Mexico. The Xitas, the symbol of cultural continuity.

Temascalcingo is a small municipality in the north-western area of the State of Mexico.  The name of this town comes from a Nahuatl word meaning ‘place of the small temascal’ (a pre-Hispanic sweat lodge). Here, myths of origin have become traditions re-enacted at festive gatherings held year after year with the involvement of the entire community. Xita Corpus is the most important of these: an ancient myth of pre-Hispanic origin that is continually re-signified and updated.

According to the myth, the Xitas are the ancient people of remote times who came to Temascalcingo after walking for many days. On their arrival they asked the authorities for permission to stop and rest after their long journey. They begged for a bit of food because they had only eaten wild animals and plants along the way. But there was no food available, so the townspeople pleaded with them to bring the rains that had been so long in coming. With their dances, the elders summoned the rains, invoking the land’s fertility and a good harvest.

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This invocation is performed during the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi. The rite is linked to the agricultural cycle, specifically when rain-fed corn is planted. Though corn cultivation is no longer the most profitable economic activity in Temascalcingo, it remains the community’s ‘social and symbolic core, the symbol of cultural continuity, what holds the community together and promotes communal life’.
Preparations for the ritual begin a few weeks before the event, when the religious authorities carefully select the local residents who will personify the elder man and woman: the father and mother, the couple responsible for guiding and representing the community in the procession bearing their saints’ statues to the municipal seat.
The ‘old men’ and ‘old women’ accompanying them are local people who volunteer to participate.

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The Xitas – from the Mazahua word for ‘old people’ or ‘ancestors’ – are usually played by young men, and they are free to choose the gender they will personify and which personality traits they will take on.
Each participant is responsible for designing and creating his own costume, mask and accessories. The costume is made up of a combination of used clothing that has been muddied and cut into strips, which are then sewn together to fashion pants, skirts and jackets that appear worn and tattered. Some enhance their costumes with a typical quechquemetl (triangular mantle), enaguas (petticoat) or faja (sash) in the regional style.

The Origins of the Xitas’ Costume

The ritual elements of the costume and the mask are charged with the sacred and religious significance of Mother Nature; they attest to the pre-Hispanic symbolism and Catholic imagery which present-day  Mazahuas have inherited, resulting in one more example of the cultural lending that has resulted in what  is known as la mexicanidad, or ‘Mexicanness’.

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With the arrival of Catholic friars in New Spain and the subsequent introduction of their religion, new elements were incorporated into the Xita Corpus costume. On Corpus Thursday, in an act of Christian solidarity, the owner of the Solis hacienda – the largest one in the Temascalcingo region – gave all the servants and laborers the day off so they might enjoy the festivities. He would also give them a young bull, so they could organize bullfights, following which they would slaughter and cook the animal. The hacienda owner, his family and ranch managers would give their old clothing to the Indians so they could dress properly for the event, but the Indians felt ridiculous wearing such finery with their old leather sandals, so they preferred to turn it into a satire, a festive protest, accepting the boss’s charity but then shredding the clothing, cutting it into pieces and turning it into dance costumes. This is the origin of the tattered clothing worn during this ritual. The Indians would then accessorize their costumes with masks of old men and women, carved out of agave trunks or wood. It is this atmosphere of satire and Catholic jubilation that justified the use of masks, costumes and dances referring to the ancestors’ agricultural festivities and celebration of the fire god.

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In time, these dances established themselves as the Xita Corpus tradition, held every Corpus Thursday in Temascalcingo. Constant economic, cultural and social change gradually transformed the ritual and accompanying costumes. Little by little, participants began utilizing wrestling masks or werewolf, witch, monster, robot and astronaut costumes. Young men playing the role of old women would wear skirts, stockings and blouses, and excessive make-up after the fashion of dance-hall girls. Faced with this massive transformation of traditional practices, people began to complain that the ritual had become a ‘carnival’, and that a ;return to tradition’ was needed.
At these carnivalesque festivities, participants wear costumes made from strips of fabric and bells that recall the sound of rain. They behave in a very mischievous and festive manner to mark the difference with usual everyday behavior and social activities. Mazahua and Otomi community elders and authorities embarked on a laborious process of recovering the costumes and masks of ‘the ancestors’. However, the recovery of this costume has not diminished Temascalcingo craftsmen’s capacity for invention and creativity, as they have incorporated a number of natural elements from the surrounding area into their work: prickly pears, agave leaves, tree bark, corn husks, shells, shrubs, feathers and sticks, are all used to create innovative accessories that embellish the traditional costume, along with elements that  reflect participants’ trades, aspirations or origins (for example, builders use cement bags, while fishermen use nets).

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Despite the scarcity of agave in this region, artisans have risen to the challenge with great creativity, utilizing the cardboard liners of cement bags as the backing for their masks. With great skill, they apply cow dung, straw and synthetic paint to mimic the texture and shape of agave trunk. Xita Corpus costumes and masks are like ‘shells’ that become charged with ritual meaning during the dance, but at the same time they are a portrait of the life experiences of the person wearing them.
The old men’s and old women’s Xita Corpus costumes have persisted as the form and substance of the historic past, bearing witness to the ritual’s cultural evolution and the aspirations and experiences of the people who celebrate it.

Patricia Arreola


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