The Stilt Dancers of Zaachila are called Zancudos because stilts are long and leggy like mosquito legs. Stilts are called zancos in Spanish. The Zancudos are very proprietary about this dance. They consider it part of their cultural identity and heritage.
After I wrote the blog post about the Lila Downs concert during Guelaguetza season and published a photograph of stilt dancers there invited from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec that also appeared on Facebook, I received a deluge of messages from Zaachila Zancudos, critical of my calling the dancers from Tlahui Zancudos. Many were quick to tell me that they were the first to use stilts to dance. I explained that I only photographed what was presented at the Lila Downs Concert. Yet, the backlash poured in and I wondered why.
I wanted to go to Zaachila to talk with the group Bachos Zancudos Buin Zaa (Zancudos de Zaachila) to find out more about their history and traditions, to understand why they reacted so strongly.
On Thursday, Zaachila market day, I arranged to meet with Pedro Aldair Antonio Aragon, age 21 and a zancudo since he was six years old. Aldair invited his friend and fellow zancudo, Erick Aragon Rodriguez, now age 36 who learned to walk the stilts when he was ten, to join us. Kay and Dean Michaels, friends from North Carolina now living in Oaxaca, joined me.
There is immense community pride in this dance, originally called Bachos. It is part of village identity. The dance goes back at least 100 years and Aldair carries on the tradition of his father and grandfather, who were also stilt dancers. A bronze monument of a stilt dancer stands in the center of the village zocalo or main plaza as a testimony to this history.
Erick explains that stilts were originally used to cross rivers and arroyos. The land is filled with rolling hills, swales and deep gullies and it makes sense that this became a necessary mode of transportation and navigation around and through the limitations of the landscape. How stilts came to Zaachila is a matter for research. Were they brought by Europeans or an innovation to deal with the terrain?
The wooden stilts are made in Zaachila. There is a workshop that fabricates and sells them. I am told by the young men that about ten years ago, a troupe of Zaachila zancudos traveled throughout Oaxaca towns to perform the dance. In Tlahuitoltepec someone asked to buy a pair of stilts, which were then reproduced. Tlahuitoltecos from the Mixe region of Oaxaca learned how to use the stilts and created their own steps, using their own indigenous dress. Aldair and Erick say the stilt dancing has been in existence there for less than ten years.
There is controversy. They emphasize that Zancudo is a word associated with Zaachila and should not be used in association with Tlahuitoltepec. They say the word is part of their tradition, culture and to honor the grandfathers. Anthropologists consider dance, language, dress and other forms of artistic expression to be part of cultural identity. I want to understand, not arbitrate.
The Zaachila Zancudos have never gone to an official Guelaguetza because their village leaders field their group of Los Danzantes de La Pluma (Dance of the Feather). About five Zapotec villages in the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca perform the Dance of the Feather. Which is selected each year to go to Guelaguetza depends on the office of tourism/government Committee of Authentication.
Today, there are about 80 people in the Zancudos group. Thirty are ages three to ten years old who are learning the dance. Eleven year olds dance with the adults. From time to time, about 10 to 30 people can show up for a dance or calenda (parade), but for major fiestas more dancers will turn out.
Coming up on Thursday, September 6, 5 p.m.
Zaachila will celebrate her Saint’s Day honoring Santa Maria Natividad. There will be a big parade of Zancudos, going from the church to the Zocalo.
Everyone is invited.
Go early! Go to the market. Have lunch. Eat nieves.
We have been talking about cultural appropriation at Oaxaca Cultural Navigator for some time. The new cultural center in Teotitlan del Valle addresses the question of what is cultural heritage and who “owns” it, who has rights, if any, to copy or adapt.
- Is it disrespectful for a Mixe group to use the stilt dancing developed by a Zapotec group?
- Is it disrespectful for the Lila Downs concert producer to invite the group from Tlahuitoltepec and not the dancers from Zaachila?
- Was the Tlahui group chosen because they look more professional or because their traditional village dress is more interesting for a stage production?
- Is it disrespectful that a Guelaguetza Committee of Authentication has never included the Zancudos in the official tourism office produced Guelaguetza event?
- These are issues here for Mexicans to decide.
Your comments and opinions are welcome!
After lunch, we said goodbye to Aldair and Erick. Kay, Dean and I could not resist the nieves stalls on the zocalo. There is a line-up of about six permanent puestos. Which one to choose? We picked the busiest, of course, owned by Doña Chabelita who has been there sincce 1966, the oldest in Zaachila. Her grandson just returned from 20 years living and working in Connecticut. Impeccable English. Not sure about immigration status, but who cares!