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Dancing with Devils

written by Anna Bruce April 26, 2017

Carnival in San Martin de Tilcajete, Mexico

Driving through clouds of hot dust into the small village of San Martin de Tilcajete, we could hear distant whoops and the rattle of cow bells. At the side of the road a group of men, painted head to toe in silver, glinted in the harsh midday sun. The oldest member of the group approached the car and jubilantly pointed us in the direction of the church and the cacophony of sound.

As we parked the car down a side road, another group – this time oiled up in black and red with white faces and devil horns – danced past the window. One reached out and slapped the windscreen leaving a print of his hand on the glass. There was no animosity however, as the troupe grinned and gestured for us to follow them.

The village of San Martin is famous for ornately painted masks and carved beasts called alebrijes. As we followed the dancing devils towards the centre we passed hundreds of these beautiful artworks. Some of the devils also had their faces covered with these masks. A pair of carnival goers that walked with us a while wearing huge bold masks as carried a pet dog under one their arms. The dog was also painted, and completely unafraid of the demon that carried him, instead smiling from ear to ear.

Walking through the streets around the church, beyond the centre, we were continuously passed by different groups of local men, most covered in black oil. Often they were teenagers, hyped up on the excitement of the day – chasing after local girls, trying to catch them – leaving greasy marks on their clothes. Other groups seemed to be in families, with fathers and sons, some as young as six, running back and forth in the heat, sun melting through the paint and oil.

We followed one group into an open space off a backstreet, where we found them redoing their paint, rubbing oil over it so they glistened and smelt of gasoline. They were all friendly and even keen to be photographed as they got ready. A man called Alan, wearing a bull mask and some of the largest horns, was happy to speak to me about the carnival.

He described the events leading up to that day as a reactionary display against Christianity that came about in indigenous areas of southern Mexico following the Spanish conquest. There are many days of carnival, following Epiphany, where the men from the town come out into the streets. They dress as devils and cover themselves in black oil to represent the sins. However, on Ash Wednesday they are at the front of the church to be blessed.


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