THE fiesta is the outstanding exhibit of Mexican recreation. There is nothing like it in the States, unless it be Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The nearest thing to it in my experience was the old-fashioned Fourth of July, which meant much to me as a boy in New England. Perhaps the smell of gunpowder brought it back. The church bells at midnight, the salvos of rockets and bombs in the early morning hours, firecrackers at dawn, the parade of the Antiques and Horribles in masks, the overworked town band perspiring on the common, strawberries and ice cream for dinner, the blistering heat, uniforms and flags, fireworks and the set piece of Niagara Falls--which miraculously ceased flowing when it was supposed to cascade its hardest--there was something of the real fiesta spirit in all this. But the old-fashioned Fourth of July was chiefly for small boys. Little girls in those dark, pre-feminist days were equipped with nothing more deadly than paper torpedoes, while the grown-ups of my acquaintance regarded the day as the most nerve-wracking, forbidding and dangerous in the year. (They were certainly confirmed as the tetanus figures began to come in.)
In Mexico it is the other way around. The fiesta is primarily for grown-ups. Children down to week-old babies are all present, and those old enough to walkenjoy themselves hugely. But it is their fathers and mothers, their gaffers and grandams, who dominate the spectacle. Not boys, but adult men are shooting off the rockets, and dancing in plumed headdress and masks. Mexican children are without any exception the quietest and best behaved in the world. They never dominate anything. A ginger-whiskered Freudian might stalk among them scenting repressions, but I doubt if youngsters so exuberantly loved by their elders can suffer from this malady, while to the wayfarer their dignity and decorum is a source of never-failing delight. Charles Flandrau goes so far as to declare that if he were managing the world he would arrange for all children to be born Mexican and remain so till they were fifteen. I think he means Indian, not white Mexican children. The latter share with their Nordic cousins the usual percentage of the spoiled, peevish and intolerable.
Suppose we follow through the principal activities of a typical fiesta--say that of Oaxaca in the middle of December. In it we shall find, as we found in the market, the basic pattern for all. It begins before the announced date with a slow, often unnoticed, but very extensive human migration. Into every centre like the city of Oaxaca lead, say, one railroad, two motor roads--we will call them motor roads-and scores of valley and presently mountain trails.
The one train a day will suddenly fill to the bursting point, until Indians, surrounded by every sort of lumpy bag and parcel, begin to pop like so many chestnuts on to the roofs of the cars. The interior looks like nothing so much as a six o'clock express in Times Square--except that there are no straps, and everybody is good-natured. The railroad never dreams of adding more cars or an extra train. Mexican coaches in these parts run in two classes-the first class maintaining the approximate equipment of an Erie Railroad smoker in the seventies. Theoretically it is reserved for holders of first class tickets. But at fiesta time we are given a very pretty example of why Europe has never subdued Mexico. When the second class coaches, the freight cars, the tender and the roofs are all full, and only then, the Indians, like a dark brown river, come flowing relentlessly into the first class carriages. The train crew make no attempt to stop them, knowing its futility. The spare seats go, the spaces around the lavatories fill solid, the floor disappears under layer after layer of wicker lunch baskets, pottery, and knickknacks. Suddenly one finds oneself lifting a baby through the open window and delivering it to a waiting-and very polite-barefooted mother in the aisle. Miraculously a seat on which two of us were sitting holds four, and there is a little boy in white pyjamas leaning against one's leg. We are thoroughly uncomfortable but the philosophical implications of this invasion help our patience. And the smiling brown baby beside one's ear is certainly worth watching. We resign ourselves to the convocation of what Terry terms the entomological congress. Indeed there is nothing else to do; only a steam shovel could extricate us.
Meanwhile a few crazy Fords converted into busses are bumping over the so-called motor roads equally burdened. If the driver has room to manipulate his gears among the bundles he is lucky. But the real exhibit, the exhibit which accounts for nine persons out of ten, is the pedestrians and animals on the converging trails. If we should ride a horse in a circle at a radius of ten miles from Oaxaca, bisecting all the trails, we should gather something of the full impact of this extraordinary migration. It comes by families, at least one baby in each. A few travellers are on horseback, a few are mounted on the extreme rear end of a patient mouse-coloured donkey. More often the burro is loaded with produce or handicrafts, and the whole family, save the baby, walks. In Oaxaca, papa is not above carrying the infant. In other areas this does not do at all. Some of these people have come from inaccessible mountain notches a hundred and more miles away; places to make Tepoztlan look like Broadway. They have been travelling for a solid week; building a little fire beside the trail at nightfall, roasting their tortillas, and anon sleeping, wrapped in their sarapes, to take the trail again before dawn.
