Devil



Carnaval, the season of chaos, arrived on Sunday the sixth [of February]. Miscreant spirits were rising from the underworld and threatening to throw all civilization into raucous disarray. For the next few days, the villages' young men would dress up to impersonate these infernal beings. Led by horned devils blaring their arrival with a hollowed bull's horn, a Mecos troop of gruesomely masked demons and alluringly garbed harlots paraded house to house across the village, to dance in rows and a circle upon each yard. The devils, wrapped head-to-toe in bold single colors such as red, blue, or green, collected pesos from the homeowners to contractually pay the Mecos for their dances. The devils were recruiting them to country-dance, do-si-do, and leap as they all shrieked in jeering falsetto unison, to the swiftly accompanying violinist and jaranista (and occasional guitarist). With their hands clasped together, the demons and temptresses embraced each other in pairs and gyrated their hips as they whooped "WOO-hoo-hoo!"--then parted into two lines. Whilst the devils frolicked in cartwheels and handstands around and between the dancers, their obscene maneuvers acted as a perverse counterpoint to the rules that normally suppressed such depraved behavior ... and indigenous assertion. Now the Spaniards' racial hierarchy and Catholic puritanism must swerve, for it was Indian playtime. And all this could happen because God's eyes were closed--an open palm blocking his turned gaze. The reveling dancers were disguising themselves in monstrous faces, bandanna masks, or flowing skirts to embody the demons then loosed upon the world and ultimately to contain their destructive power. It was the task of man to control what God could not. The premise was entirely native, merely dressed in folk Catholic garb.

Though I'd seen hundreds of Carnaval masks and costumes in various museums across Mexico, this was my first viewing of the diabolical ballet. What was undiscovered ritual to me was ancient festivity in these native lands, and everyone in the community either participated in it or knew of it. It was the children who explained the meanings of these rites and dances to me as I followed the separate Tenamitl, Altepetl, and Tehuiloyan troops in their circuits around Altepetl today and during the next few days. (One troop could perform in its own village and tour across several.) The children were certainly braver in approaching these villains than were previous generations. José himself used to fear the fiendish spirits; he'd never dared to dance like one, and he used to further shut his ears to muffle the music. But here he was, strumming the jarana for the local troop! He smiled after reflecting on his change in tenor.

The darkness itself has its role in the cosmic condition. One must resemble it in order to control it. To harness the dark and the light, I cannot fear to stand betwixt. As the Mecos activity dwindled toward Ash Wednesday, I thought this funhouse ride was ending. I didn't expect a screaming prop skeleton still waiting to pounce on me at the end of the line. For I hadn't yet caught Carnaval in Dãndéhé, where I was at last bound.

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