Sunday, July 29, 2012


Tastoanes (Tastuanes) of Tonala, Mexico

I had read about the "Dance of the Tastoanes" and had seen some of the fantastical masks made for a previous year's celebration, but nothing could have prepared me for the surreal, psychedelic mix of local creativity gone wild and historical lineage that we experience during the annual ritual in Tonala, Mexico.

The dance commemorates an indigenous insurgence during the Spanish invasion of this area.

Brad stocks up on much needed cacahuates

Strolling procession during the Dance of the Tastoanes

Saint James and the Moors: Mexico's Tastoanes by Carol Wheeler

Masked dancers took to the streets on July 25 to reenact an age old battle fought in Spain long before the conquest. The ceremonial tastoan (sometimes spelled tastuan) rituals come from the 12th century and were originally known as the dance of the Moors and the Christians. In Spain's version, the dance symbolizes the expulsion of the Moors by the Christians, while Mexico's variation is commonly interpreted as the representation of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1500s.

In Spain, Saint James — known as Santiago Matamoros — was invoked by the faithful during the struggle to rid Spain of the Moors. From the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, troops rallied to a rousing battle cry of "Santiago y cierra EspaƱa!" ("James and close Spain!") He became known as Santiago Matamoros, or "Moor slayer," and was brought to the Americas along with all the other Roman Catholic saints during the conquest.

The dances may vary from town to town, but all utilize bizarre masks and wigs. In Jocotan, a former indigenous settlement on the outskirts of Guadalajara, the sound of clashing swords mingles with drumbeats and flutes as fighters on horseback make their way to the town plaza. There, good eventually triumphs once more over evil.

The odd surreal masks are strange and are the main element in this annual festival.  The masks represent human faces deformed by smallpox and sores, some of these features are also zoomorphic, meaning they have some characteristics of animals such as dogs, cats, wolves and are decorated with snakes, scorpions and spiders belonging to the region xictepetl (hill of the navel), now known as the hill of the queen.  This hill was where the battle between the Spanish and indigenous cultures took place. Some masks are painted as if they had injuries, they represent the blows of St. Santiago.  It is for this reason that the masks are an expression of pain.  The characters also have long hair, which is usually made of maguey fiber or horse and cow hair.  Also worth mentioning is that these masks are made by artisans from the town of Tonala.

The masks worn by Tastuanes are made of materials such as clay or ceramics in different finishes. According to tradition the masks must have representations of snakes, lizards, scorpions etc.

The Tastoanes are characterized by their cries, which become screams that cause the audience moments of anguish and fear. This dance is a dance that has been passed from generation to generation, although there have been some recent developments or changes in their clothing. Tastoane dances are accompanied by the flageolet (an Arabic musical instrument made of wood similar to the clarinet) and a ceremonial drum.


The members of this dance use their animal masks and costumes, which are composed of a green shirt, red jacket (garment-fitting, with skirts and long sleeves), trousers and boots. The person representing St James, is mounted on a white horse and wears a red cape, carrying a cross in his hand. Across his chest he also carries a sword.

The celebration of St. James is intimately connected with the dance of the Tastoanes. The flute and drummer are in charge of the opening acts. Tastoanera popular music is central to this celebration.  Without this music there is no Tastoaneada.

The Story:  The centuries-old religious tradition dates back to the arrival of the Spanish in the old kingdom of Tonallan.  The Indian queen, Cihalpilli, received the Spanish troops with open arms and willingly converted to Catholicism.

But a group of Indians less enamored with the European invaders and their religion banded together and rebelled, putting up a heroic fight on Tonala's Cerro de la Reina hill.  As legend has it, when their rebellion was put down they were turned into grotesque monsters known as "Tastoanes."

Tastoanes Group Photo

Executive Tastoan

 Aztec Dancers Take The Stage

And as fate would have it,  the Aztec Dancers came along for the celebration, not wanting to miss an opportunity to express themselves.


We also took in the exhibit "Mundo Tastoan" at the Museo Regional de Tonala.  This exhibit, set to coincide with the Tastoan Dance celebrations, was an exhibit of Tastoan masks.

Charis at Museo Regional de Tonala

Brad is given a Tastoan mask to handle


Life is good lakeside

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Un Dia En Mezcala de la Asuncion

Mezcala Town

We started the day at our local organic farmers market for our weekly restocking of Brad's kefir, lovely swiss chard and delectable greens...we also stocked up on delicious tamales from we were set for the week.

We ran into our friend Santiago and is son Ivan, in Ajijic Plaza.  They were strolling and relaxing, taking in the local I suggested we get paletas (fruit flavored popsicles)as we sat in the plaza.  The Casa Cultural sits in the plaza as well and acts as the local art museum and arts school.  Ivan said he liked drawing and painting...he has even had a few classes with local master Efren Gonzalez.  I suggested we stroll through the art museum to see what exhibit was handy. 

Ivan in Stairway, surrounded by The Birth of Michicihualli mural, Casa Cultural

Detail, The Birth of Michicihualli

What we found were the wonderful murals of our friend Jesus Lopez Vega, reflecting the local history, imagery, cosmology and colors.  I promised Ivan that we would have an art day in our community garden soon.

