Their Turn

On a major holiday in Mexico, girls dance to keep a formerly all-male tradition alive in a village depleted of boys

October 31, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

Cerro de las Tablas, Mexico — Cerro de las Tablas, Mexico-- --The dance to honor the dead begins in the cemetery, where the souls of the departed are collected and taken into the dirt roads and the concrete homes to celebrate with the living.

By village tradition, and Mexican custom, the dance is performed only by men. Girls in rural Mexico are taught to look away when they shake a man's hand, out of respect. They serve their fathers and brothers food and drink without question. When it comes to entertainment, as in life, men take the lead.

But in Cerro de las Tablas last Oct. 31, when the dance traditionally begins, the town didn't have the dozen young men it needed to perform La Danza de los Diablos - the Dance of the Devils. Most of the boys were in the United States, seeking jobs and opportunity.

Without them, residents faced a stark choice: Let a custom that dated back generations quietly pass away, or open the dance to women for the first time.

"The tradition would have been lost," said Eduardo Anorve Zapata, 48, a prominent writer, activist and photographer in the town. He lobbied for the girls to have a chance to dance. He recruited his own nieces.

There was resistance at first. The girls were weak, some people said, unable to endure the exhausting three-day festival. They were inexperienced. They didn't know the steps.

But they wanted to dance. And there was no one else. So the girls donned the traditional devil masks - made of red and black cardboard, horses' manes and deer antlers - and learned the traditional moves.

"We are showing that what people think is only for men, women can also do," said Maleny Milian Marcial, 15, one of more than a dozen teenage girls who danced in Cerro de las Tablas last year and will be dancing again this week.

In the past year, they have performed in exhibitions in nearby towns. In one town, the women were so moved they joined in the dance themselves. But the girls say they are not dancing to make a statement. They dance because they want to.

The dance is performed in about a dozen towns on southern Mexico's Pacific Coast, but Cerro de las Tablas is the first to turn it over entirely to women. The town remains traditional in other ways: The men who haven't gone north tend the fields or cattle, while the women stay in the houses.

The town has about 70 homes, most of them formed from concrete and only 50 of them still occupied. The yards and the roads are dirt, and barking dogs roam freely. There is no indoor plumbing.

"Some people are very conservative," said Anorve, who lived for a time in Mexico City and brought some progressive ideas back home. "They say the women don't know how to dance, that they are wasting their time. But they are getting used to it."

No one knows how the dance originated (it seems a cross of Native American, African and Catholic rituals), or how far back it dates, but in southern Mexico it is central to the celebration of the Days of the Dead - perhaps Mexico's most important holiday and itself a product of Catholic and ancient Mexican roots.

Across the country, families spend the night of Nov. 1 in the cemetery, partying on the graves of their ancestors and bringing offerings of food and drink (which, truth be told, are not so much offered to the dead as consumed by the living). Elaborate altars are set up on the graves, with flowers and pictures of the deceased.

But not all graves are visited, and that can cause trouble.

"The feeling is that people who don't have anybody doing that for them might become kind of annoyed and even dangerous," said Alex Stewart associate professor of music at the University of Vermont, who studied the dance as part of a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico. "So in some towns, they go to the cemetery with the idea of collecting up those spirits that may cause mischief and taking them out for a good time."

From the cemetery, the dancers - dressed as devils - take the spirits into the streets. The dancers form two lines, the tallest in front, and perform a series of steps, punctuated with screams, that ends with all of them throwing themselves to the ground.

They move on to the homes, where residents offer the dancers food and drinks favored by the deceased, such as papaya, dried fruits, bread and tamales. In the streets, cars and trucks are stopped and not allowed to proceed until the driver makes an offering. Those who refuse can be detained in jails.

Musicians follow the dancers through town, playing three instruments: a harmonica, a friction drum and a donkey jaw. In Cerro de las Tablas, some musicians refused to play for the girls, so the girls are now learning to play the instruments themselves.

"When women participate in this, they show they can do something," says Amalia Ruiz Orduno, whose 13-year-old daughter, Nitea, is one of the youngest dancers. Usually, she said, "If a woman wants to do something, she has to ask a man. If a father says you don't go, you don't go."

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