Perhaps the jolliest prelude to a fiesta I ever saw was on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan. I went down to the lakeside in the early morning of the opening day. It is a sheet of water, 6,700 feet above the sea, broken with islands and long bays, and rimmed with lofty mountains. On the foothills the milpas grow like checkerboards. There are a dozen towns and villages of Tarascan Indians about the lake, living from fishing and hunting as well as corn. When pursuing duck, they use the old Mexican atlatl or throwing spear. Now they are coming across the rose-coloured water in literally hundreds of dugout canoes, propelled by curious little paddles shaped like lollypops. Bark and paddle have not changed their shape in a thousand years. Some of the canoes are forty feet long, with all the family paddling. Some are full of women, a frieze of parallel rebosos above parallel oars. Heaped on the bows are flowers, vegetables, little white transparent fish strung on green rushes; mosses, boughs, pottery, nets; food for the days to be spent at the fiesta, and produce for exchange at the market.
Oaxaca has no lake, but from trail, road and rail, it will add 40,000 people to its population, doubling it in a day or two. The fiesta proper begins at midnight, but a few anticipatory rockets will explode earlier in the eve- ning. Hundreds of little booths have sprung up around the Church of the Soledad, and men are struggling with the erection of a merry-go-round and a diminutive ferris wheel at the foot of the church steps. Townfolk are running paper streamers across the streets. The migration is steadily seeping into town, populating the booths, crowding the churchyard, brimming the main plazas. Where are all these thousands to sleep? A tour of inspection answers the question. They are going to sleep where they finally come to a halt; in back of their booths, in the churchyard, in the market, around the plaza. On the bare ground-it is cold in the evenings at 5,000 feet in December-they are going to curl up like so many caterpillars. Elementary sanitation has been provided for. All the town fountains are flowing. Food they have in their bags, or can purchase for a few centavos at the booths.
At midnight, every church bell in town breaks into a raving delirium. Small boys, who ought to be in bed, have climbed the towers of a score of churches and chapels to set them somersaulting. A devastating explosion, on the general order of the Paris gun, takes place in the direction of the Soledad. Then another and another. The fiesta has officially begun. Through the remainder of the night, bells ring and bombs detonate, with another frantic zero hour at dawn.
This particular fiesta is in honour of the Virgin of the Soledad, and centres around her great church, which I described earlier when swinging architecture around the compass. Soledad means solitude, but the lady is nothing if not gregarious. She welcomes thousands to her festival,and in addition has to be locked up at night, for as patron saint of sailors she has a generous but indelicate habit of leaving her niche and spending the hours between sunset and sunrise in heaven knows what ocean-going company. Certainly she has been caught in the morning with salt water on her dress of black velvet. Or so we were solemnly informed. But the Indians like her all the better for this small dereliction; the old gods were not without their human foibles. She is a very great santa, and her miracles are known far and wide. She looks a little like a gypsy dancer with her slim figure and her enormous hooped, pearl-embroidered skirt. She is a waxen image, about life size, high up in the centre of the grand altar, which has been decorated for the occasion with silver ribbons and six-foot candles. Throughout the fiesta a moving multitude passes in and out of the church; some to pray devoutly, some to beseech material benefits, some to watch the show. Mothers and babies spend the whole day sitting on the floor. From time to time choir boys sing, and the organ booms. Sometimes there will be a thousand lighted candles in a thousand outstretched hands, smoke and incense curling up to the murky, vaulted ceiling.
At noon, the Apaches take their place in the courtyard. They will dance for five hours. There are twelve of them in headdresses of real aigrets dyed in bright colours. Violin, piccolo and guitars call the tune. They advance and retreat, turn deftly, break into fours, reverse, take their places--something remotely like the figures in New England country dances. Their rhythm is sharper, their masks prevent any change of expression; they hold themselves a little stiffly, but they are well drilled and tireless. A crowd gathers, and the circle, through outside pressure, narrows until it cramps thedancers' movements. The music stops, while the spectators are pressed outward.
