tamales seasoned with chipil. Parents buy bags of 5 peso popcorn for children to munch on.

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The dance starts at 6 p.m. and goes well into the night.  All the leaders, starting with the president, dance in succession with the Viejitos representing the section.   The section representatives sit solemnly after they have presented their tribute — cartons of beer and mezcal.  Each section takes their turn — one section for each night.

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