Animals as center of festivity in San Andrés Tzicuilan

Saúl Miranda Ramos
Communitarian Psychologist

When I was an undergraduate student I used to read books about how Indigenous communities honor nature. By the time I visited communities and my own hometown, I was unable to identify those ideas and my perception were in my own town that philosophy does not exist. Nowadays, after years of study, practices and reflections I can recognize elements that characterize Náhuas celebrations to honor to environment. Last November 30th, in the community celebration of Tzicuilan, I distinguished the representation of some animals such as fish, bulls, snakes, birds and horses, performed by dancers. For instance they imitate bird’s movements and horses as the focus of the festivity. These observations reveal to me how important is wildlife for San Andrés Tzicuilan´s population and how current are the indigenous traditions, philosophy, and its catholic mixture, for the everyday life in the mentioned town.

One of the most important animals that can be observed are fishes and its correlation with their natural habitat. First of all, at the front of the sanctuary where the celebration takes place it is possible to see a couple of enormous fishes. That is because the patron saint is San Andrés Apostle, as the bible says, was a fisherman; that is why, his image has some fishes representing that occupation. Moreover, one of the ways population decorate the temple is with fishes figures made of wood, plastic or ceramic. Secondly, in the natural life in Tzicuilan, fishes represented life in the river, called El Cuichat, runs next to the town of San Andrés Tzicuilan. Charales are one of the more famous fishes in this river. When you go to visit this admirable river and falls, charales are possible to be seen and felt when you enter to the river because they approach your body. In addition, the river is important to the town as much as the own name of the borough: Tzicuilan comes from the Nahuatl Language means “Tzicuini” jump and “lan” place (Place of the jump or place where the water jumps). Furthermore, because the river is so close to the town and its residents usually swim there; people from San Andrés Tzicuilan are known as good swimmers as fishes. Finally, as I have said connection and contact with charales are common so that is part of people´s lives and unconsciously they place the figures of these animals in the higher part of the main altar in the holy place. That is not all, bulls as well have their befitting place. 

Photo: Elvia Chaparro

Bulls are represented in Toreadores dance and in the torito (little bull) as a pyrotechnic figure in a very interesting way. At the beginning, the image of the torito in the toreadores dance is made of reed and fabric, the troop perform the dance as a day in the field. Some of them carry ropes, another one small whips, and others a cattle horn which is played as a cornet. In addition, seeing the bull in toreadores traditional dance is so exciting because of the place this animal takes in the group of dancers. It is carried by a person who dances in the troop of performers imitating the movements of a real bull; but, sometimes the image is stand in the front of the aggrupation and another at the bottom. Undoubtedly, this staging is a tribute to this beneficial animal in the crops. Another torito, the pyrotechnic one, is also made of reed and has its own meaning, but in this case is decorated by colorful pieces of paper and fireworks. Before it is burnt, a group of pilatos (part of the Santiagos ballet) use to dance with and around the torito with live music of all the types that is executed in the festival by violins, guitars, drums, and flutes. Usually, pilatos dance and make a representation as if they were crying for the next dead of the bull; these actions are as if they were part of their family and part of the wicked represented by torito and pilatos. It is necessary to say that in this community as in many other indigenous communities in Mexico, evil is assumed as something mischievous with the rest of universe in coexistence.  Thus, benignity and evildoing deserve respect; I mean evil is regarding in order to not be damaged by it[1] as day and night not separated but together. After the performance, the fireworks are burned and it runs around the forecourt among smiles, jokes, laughing in a real party. It is obvious; the bull could represent the benefits in the sowing and the bad in the same place as a unit.

