I’ve been corrected. The Virgin of Guadalupe is not a saint. She is Our Lady of Guadalupe, giver of miracles. In reality, she is the quintessential symbol of Mexican syncretism, combining indigenous roots/beliefs with Spanish Catholicism. In reality, she is more indigenous than Catholic receiving much more attention than the Virgin Mary or Jesus.
As a spiritual symbol, Guadalupe, or Lupita as many call her, sings to us. Especially women. She is Queen. She is Corn Goddess. She is Mother Earth. Protectress. She is Tonantzin.
To celebrate her, regardless of religious beliefs or spiritual disposition, is therefore easy and fun.
In the spirit of fun-ness, I participated in a Virgin Play Day at the home of Linda Hanna, who has been hosting this event for years. This was my first time and it was a glorious respite from my routine (whatever that is).
About forty women, extranjeras and Zapotecas, gathered in the courtyard to create our own version of the Divine Lupita. There was a wood form which we would spend the day breathing life into.
Creating a goddess icon was easier for others than for me. Too many choices of bric-a-brac, magazine images, cloth, glitter, paint, and every other creative type of decorative materials you could imagine. I managed to burn my fingers using the glue gun, another first for me.
I was reminded about how important it is to take a creative day away from the everyday. It was good to catch up with women I rarely have the opportunity to be with. And, of course, the potluck interlude for lunch was over-the-top! There are a lot of good cooks in Oaxaca — even extrajeras!
Then, to put a cap on an already glorious day, at the end of the day I returned to Teotitlan del Valle. In the church courtyard, Los Danzantes de la Pluma were paying homage to the Virgin with their traditional Dance of the Feather. As evening descended into darkness and warmth turned to chill, the village gathered here in celebration of ancient traditions. Pre-Hispanic traditions.
Wednesday, July 10, 2019–This group of new dancers start their three-year commitment to church, community and family this year. The most touching moment for me was to be in the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character in the Danza de la Pluma just before they set out to the church plaza to dance for three hours until sunset on July 9.
Here I witnessed loved ones bestow their blessings on him. It was like anointing their son and grandson with the benediction of all the generations who came before, offering God’s favor and protection. It was as if all the young men over decades who participated in this sacred dance were present, too. It is an honor and a commitment to perform this service. I am told it is life-changing.
The ritual is repeated year after year, but the first year is a special test for a new group of dancers for their faith, endurance, strength, passion, dedication, coordination and precision. It is also an important exercise in mutual support. Dancers are not individuals. They are part of a team, and it is their team effort that underlies the essence of how this Usos y Costumbres community self-governs.
The Dance of the Feather, which tells the story of the Spanish Conquest from the indigenous point-of-view, is meticulously choreographed. The village symphony orchestra/band knows exactly what to play as the story unfolds. As each step is taken down the cobbled streets to the church, there is a cadence that is repeated in the retelling.
In the altar room at the Moctezuma’s home, family members help each member of the group dress in their costume. This takes time since each element of the dress is an elaborate undertaking.
Behind the scenes, another type of choreography takes place. It is the work men, women and girls and boys who do the food preparation and service. Every bit is made by hand. The chickens are slaughtered, boiled and the meat is shredded for tamales.
The toro (bull) is slaughtered and prepared for barbacoa de res. The tejate is stone ground by hand, with home roasted cacao beans. Can I talk about the memelas? I’ve never tasted anything so good — comal toasted corn patties, slathered with bean paste, fresh salsa, shredded Oaxaca cheese, a drizzle of shredded lettuce.
We feed each other because we take care of each other. Our survival and continuity depends on it.
This is a hallmark for Teotitlan del Valle and other Usos y Costumbres communities in Mexico. They function so well because of this bond. Mutual support is about respect for heritage and relationships. You do it because it is a value to the self, the other and makes the whole stronger.
The dancers who participate in the Dance of the Feather embody these values, embrace them, practice them and model them for others.
The dancing will resume again in the church courtyard on Friday, July 12, at 5:00 PM. Check Oaxaca Events for schedule and other festivities around town.
As I said goodbye to family members of the dance group, they asked me to tell you how important their culture is to them, how they want to communicate the beauty and friendship of Mexico, and how strongly they are committed to preserving traditions, and extend an invitation to visit.
There are two clown figures included in the Dance of the Feather. They serve multiple functions. Primarily they are the dancers’ helpers, holding crowns when a scarf needs to be retied, bringing water and rehydration drinks, communicating with the officials when a bio-break is needed. They also are jesters that provide fun, frivolity and antics to the story — a diversion of sorts.
They will tease and cajole audience members, like me. Jajajajaja. In the original story, they are the Aztec spies who disguised themselves to get close to the Spanish conquistadores and bring information back to the Aztec generals. There were two battles with the Spanish. The Aztecs won the first.
Opening ceremonies for the Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle always begin with a 5:00 PM Monday convite starting in the plaza courtyard. Convite translates into banquet, invitation, feast. Here, it is a procession that by my definition is a Feast For the Eyes.
Today, Tuesday, July 9, Los Danzantes de la Pluma will begin their full presentation at 5:00 PM in the church courtyard. Tomorrow, on July 10, they will start at 12:00 PM noon and dance until about 8:00 PM.
When I’m here, this is a desfile that I do not want to miss. This year is special, too, because a new group of dancers begins their three-year commitment to church and community. They will dance at every community-wide celebration as part of their promise to participate.
We got back to Teotitlan from the city just in time for the festivities to begin. Young women and girls as young as three years old, dressed in traditional fiesta traje, gathered in the church plaza with their ornate decorated baskets to prepare for the parade through the streets.
