Two weeks ago I participated in an ocote – the fire dance to celebrate the saints. The whole town rallies behind the band and parades from mayordomo to mayordomo, church caretakers, to ask for tamales and atole and to light the next ocote. The ocote itself is a holy (and holey) bucket of fire kept lit by special incense-infused wood. It’s like Mexican trick or treating - an indigenous superimposed with Catholic ideology. I went to bed before they lit the toro fireworks. Those are the worst in my book – a big basket of fireworks that kids carry around on their backs that shoot off in the town square (you might remember I wrote about them in April). We paraded through the town for four hours and at each home we’d dance around the flames and toast with Styrofoam shots of tequila. I’d had quite a few tamales as well, having not been able to fill up on chicken innards and yolk fetuses that our hosts offered us (yup you read that right – the stew actually wasn’t too bad, except when I ate what I believe was a kidney. And the yolks tasted just like they do after they’ve been expelled from the chicken, but ultimately I saved my appetite for the tamales).
The rockets went off all night. At some point I dreamt they’d switched to cannons, but I think it was just the case that the parade got closer. The next morning after helping the grandmothers make tamales, I went with Maricela and her family for another round of the parade. We ate MORE tamales and carried a bouquet behind the Virgin Guadalupe along with 3 different adornments of flowers – red, pink and white (each has a different purpose – love, donations and something else) each strung with symbolic gifts: apples, peppers, bottles of tequila, bees nests, etc. We marched behind the same band that had been playing all night long and stopped at another mayordomo’s home for ice cream and soda. I think my teeth might fall out by the time I leave….
When I came back to Tecuanipan from Cholula that afternoon we passed by Orlando’s parents’ home for dinner. Delicious tortillas with rice, chicken and mole. The in-laws brought the tequila. As is the custom, the tequila is not rightfully the property of the ‘owner’ of the bottle. It is his or her duty to empty the bottle by sharing shots with everyone. Naturally, being the traditionalists that we are and dedicated to our quest to connect profoundly with the community, we were very intoxicated by 6:30. It was incredibly pleasant to dine with the family, to check out all of Orlando’s toys and watch his dad play with his sister. We listened to Orlando’s father recount his memories of 9/11 in New York and tell us about his trials and triumphs during his time in the US. He said that he had no interest whatsoever in returning to the States now that he has his children to consider. This was a fresh perspective from the focus on American dollars as the main means of family support.
The following Tuesday evening, I stepped out of my routine again. I decided not to go to frisbee practice, but instead to stay in Tecuanipan for the festival of San Fransisco – the last day of the fair. We went to our neighbors’ for their party. As with all of the mayordomos’ gatherings, the party was open to the entire town and free dinner for everyone. As soon as we sat down with Maricela and Renato, we were served rice, chicken and mole, hot tortillas and a cold Victoria. We were simultaneously approached by two very intoxicated older women (heretofore known as the tequila ladies) with half a bottle. Same deal – they pour you a shot, they toast with you. The problem was, as this was a much bigger party than the dinner at Orlando’s house, there were many, many bottles of tequila going around.
As much as I’ve assimilated to Mexican life here, I will never be able to eat chicken and mole with a plastic spoon. I left a splatter ring at my white place setting, somehow flung it into my eye, and graciously accepted Ina’s continuous and subtle indications to mole stains on various parts of my body. After most of my dinner and my second round of toasting with the patrons (or 3rd?), a young mariachi left his post and asked me to dance. Once he’d returned to his guitar, I was petitioned by two other significantly older and more intoxicated gentlemen who would rotate dances between Ina and me until the gifts ceremony began. They mayordomos offer presents of gratitude to everyone who helped with the festivities – bottles of tequila or soda, baskets of tamales, mole, etc. Then the recipients dance in a conga line with the gifts to show their appreciation. It’s really beautiful, but my friend Pablo says that it’s for this tradition that no one gives refrigerators as wedding presents.
I chuckled when the first tequila lady handed Ina a new bottle and made her hop in line. That was until she returned with an empty Squirt bottle and towed me into the dance – apparently the rules relax a bit after a few rounds. Then I had the pleasure of dancing with Goretti – Maricela and Renato’s youngest daughter – and tequila lady #2. I think this was the highlight for me – with the two of them we shared pure joy, no rhythm and not a single preoccupation as we twirled and jumped to the mariachis’ music. The rockets continued to blast off above the tarp that covered the yard. The ground was littered with beer bottle caps (which I’d scrounge for later with the aspirations of making earrings), Styrofoam cups and as the many stray dogs hoped to find, chicken bones. I quietly offered my fat and gristle to Orejón who wagged unceasingly under the table and followed Ina around the dance floor every time she received an offer.
I had to leave at 7:30 to catch the bus, but I was so grateful to have gotten the chance to witness and be part of such a great party. Unfortunately, the bus schedule caused me to miss the men pole dancing, which came just after the next round of tequila toasts…
There’s another perspective to these festivals, however. My friend Julian’s father was a church guardian for many years. He attended all of the parties and the services, rang the bells, shot off the rockets, danced in the parades…When I told him about the ceremonies I’d attended his expression turned sour. “They spend all of their money on rockets and rice for celebrations. They pocket the rest. What about social services and paving roads and helping the poor? Where do you think all of that extra money goes for the offerings once they’re done paying off the party? Hmm?” Don Manuel is one of the most kind-hearted and religious people I have met in Mexico. But for all of the years he dedicated to its service, he has now turned away from the church because he can no longer bear the burden of knowing many of the corrupt truths. They put these parties on and tell all of the townspeople to be good servants to the church and to God, and then defy their own sermons in favor of personal gain and power. (These are his words.) We talked for a long time about how to approach life while you know such truths. And while Don Manuel may not have changed the church, he has indeed influenced his own community and made change by the way he raised his children. They run an honest and communal business among them. They are socially responsible and are raising his granddaughters to be independent and strong women. They are all truly good people, inspiring others (including myself). Is that enough to fight the power of corruption? Mmm. Dunno. But take a look at what’s happening all over the world right now: on Wall Street, in Sol Square, in Egypt, in the parlor of Lito’s Pizza in Cholula, Mexico.
We went into Puebla today, October 15, to shop around and take a stroll around the square. There is a demonstration going on in Puebla today that is in solidarity with the huge protest going on two hours west in Mexico City. People all over the world are pissed at how politicians are defining democracy and how the economy is managed by the top few percent. There were signs of indignation and also of hope: people writing that they are neither for the right or the left, but simply from and for the bottom to work its way up into equality. We met some incredibly inspiring people, which was really cool because as I write this, I realize that we are a lot like the kids we met today. We, too, are playing an important part in redefining our economic values, in connecting with them and with the people of Tecuanipan, and in the choices that we are making. In the context of street dancing behind a tuba and ducking rockets or in that of the demonstrations happening everywhere, being a part of community gatherings has been a pretty monumental aspect of my life recently, and in itself is an exceptionally powerful experience.