Meanwhile the merry-go-round and the ferris wheel are doing a thriving business, mainly with adults. A variety of centrifugal swinging seat, attached by a chain to a central pole, is, however, just dizzy enough to attract small boys. The military band begins to thunder on the plaza, its first number a movement from a Beethoven symphony, extraordinarily well played. The Oaxaca band is known all over Mexico. There are about fifty pieces. If they loaned some of their brass to the Mexico City symphony orchestra, one might be more enthusiastic about the latter.
The gambling games are in full swing under their canvas sunshades, particularly loteria, played with a peculiar deck of cards with pictures of animals upon them, and with kernels of corn as counters. One may sit in for five centavos. Mexicans of all shades adore to gamble, but they do it stolidly. Shooting galleries and ring toss are taking in the coppers. Everybody seems to be chewing sugar-cane. Here a packed ring in the street encircles two corrido singers; a fat man with an immense sombrero and guitar, and a youth with sweet, high tenor, singing a third above the fat man, and now wearing a little thin. Since early morning they have been delivering the interminable ballads which the Indians love, their only payment the sale of the words on brightly-coloured tissue paper.
Presently more dances start. "The Moors and the Christians" enact their ancient battle. After sundown comes the solemn procession into the church of the vestments of the Virgin and the great iron lanterns, followed by the fireworks dancers in the courtyard. Then bombs, pinwheels, rockets, and finally the detonation of the hugeset piece, forty feet high. This is the climax of the day, and indeed of the fiesta. There will be plenty of activity tomorrow but at a slower tempo. In another day or two the migration will reverse itself.
The inroads of the machine to date are not great, even in a city fiesta like this. The chief contribution is the substitution of electric lights for flares and torches, making the night less picturesque but far more visible. The ferris wheel and some of the merry-go-rounds are run by motor. Others are propelled, as heretofore, by small boys pushing them around from the inside. There is usually a photographer's booth. Many, of course, will attend the town movie, where Hollywood dumps its more dismal failures, titled in both Spanish and English. This is about all. Coney Island would utterly collapse without its huge allotment of horsepower, but a Mexican fiesta functions today much as it did a century ago.
The two focal points are the church with its dances, processions and fireworks, and the market with its wares. It is impossible to tell which is the more important, but I suspect the latter. In Oaxaca, the market is half a mile from the Church of the Soledad; crowds surge back and forth from one to the other. Food booths are thick in the street below the church, candle and milagro sellers thick in the churchyard itself--I have even seen them inside churches during mass. But most of the handicrafts, the precious purchases which are to go back over the trails) are to be found at the market. Its wares we have already described; its spirit remains beyond description. People come to buy, yes, and to sell; they come to gossip, and to tell the news of the villages, there will be no such news again for many a long day; they come to look at the crowds and the colours and the goods; they come to herd together, to feel the hot breath of impacted humanity, to press upon the flesh of their own kind. This means more to lonely mountain folk than you and I, living in Megalopolis, can sense. Through hungry pores they drink in the market; they drink in the whole fiesta. It becomes as integral a part of their lives as harvesting corn or making love.
I cannot conceive Mexico without the fiesta and the spirit it engenders. Once I was caught in a gold mine by a sudden flood of water, long pent up. There was no danger, but before we reached the mouth of the tunnel we were wading to our knees. Our host, the mine owner, was divided between commiseration for his guests' discomfort and relief that the water had been released. Presently the Indian miners came wading through the zinc-white flood, wringing wet and smiling from ear to ear. "See, we have made the water come ! Bueno, muy bueno!" They trooped down to their little village. To change their clothes? No indeed. To start a miniature mountain fiesta. In five minutes rockets were hissing; bombs cracked; a large pinwheel began to turn. It was still broad daylight but that was a detail. After many weeks of hard and dangerous work the water had been tapped and led harmlessly away. The victory demanded immediate celebration. Could you duplicate the scene-- and the spirit--in West Virginia or Cornwall?