Another animal represented in San Andrés Tzicuilan´s festivity is the mysterious snake. At first, we have to remember that God Quetzalcoatl in the Pre-Hispanic past of Mexico was a feathered serpent. The meaning of Quetzalcoatl is Quetzal that means beauty and coatl which means snake and it represents duality such as good and bad, day and night, black and white, the sun and the moon, fire and water and so on. For that reason, Quetzalcoatl was a main god in Mesoamerican culture. In fact, snakes are respected in the everyday life in Tzicuilan. If you are kind with a viper it also treats you right and it will never bite you, that means that a well-treated snake can take care of your land. The respect rises when people believe the rattle of a viper can heal health of people; furthermore, the bell can be used as an amulet for good luck. On the other hand, a viper can be used to make someone witchcraft and cause death. Indeed, the tradition says snakes could bite if negrito´s dancers do not fulfill their promise to discharge the hornpipe for seven years consecutively. That´s why, every person who decide to enter the group, has to keep the promise at the expense of whatever. Before the holidays, the Teniente[2] visits the house of each dancer to invite them to participate and make sure they attend. Entire families make an effort to make nobody miss the vow; as an illustration, they cooperate to prepare the raiment, the shoes or the hat. Anything can happen except missing the presentation of the Negritos as an offering to the viper. Every end of the year, at the courtyard of the main temple in San Andrés Tzicuilan, the representation of a snake is brought to be killed in an interesting ritual. The Legend says: “a gang of people brought from Africa were crossing the Totonacapan[3], as the crew leader saw a snake, it did not let them pass by its territory.  Consecutively, this snake bites him and the others had to remedy him. As a consequence, they offered a dance to it and teas to the leader until he was relieved. This is the story of the ritual and is presented and re-presented annually in one of the most important vent in the community life. All in all, remember Quetzalcoatl was a feathered snake decorated with Quetzal feathers; that is why, the Quetzales and voladores –flyer men as birds- are another so important dance in this little town.

In Tzicuilan, there is a dance, where dancers imitate bird’s movements as Quetzales and other bird resulting Voladores (Flyer men), eagles and the sound of them. For one thing, the Quetzal is a very beautiful bird that abounded and is admired in these lands. In the past, native people sent quetzal feathers as tribute to Moctezuma to Mexico Tenochtitlan. The honor was valued because of the beauty of them; furthermore, his aigrette was made of these feathers. Nowadays, this specie is extinct, but admiration for its beauty continues even today in the Quetzales dance. Besides, the Quetzales dance is a group of people that are dressed with red trousers and yellow and withe details. In the head of each person a multicolor big plume in a circle shapes, so the dance steps imitate the movements of the bird. Meanwhile, voladores use to dance at the top of a tree stem. After a special ritual they are thrown to fly around the tree tied by ropes, and the movements are those of a bird. The Clothes of the voladores are in brilliant colors as birds, so Implemented colors are red, yellow, white, and green, between others. In the trousers or t-shirts figures of eagles and other birds are embroidered. Finally, the sound of the flutes made of reed and they seem to be the sounds of a bird. If you hear the flute among the tropical wood, in which Tzicuilan is located, you might get confuse with birdsong. These flutes are the instruments which are played to the Quetzales, voladores and other dances in Tzicuilan

The next animal we are going to talk about is a horse which is venerated in a very interesting way. At the beginning, the horse is represented in the Pilatos or Santiagos dance. The person that performs Santiago apostle is riding a horse in this play; moreover, the horse is white and made of wood, and is small. In the everyday life, this horse is addressed and venerated in the altar of the Teniente´s house. On the altar, people offer water, salt, grass, candles, flowers and other offerings during each day of the year. Furthermore, people respect this kind of veneration and never break the promise to serve the horse. All in all, the same horse that receives the offerings is the same is danced at the center of the community in the most important days for Tzicuilan.

The exercise of analysis in this paper is focused in the animals and in the play of change the figure and the bottom as in Gestalt psychology. That is, sometimes making appear the bottom as figure, and the figure sent as bottom allowing appear new information, association of ideas, new sights among other benevolences in the practice of participant observation.  These exercises of analysis allowed me to realize how indigenous communities revere the fauna that live in the place. I mean, it reveals how human beings and fauna coexist.  Now, it is clear how in the festivities of Tzicuilan some animals are the principal point of main celebrations.

[1] Another illustration is the tocotines dance and the Migueles dance in San Miguel Tzinacapan where a jaguar and a demon are main actors of the group of dancers.
 [2] The Teniente is in charge of organizing the dancers, from invite to feed them during rehearsals and care to grow well dance. According to the perspectives of indigenous communities is considered a traditional authority.
[3] Territory which includes part of Veracruz and the Puebla State, and it corresponds to the Totonaca indigenous culture.


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