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Fat Tuesday in Tilcajete


Tuesday of this week, Fat Tuesday, to be more precise, I squired three visiting young ladies from Montana to San Martín Tilcajete, a village of about 1600 people three quarters of an hour southwest of the city of Oaxaca. “Young,” of course, is from my personal perspective; all three recently have mostly retired from ecology-oriented careers. “Mostly,” is because, like me, although they are now free to do a little more traveling, they continue to work just as hard as always only WBOS, that is, without benefit of salary.


            As Oaxacaphiles know, fiestas of one sort or another are pretty much an everyday occurrence in these parts. If the fiesta is not for the anniversary of some national event, or for the Virgin of Some Special Place or other, it’s for San Santo del Día, or somebody’s birthday. The kabooms of distant fireworks are not an invitation to rush off to view some extraordinary pageant, they’re an indication of business as usual.


Still, there are two mega moments in the Oaxacan year when people don costumes and paint their faces and ritually cavort to excess: Muertos, the week of the Day of the Dead that bridges October and November, and Carnaval, that innaugurates the 40 days of abstinence that is Lent (carn- meat; levare- put away). In both there is a preference for devils over angels.

In both, light mischief is perpetrated and admired. In both, vaguely narrative skits that harken back to medieval mystery plays are acted out. And both draw hoards of tourists, international and domestic, who swarm the streets with their cellphone cameras unholstered and cocked. In Mexico, Muertos is celebrated everywhere, and in Oaxaca th celebrations in Xoxocotlán, Atzompa, and the whole Valley of Etla are particularly noted. Tilcajete is known as the place where young devils prowl the streets during Carnaval. I picked up Lynda Saul and her two guests at their digs in downtown Oaxaca and pointed the car at Tilcajete.


Tilcajete’s internet poster announced that events (unspecified) would begin at 10:00. We arrived about 10:30. Aside from a few dozen meandering tourists, a huge overflow congregation of worshipers standing and responsing outside the church’s main door, and the distant clanking of not very resonant bells, not much was going on. So we went shopping.


Let me start by saying that Tilcajete is one of three Oaxacan towns (the other two are Arrazola and Tejalapan) that claim to be the origin of alebrijes, those colorful carved figures of beasts and monsters who have one foot in reality and the other(s) in exorbitant imagination. They are carved from wood of the copal tree, the same tree whose resin has been burned as incense since pre-Columbian times. When it’s fresh, copal takes to the knife with ease; when it dries it’s hard as iron and nearly as light as balsa. Most alebrijes are painted with bright acrylic colors with pointillist precision in intricate patterns.  Some are so small that it would take ten of them to make a mouse, others as large as a giraffe. The roots of the art seem to be (1) an ancient Zapotec tradition of carving animals as totems, (2) a 100+ year tradition of carving masks for festivals, (3) a 50-year old tradition of carving toys for children, and (4) a few decades of traditional cashing in on the international boom in Latin American folk art. So the rumors of alebrijes being the spawn of a Peace Corps project are probably not true. The figures are mostly carved and painted in family workshops in the villages and have become both a principal source of village income and a vehicle for keeping multi-generation families together. And of course they are cute as all get out! Rare is the tourist who goes back to Paris or Kyoto or Providence without a few in the suitcase.


At random we chose a workshop on a side street. The women marveled at the figures, I chatted with the family, mainly with a teenage son who seemed very knowledgeable about the processes involved in carving, curing, and painting the alebrijes, and Tilcajete’s Fat Tuesday traditions. How the dancers made their own costumes, some simple ones take a day, some elaborate ones require months of work. How this particular town’s tradition was for the paraders –almost exclusively men--to strip to the waist and oil themselves up. Motor oil is the material most readily available. Others cover themselves with metallic paint. How various groups in town gather in cofradías, brotherhoods, to work on their costumes together, and how adults actas mentors to groups, but how the enthusiasm was especially intense in young teenage boys.


As we talk we hear the clank-clank-clank of bells growing closer.

And louder. So we rush out to the street. And here come the first group of devils, prancing and growling and snapping, oiled muscles glinting as they dance. Many of the kids carry whips, or lengths of hose. A few hold clubs. But both the projection of threat, and the “fear” it inspires in the folks watching them, are almost entirely symbolic. “Almost,” because we do see one or two devils darting over to their non-costumed friends to smear oil on them.

And here they are:

By now the seemingly interminable mass has let out, and the little mini-brides and formally-dressed young boys, shining for their first communion or their confiration –the mass had included both events—are strutting about the plaza with their parents. After a half hour of this, and of consuming botanas (snacks) of baked goods, popsicles, and little plastic glasses of icecream, spooned out of metal tubs on pushcarts, the now large crowd swarm to the far side of the plaza, under the arches of the Tilcajete town hall, for the other main Fat Tuesday event, the communal wedding ceremony.


In parts of Catholic Latin America the Church pressures its congregants to legalize their unions by making marriage –and Catholic legitimacy for the children—a prerequisite for certain benefits. Like, say, attending a Catholic-run school. But the pressure to have big weddings—we’ve now been to several--, to buy Elaborate Dresses, and to invite absolutely Everybody, and have a Big Meal, and an Orchestra, and all the other Obligatories hawked by the bridal magazines and movies and society pages, often bankrupts a family. So lots of couples just don’t. But once a year, commonly on Fat Tuesday, the Church, with the cooperation of the civil government, offers all unmarried but cohabiting couples the opportunity to get hitched en masse. Not just in Tilcajete, but all up and down the Central Valleys. Actually the custom seems to be common all over Catholic Latin America. The largest communal ceremony hereabouts is at the Jardín Etnobotánico in downtown Oaxaca.


We end the day with a group picture by the Church, and then a delicious lunch at the Zapoteca Azucena resturant of chitilo, a very dark and pungent mole, and chiles enogadas, an almond-milk and pomegranate-seed covered stuffed chile, a specialty of Puebla cuisine. Most of the tables are filled with alebrije-laden tourists on their way back to Oaxaca from San Martín Tilcajete.