We were waiting for the Danzantes to arrive. They had left the home of the Moctezuma, the head of the group, and walked behind the band for about a mile to the church. You could follow their path by the sound. In full dance regalia complete with corona (crown), rattles, amulets, and a costume that combines Spanish and pre-Hispanic symbols, they were a sight to behold.
I’ve written a lot here about the syncretism between indigenous spirituality and mysticism combined with Spanish Catholicism which comprises modern Mexico — Mestizo culture. Malinche is the slave given to Cortes who was his lover-translator. Remember, she was a slave and had no choice! Doña Marina is the same woman after being baptized in the church. The conversion is an important part of Mexican mixed identity.
My Note: The Dance of the Feather is a re-telling of the conquest story through dance. It is part of Oaxaca’s oral history. Zapotec, the native language, is not written. In traditional villages, it is part of the usos y costumbres laws and traditions. The dance has become commercialized and performed by professionals during the annual Guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s auditorium. Please don’t confuse the commercial folkloric dance, which requires expensive tickets, with its original purpose.
There were probably four hundred people assembled, including villagers who would follow the procession through the streets. Accompanying the procession were official representatives from each of Teotitlan’s five sections, each a sponsor for a group of young women, plus other patrons who provide the means to build and maintain their canasta baskets.
All along the procession path, locals assembled in front of houses and on corners to watch and to pay respects.
Symbols of Our Lady the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dancer’s shield
On December 12, the Virgin’s Feast Day, the Dancers gathered in the church courtyard at around noon and continued with intermittent breaks until 8:00 p.m., when they went to the house of the Mayordomo Fidel Cruz for respite and supper.
Entering the festive church courtyard to watch the Dancers
These celebrations are important on many levels. They continue long-standing traditions, many of which pre-date the Spanish conquest.
Los Danzantes in the late afternoon shadows
They reinforce community, build cohesiveness among the young men and their families, they honor church and tradition, and they attract tourism — an essential part of this Zapotec rug-weaving village.
Dancers taking high leaps as shadows catch them
It is almost impossible to visit here for the first time without going home with a beautiful tapestry.
Inside the church, the altar honors Mexico’s Queen, La Reina de Mexico
The weaving culture is reflected in the dancers’ leggings and on the shields they wear. Many of them use pieces that were made by fathers and grandfathers twenty or more years ago.
Leggings are handwoven tapestry loomed wool in ancient Zapotec design
If you look closely, the weaving is fine, detailed and is a work of art.
Transluscent scarves float through afternoon light and shadow
As I stayed through the afternoon, I caught some of the long shadows as the sun set. After so many years of taking photographs of Los Danzantes leaping, shaking rattles, demonstrating their fortitude and strength, I was searching for a way to capture the scene in a different way.
Volunteer committee members pay respects
As the important village usos y costumbres committee members entered the church courtyard, many visitors, including me, moved to the periphery to give them seats of honor. As I moved around the circumference, I noticed how the shadows of the dancers became an extension of their bodies in the backlight of late afternoon.
Grandmother and grandson watching. The young ones dream of becoming dancers.
A spectacular clear day, warm in sun, chilly in shade
The band is an essential part of every fiesta
Children play atop the courtyard cross.
The Oaxaca Lending Library brought a group to watch. All visitors welcome!
Guadalupe atop canastas (baskets) for the December 10 parade
Side door entry to church from interior courtyard
A new altar adorns a niche under renovation inside church
If you visit, please make a donation for renovations
Folded chairs waiting for occupants, inside courtyard
Canastas waiting for return to storage, until the next time
Playing with shadows, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico
Who are these clowns? What purpose do they have in the Conquest of Mexico story? The clowns are an ever-present, necessary part of the Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma — story that recreates the Moctezuma-Cortez clash that we know as The Conquest of Mexico.
The distracting Clown, with La Malinche in background.
Deep in conversation, the chair dance, on July 8, 2017
Little is written about these clowns. However, I have the good fortune of knowing Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras who lives in San Jeronimo Tlacochuaya, just up the road from me.
Moises is very knowledgeable about Zapotec history. At dinner yesterday, he told me the musical score to the dance probably written in the late 19th or early 20th century, when the oompahpah German music became popular in Mexico. Others attribute it to the French.
Giving water to a thirsty Danzante
The dance is likely rooted in pre-Hispanic ritual and practice, incorporated into village feast days to celebrate the church throughout the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca (Central Valleys) after the Conquest.
Quenching thirst is only one Clown task. Keeping the dance area clean is another.
He also explained the symbology of what the Clowns represent in the story:
“Since the dance represents the Conquest, these clowns or “CAMPOS” represent the sorcerers Aztecs used to spy on the Spanish troops. These sorcerers developed the “Nahual” art, so while they were spying they were able to turn themselves into eagles, coyotes or snakes, and Spanish troops could not see that they were being spied upon. Because of that, their masks are not well-defined. They could pretty much represent any animal. Their function in the Dance now is to entertain, steal kisses, clear the area, help dancers etc.”
The pair of clowns, with the chair dance.
There is a prescribed sequence to the days of the Dance. Each day features a different path of the story line, until the last day, when the conquest is brought to conclusion.
Mindful of Los Danzantes’ needs, a practical task
In the end, as the story goes, Mexico thrives because of her strength in syncretism — the blending of two roots, indigenous and Spanish, the union of Cortes with La Malinche, producing a son named Martin, which defines the beginning of the modern state.
Omnipresent, and critical to the Dance of the Feather
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
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