The Monday after Easter in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, begins a five-day ritual practice about sustaining community. This is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of 1521. Some call it Carnaval (aka Mardi Gras) but it isn’t. It is called Baile de los Viejos or Dance of the Old Men, according to my interviews with local Zapotecs who know the oral history and culture because they live here and learned the ancient lore from their parents and grandparents.
Today and tomorrow in Teotitlan del Valle, the procession starts around 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. in Oaxaca) followed by the Dance of the Old Men in the Municipio Plaza.
Carnaval is a pre-Lenten celebration that we know all too well from the festivities in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. It is rooted in a Roman celebration that extended throughout Europe during the middle ages.
Dance of the Old Men, the Viejitos, is a way for each of the five sections of the village of Teotitlan del Valle to give anonymous feedback to its elected officials, the president and the committee. It is a self-governing mechanism that gives voice to each person in the community that is transmitted by the masked actors who represent them. The mime is a ritual about giving feedback, paying honor and tribute to leaders and keeping communication open for honest dialog.
It’s true that the Dance has taken on a more carnival atmosphere, complete with food and drink and ice cream vendors. Children participate in the masked dancing and there is a frivolity in the air. But, this is a serious practice that ensures cohesion and lets the leaders know how well they are doing, if they are meeting expectations and where they may be falling short. Humility is rewarded here. Arrogance is not. Leaders are reminded that they are in their voluntary and elected roles at the behest of the people.
This is a self-governing model for Mexico’s Usos y Costumbres villages, many of which are in Oaxaca.
The generation of grandfathers and grandmothers want their children to know that this is not Carnaval. It is an important, ancient Zapotec practice about how to live together peacefully, with self-governance. Let’s do our part to help perpetuate the accurate story.