Go Inside a Complex Mexican Dance

In towns across central Mexico, the tastuan ritual combines past and present, pagan and Catholic.

Photograph by Ramiro Durán Rentería
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Tastuanes cluster for defense from fellow dancers looking to knock down the unaware. Accompanied by drums and violins, the tastuanes—whose name comes from an indigenous word meaning “leader”—perform a rhythmic dance drawing from pre-Columbian culture.
Photograph by Ramiro Durán Rentería

With cow-hair crests bristling from dark wooden masks and bright capes swirling over tightly buckled boots, men across central Mexico converge on town squares in the last days of July to complete the ritual for which they've spent all year preparing: the feast of Santo Santiago.

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The town's Santo Santiago character, decked in a fine sombrero and red velvet cape, leads tastuanes back to the village after church in Juchipila, Zacatecas. Tastuanes' veneration of Santo Santiago has its roots in 9th-century Spain, when the apostle's mythical support of Christian Spaniards' war to expel the Muslim Moors was memorialized in dance.

Martyr, protector, and patron, Santiago (Saint James the Apostle) is celebrated around the world. But only in central Mexico (primarily Zacatecas and parts of neighboring states) does his veneration take the form of a three-day-long ritual battle acting out, among other things, the conquest of indigenous Caxcan peoples by colonizing Spaniards.

“Beneath the religious story, there’s this origin story, and it’s very painful,” says Ramiro Durán Rentería, a photojournalist who captured these images of tastuanes in a pueblo only forty minutes from his hometown in Zacatecas. “The Spanish won—and not just the war. They brought their religion, their language."

The veneration of Santiago, Spain's warlike patron, became a tool to assimilate the defeated indigenous people: Incorporating aspects of the Caxcanes’ culture into the Catholic festival drove home the message that indigeneity was the “evil” defeated by the “holy” Spaniards, Santiago at their backs.

Though customs vary from pueblo to pueblo, the three-day principal ceremony plays out a mix of theatrical dances, rowdy entertainment, and religious services.

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Tastuanes in Juchipila, Zacatecas, whirl in dance. “When the icon of Santo Santiago first comes out from the church, and all of us dancers are there waiting—you feel a different energy,” says dancer and tastuan expert Ismael García Ávila. “Everyone starts to jump, to scream, to let out animal noises from behind the mask.”

Civil and ecclesiastical leaders ring bells to open the ceremony on July 24. At noon, the tastuan dancers begin their shouting, musical pilgrimage to the church to retrieve the saint’s historic icon and carry it through the streets to bestow blessings. In some villages, the tastuanes’ wanderings will continue throughout the night as the performers walk miles on foot to restore the icon to the parish. [See photos of the masked kukeri dancers of Bulgaria.]

The official Catholic feast day, July 25, sees tastuanes reenact the battle that ended the Mixtón War, in which a Spanish army and their Aztecan allies defeated the Caxcanes. Mounted on a jingling horse in his red cape and sombrero, Santiago wields his sword and wooden cross to represent the Spaniards’ victory—first martial, then religious—over the penitent tastuanes, whose resistance ends by “paying” the saint with a promise of Christian piety.

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After mass on July 25, the celebration moves to the corredero, or track, where tastuanes try to steal Santiago's cross as the saint fends them off with a sword. The mock violence recalls the very real violence of conquest: “We’ve never accepted what [the Spanish] told us, that the conquest was clean,” says García. “They said they were the saviors—not at all.”

 

In the early afternoon, the procession lassos an “angel”—a dancer representing God on earth—carrying him throughout the town in a reenactment of Jesus’s suffering before the cross. Pilgrims from throughout the state arrive in the evening in time for mass, fireworks, and a free meal open to all in the plaza. [See the wild, vibrant history of Mexican tequila.]

The profane festival of July 26 takes a different tone. Here, two tastuanes dress as chinanas—male dancers, representing indigenous elders, who wear women’s clothing—and cavort through the streets, kissing each crowd member and fighting each other. But the other tastuanes—the chinanas’ symbolic children—chase and beat the “elders,” stripping them of their feminine clothing to recall the humiliation suffered by the vanquished Caxcanes.

It’s just one complicated aspect of a ceremony whose layers of meaning remain unknown even to the dancers, says Durán. [Meet the men who literally dance with scissors.]

The ritual itself has a difficult and dangerous duality. Men dress as women, though women don’t take part: Their role is limited to costume-making, as the rigor of being ritually stripped of their clothing (an act so violent that chinanas often sustain real injuries) is considered inappropriate for their gender. And though the figure of the tastuan is intrinsically indigenous, they’re sometimes interpreted by dancers of mixed descent, criollos who don native identities while in wider society, native culture is disdained and native languages die out.

“Santo Santiago isn’t a figure free from contradiction,” says Durán. “[The allegory of the tastuanes] continues to be a hypocritical discourse. But it’s still a hugely moving manifestation for me, because of the paradox.”

For all its thorny implications and hidden meanings, the tastuan dance remains a powerful symbol of the region’s culture.

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Tastuanes return from Juchipila's parish church. Though the ritual changes from town to town, one element remains throughout, says Durán: “There’s always a war.”

“An important part is this feeling of identity that we have in Moyahua,” says Ismael García Ávila, the ballet director of the University of Guadalajara and a tastuan dancer of 33 years' experience. “We know our dance is very important, not just locally but nationally. We know it’s a dream to represent this through our dance. The past doesn’t belong to us; we made it as a community, and we have to live it.” His hometown, Moyahua de Estrada, hosts one of the more popular tastuan ceremonies: Over a thousand dancers participate, he estimates, drawing tourists from Mexico and the United States.

Thousands of Zacatecans immigrated to the U.S. in the 20th century, and this diaspora returns each summer. Many are kids born in Chicago, Houston, or Los Angeles, having come to watch their families perform—and then repeat the rituals themselves, note for note, alongside their young Zacatecan cousins in the three-day children’s ceremony following the main event. [Meet the piñata king of this small Mexican town.]

For Durán, the experience was unforgettable.

“I forgot time,” he says. “It didn’t matter. There was a sensation of love for what you do, because in doing it you feel all your emotions, all your senses; you feel included in something. Although you’re walking and sweating, you feel serene.”