The Birth of Michicihualli

In the interim, Santiago and Ivan invited us to their farm the following the next day we headed lakeside to their farm in Mezcala Town.  We had visited Mezcala once before and had taken several boat trips from Mezcala to the floating fish farms off Mezcala Island, but had not explored the town of Mezcala much.  This was our opportunity to see the real Mezcala, guided by our local friends.  We jumped at the opportunity...and we are so glad we did!

Mezcala town is an Aztec-Nahuatl Indian community located on the northeastern shore of Lake Chapala just 10 miles from Chapala town. Mezcala has a history of defending its land/territory ever since its founding as a colony.  Some say that it has a belligerent local identity. Since early on, from the beginning of this century, there has been pressure from real estate and government interests to support and develop tourism in the town.  With the dismantling of the post-revolutionary corporate State, the land of peasant communities in Mezcala became available to the general real estate market.

But in Mezcala the population has reacted in a way summarized in the phrase: "We do not want to end up like those of Ajijic, as servants to those who now have our lands." A mobilization is taking place around the Communal Assembly, resisting illegal occupation of Mezcala's properties.  There is a push to stop the occupation of the Mezcala territory. 

This mobilization and confrontation are fueling a renewal of ethnic identity, as the defense of the territory is being made on behalf of the rights of "Pueblo Coca de Mezcala" and international treaties that advocate Indigenous Rights. But this same renewal of indigenous rights has had a global effect on tourism.

So Mezcala life in the twenty-first century can not be separated from its location. It is still to be seen how this relationship can and will be developed via fair trade, without the loss of elements such as territory, identity and history.  Mezcala is a proud town grounded in it's lands, its people and the place it occupies lakeside.

Santiago's Farm 

Santiago's Farm sits west of the town of Mezcala, on a lovely lakeside piece of land.  It is planted in Green Beans and Okra.  I was not a fan of Okra, not having had it often as part of my childhood diet. In fact, I had not even seen an Okra plant until this day on Santiago's Farm.

Planted in Green Beans and Okra
Santiago y Marisela Explain
Okra Harvest
Flowering Okra
Brad Inspects The Crop

Okra Plant

Green Bean Fields Lakeside

Don Silverio

Don Silverio, who lives in the town of Mezcala, helps Santiago with the farming.

Farm Lakeside

When we arrived at the farm we originally settled under the shade of a nearby tree, but eventually moved to the edge of the lake to take in the view.  As we approached the farm, Santiago stopped at a home down the road to order fish for our dinner.  The family, a local fishing group, took their boat out on the lake to catch our food.  As we waited for the fishermen, we settled into making a fire and preparing the rest of our lunch, exploring the area, watching Ivan easily jump from rock to rock and play at the lake's shore.

View From Santiago's Farm
Lakeside Livin'

Our fishermen eventually returned with Tilapia and Catfish in hand.  Ivan, the constant biologist, inspected the catch.

Catfish Catch


Tilapia For Comida

Time To Eat

We settled down to eat our lunch...a delicious meal of freshly handmade corn tortillas, freshly caught lake fish, lovely rice, grilled Okra, steamed green beans and Pico de Gallo....a delicious comida!  Somehow fresh food, that you've just caught or picked, eaten al fresco can't be beat.

Time To Swim

And of course, after comida it was time to least this is what Ivan told me, so I took my first dunk in the lake...a sort of baptism for me.  The water was warm, with occasional currents of comfortably cooler water.

Lakeside Dunk

Ivan told me that he had not learned to swim, so I told him of my teaching my mother to swim.  If she could learn at a later age, he could definitely learn at his sprout like we started his lessons.

Teachin' Ivan To Swim

He learned to float and the Dogie Paddle stroke....good work for one afternoon of lessons.

Sisters Swimmin'

Ivan's Gift

Ivan also likes to catch animals to observe them....and he brought us two minnows and a lake crab.  These were returned to the lake before we left.


After comida and swimming, we learned from Santiago that the plants had grown quicker than expected and needed to be harvested, so we all pitched in to help. 

Green Bean Pickin'

Beans and Plants

Okra y Green Beans

We were able to pick one costal of both Okra and Green Beans...not bad for a quick afternoon's work.

Harvest At Home

Mangos For Dessert

The farm is planted with many fruit trees, and mangos were temptingly hanging all around we got to work and made a game of picking the fruit.  Samy wanted green mangos, while others wanted ripe, red-orange fruit....all tastes were sated.


Green Mangos!

Ivan Explorin'

Green Bean Fields

As the sun started setting over the lake, we packed up and headed home, before the rains caught us.  We made it home quickly and promised each other to have more adventures like the one we had today.

In just one day with Santiago and his family I had lived several of my dreams:  to eat freshly caught, freshly cooked fish from the lake, to swim comfortably in our beautiful lake and have a naturally beautiful time with friends exploring the town of Mezcala.

Magic seems to happen here often.

Chapala Shoppin'