Masked Dances & Mezcal in Guerrero: The Festival of Santa Ana

After a glorious 1 week vacation in Zihuatanejo, we have officially started our cookbook road trip, researching traditional cuisine, mezcal, and native Mexican culture. This week we're in Mochitlan, Guerrero for the festival of Santa Ana—the town's patron saint.

Every year for the last....oh–so many hundreds of years, Mochitlan puts on one of the most unique festivals in the country. Dozens of masked dance groups gather (many from Mochitlan, others come from other towns and even other states) to honor Santa Ana. She is essentially a Catholic version of Tonanzitlali: the Mother Earth, symbol of fertility, abundance, and the harvest.

The masked dances are a blend of indigenous and native beliefs. Perhaps the most prominent dance group are the Tlacololeros. These dancers dress in burlap sacks, with hats of either straw or cempasuchil (marigold) flowers. Their right arms are bundled up with padding to protect them from the whips they give one another. The cracking of the whip represents the fire with which they burn the fields to prepare them for planting. A jaguar dancer moves amongst them, taking revenge on humans for invading his land and cutting down his forest. The jaguar represents day and night, as well as wisdom, and the Aztec "god", Texcatlipoca.

The Pescados are one of my favorite of these groups. They represent the fishermen, and dress in jeans to protect themselves from the whip of the crocodile's tail. The first part of the dance, they move back and forth, setting up the net to catch their fish. Once the net is set and they've caught their fish, the crocodile comes in as his Nahual from. (A Nahual is a being that can change between human and animal). He comes as a human to get close to the fisherman and see what they've caught. Later, he returns in his crocodile form to steal their fish, whipping them with his long wire tail as they jump, duck, or block his swing with machetes. 

Needless to say, there's a fair amount of pain endured in several of these dances. Add to that the fact that they begin at 4am and dance throughout the day in costumes of heavy material in 85°+ weather and high humidity...an observer can't help but be in awe.

This is a shamanic art. The mask helps the dancers to take on their roles. As does the mezcal. Imagine: how else could you endure dancing for hours on end in thick costumes in a tropical summer without mezcal to help you along?

Apart from helping to numb the pain, you may have noticed that mezcal tends to give reality a mystical glow. You've risen above the daily hum–drum; you have a privileged, secret view of what's really going on. And care a lot less about what you think is going on. These dancers are no longer, Juan, Vicente, Maria. They are the farmer, the fisherman, the crocodile, the jaguar.

Which is how, with my current mezcal buzz, sitting in a cyber cafe, I write this. These days have been an expansion of consciousness. A deeper realization that my to-do list and my timeline are like false idols that I struggle to quit. Perhaps, with a few more years of experiencing Santa Ana's blessings (or a few more mezcals?) I will be cured.