Carnival in the state of Tlaxcala, in central Mexico, includes different dances whose names and themes vary from one town to another. Each town has its own particular characteristic.
However, there is a general sequence of events common to all towns: each troupe of dancers, all of them in costume, meets at the organizer’s house. Each group dances in the yard or the entrance to the house, accompanied by the band of musicians. They then move on, dancing from house to house. Around mid-afternoon, each group begins preparations for the parade that will include all the town’s dance troupes. The procession kicks off in the main square or sometimes the church atrium.
Every group has a space assigned to the dancers and another to the band. During the climactic final day of celebrations, fireworks accompany the dancing.Each town has an organization responsible for fulfilling certain festival commitments. All the troupes are referred to as fraternities or huehues (elders), and many of them have additional names to identify the characters they represent.
Dances can be divided into two groups: in the southern region, between the city of Tlaxcala, the capital of the homonymous state and the outskirts of Puebla City, the groups are called Charros (cowboys) or Paragüeros (umbrella carriers). To the north, between the city of Tlaxcala and the municipality of Apizaco, they are called Catrines (dandies). The Catrines wear tuxedos with frock coats, dress shirts, top hats and gloves. In some towns they carry large umbrellas.
The Carnival of Panotla Municipality, located about four kms to the west of the city of Tlaxcala, is known for its elegance. Hats are decked out with flowers made from ribbons. A gold fringe hangs from the front of the masks, and performers hold paper flowers in their mouths. An embroidered cloth worn under the sombrero covers their shoulders. Each group of Catrines is led by a fiscal dressed in white who carries a banner identifying the dance troupe. Every male dancer has a female partner.
In the municipality of Amaxac de Guerrero in south-east, each of the six groups of Catrines enters the town led by a fiscal. When two fiscals meet, one cedes his position to the other, turning to the four cardinal points. The fiscals from the previous year, along with the recently elected ones, enter the churchyard and kneel before the closed church door. Dancers in the streets adjoining the churchyard also kneel, and the music stops. The dancers stand up once the fiscals have finished praying. Immediately, the six bands of musicians commence playing, and everyone starts to dance, first in the streets, then at the fiscals’ houses.
The Charros or Paragiieros in the towns in the southern Tlaxcala state wear dark suits with waistcoats, bow ties, suede chaps and hand-woven ribbons. A long, heavily sequined garment is sewn at shoulder level, as if it were a pre-Hispanic cloak. The dancers cover their faces with masks and wear hats lined with cloth, usually velvet. Poking up from the top of the hat is a framework with a cascade of feathers forming an umbrella to cover the dancer’s head. Every headdress is composed of forty eight coloured ostrich feathers.
In the Tepeyanco in the south-east of Tlaxcala, the musicians and the coterie of dancers – usually known as Locos – dress with utmost elegance. There are only two Paragiieros in this troupe. The rest dress like eighteenth-century Spanish aristocrats, in velvet jackets and pants embroidered in bright colours and feathered hats. This town still preserves an ancient tradition: at the height of the celebration, the troupe members make flirtatious remarks to the women in Nahuatl. The dance has one sequence in which only the Paragiieros perform. Called la culebra (the snake), it is presented at every Carnival. Each of the Paragiieros holds a whip made of ixtle fibre.
In the sequence, they form two lines facing each other and, when a certain piece of music strikes up, each dancer attempts to whip the legs of the one opposite him, while the latter must jump to avoid the lashing. At the end of the sequence, the dancers place their whips on the floor. Together the whips look like a cluster of snakes, around which only the Paragiieros dance. Since pre-Hispanic times, the snake has symbolized lightning and rain in indigenous Mexico. The rain alludes to the fertility of the land, while the doll refers to a woman’s fertility. Both are combined in this festival to signify the continuity of life. That is why the dances of the Paragiieros and Catrines are prayers for rain.
Over the centuries, Carnival has been enriched with the inclusion of new elements. The ribbon dance was an early addition. Many of the melodies accompanying the dances were composed as eighteenth-century courtly dances. The costumes of the Locos of Tepeyanco are reminiscent of what Spanish nobles wore in the eighteenth century. The masks ridiculing the nineteenth-century hacienda owners who oppressed the Indians intermingle with others representing famous actors, singers and folk heroes, showing us the ever-changing face of a tradition whose essence has remained despite the passage of time.
In Tepeyanco and San Sebastian Atlahuapa, the festivities end with the killing of a rooster. It hangs from a rope while the Paragueros dance beneath it and beat it to death. Similar ceremonies exist in other parts of Mexico. The Spaniards of the sixteenth century introduced cockfights to New Spain, having adopted the tradition from the Arabs. It is believed that the custom of beating a rooster recalls a pre-Hispanic fertility rite in which the blood of the sacrificial victims was spilled on the ground. (R.L.)