They say the opposite of what they mean. It is a social game, everything under the fog.
The fog is the main character in Tetela de Ocampo, a village in the mountains of Puebla, in East-Central Mexico. The streets, the bends in the roads, the landscape…all are made of fog. The inhabitants have become accustomed to the ghosts and the nahuales or “familiars.”
The people themselves are often beings who are both there and not there, figures that brush past each other as they walk but never see each other, real but amorphous individuals. When the sun comes up, the massive Mount Sotol is reborn, and its inhabitants celebrate just because they can see each other. This village lives off its production of garlic used by the pharmaceutical industry and of red limes that look like apples. Its inhabitants also cultivate green roses and peaches that taste like plums.
Tetela is a magical world. During the days of Carnival the unreal world – all the differences and quarrels of the real world are resolved. The dance troupes called cuadrillas, organized by the different neighbourhoods, begin rehearsing a month prior and the members of each cuadrilla must forgive each other for whatever might need forgiving, if they are to dance in harmony. This is also when the village performs an act of liberty by changing how language is used. For this short period every year, the citizens say the opposite of what they mean.
Men tell their wives, “Don’t serve me dinner. Get out of the house.” And the women correctly understand them to be saying, “Let’s eat together. I love you.”
Parents order their children not to go to school, telling them, “I hope you fail.” And the children understand, “Go to school. Don’t stop studying.”
And so, left becomes right and right becomes left. Black is white and white is black. A boy professes his love for a girl, stating, “I have hated you for never.” She responds, “I have never detested you,” and then they make plans for their divorce. Years become months, and months, days. Pesos are centavos. Milk is called beer and bread is called meat.
The people’s skilled use of this “reverse language” constitutes a kind of collective mask where those who don’t physically wear a mask can also transform their lives in an instant.
It is a social game where the meaning of words takes on a new dimension and suppleness. This way of speaking is surprising for the rapidity, precision and naturalness with which it is used. It may seem absurd, but no one thinks of it that way. People assume this temporary change of language as part of their everyday life. They enjoy altering reality, though in fact everything remains the same.
During this period, only the verses sung by the huehues or elders state exactly what they mean, as if the logical language they use were the product of an act of magic, of an imaginary world. The huehues wear dark pants and white shirts, with a sombrero or military cap. They use simple masks made out of ayacahuite wood, carved to resemble the faces of French soldiers defeated in the nineteenth century. They are characterized by eye-catching capes, hand-embroidered with figures like peacocks and flamingos, accompanied by embroidered verses: “Hernán Cortes may have conquered the nation, but I will win its heart.” The important thing is the language: the rhymes become a challenge, a duel of voices. The cuadrilla, still dancing, brings one of the rhymesters to the centre, and he recites, “There is a lime tree in the courtyard of my house. A Juárez girl is won over by a man, not a mouse.”
When he finishes, someone else snaps the whip (which represents Evil), and yields the stage to the next huehue, who responds, “The girls from Tetela don’t even know how to kiss, but the girls from Juárez will lie down for you like this.” And so, between verses and snapping whips, the dance troupes wander the streets of different neighbourhoods performing in exchange for food or liquor.
The fog, which is everyone’s mask, descends early and hides the town. Mount Sotol disappears. The huehues take off their masks. No one can see them now, but they keep on dancing. All that is heard are their verses and the violins accompanying them. Words and firecrackers escape from the dense fog to give each neighbourhood an identity, until they pass out of hearing range. The surefooted huehues walk through the foggy streets guided only by the labyrinth in their minds and the dexterity of their tongues, as real and as imaginary as they themselves are.