In Tepoztlan, Mr. Redfield has probably given us the most careful schedule of the fiesta cycle ever prepared. We find nearly thirty of them in the year, accounting for more than a hundred holidays. On roughly one day in three, the year around, Tepoztecans are celebrating a major or minor festival. This reminds us of the machineless men of the Middle Ages in Europe, when a hundred saints' days and holidays a year were common. The Aztecs had market and compulsory holiday every five days, together with a certain number of general celebrations--of which the thirteen-day period at the close of the fifty-two-year calendar cycle was probably the most elaborate. There are four types of fiesta in Tepoztlan:
The first type is celebrated all over Mexico, including Tepoztlan. The second is the special fiesta at the chapel of one of the barrios of the town. Sometimes it interests only the residents of that barrio, but usually all the village attends, and not infrequently Indians come from outlying villages. Through some obscure process, developed over centuries of time, a given fiesta in a small barrio or a tiny village becomes "important," attracting an extensive migration from the surrounding region. Thus I saw a fiesta at Tecalpulco in Guerrero, a poor village of not more than a hundred houses, visited by 15,000 people from all over the state. The santo in the local church had taken on especially miraculous powers.
The third type concerns not the barrio but the whole town, and centres around the plaza cathedral. The last is not in the village at all, but twenty miles away at Yautepec. This is the nearest trading centre--you can actually drive from Mexico City to Yautepec by motor. It is a very important fiesta, and everybody who can walk tends to migrate thither. It corresponds to the call of the big festival at Oaxaca to its hinterland. In addition, many Tepoztecans make the rounds of other regional fiestas, either with goods to sell or just to enjoy them, and some make annual pilgrimages to such distant shrines as Guadalupe or Chalma when the great fiestas occur there. Here in abbreviated form is Mr. Redfield's schedule:
January 1. Fiesta of Santa Maria de Tepoztlan. Three days. Not very important.
This is, we must admit, a schedule to appal even George F. Babbitt. What professional joiner could hope to keep up with it? Special foods, special dishes--the women grind and grind-special costumes, special drinks, special behaviour, for each occasion. The ritual is slowly disintegrating, according to Redfield, but the markets and the general spirit of relaxation are unimpaired. A hundred days of playtime, more or less. Sunday is also a day of markets and relaxation, which gives us fifty more--with some overlapping, of course. A Puritan Sunday is unheard of in Mexico. Everything is wide open. You can even work all day if you choose.
It may seem strange to conjoin death and play in the Festival of the Dead. Yet this is one of the great fiestas, observed throughout the nation. On the evening of October 31 at eight o'clock in each home in Tepoztlan a candle, decorated with flowers and ribbons, will be lighted for every dead child there remembered. In front of the candle food is set-bread, chocolate, chicken. Every utensil used must be new. Copal incense is set burning. Each muertito--"little dead one"--is called by name and the food is offered him. Plates and wooden spoons are laid out. The family keeps vigil all night long. At six the next morning, people come to the plaza church and ask the priest to bless the remembered children. Then all return to their homes and eat the food laid out the night before. In the evening the same ceremony is enacted for the adult muertos. The candles are larger, are hung with black ribbons and decorated with flowers of black wax. A large incense-burner is lighted. Food is laid out for the dead-tamales, rice, mamones, oranges, lemons, bananas, melons, mole verde--a hot spiced meat dish. As it is offered, one says "Now comes the Day of the Dead. I will await my departed." The city is again awake all night. Torches are alight on the streets. The church bells strike the hours with double strokes. At four o'clock a group of men from each barrio goes about asking tamales for the bell ringers. At six, the blessing is given, and the food offering in front of the candles is eaten.
The dead come back to feast with the living. There is no wailing and lamentation, but flowers, candles, bells andfestival in an orchestral minor. Those who have seen these ceremonies, particularly in the more remote villages, report them as indescribably impressive.
To the outsider, the organization of the fiesta is a mystery. There are no masters of ceremonies, no committeemen with badges, no bureau of information, no policemen discernible. The thing seems to run itself. When are the Moors and the Christians to dance? Nobody knows, or else everyone asked has a different theory. Where are they to dance? Nobody knows. All that one can do is to keep watchfully circulating, an exhausting matter. A day at a Mexican fiesta is more debilitating than ten sets of tennis; it is indeed the most tiring experience I know.
Somewhere, deeply hidden, worn smooth by the tradition of centuries, there is organization. Most of it lies in the unconscious behaviour of the participating crowds; they feel when this should be done, and that. They drift "right now at three or five o'clock" to the proper ceremony at the proper place. Part of it lies in deliberate planning by the group most concerned with the particular celebration. Barrio fiestas are the responsibility of their inhabitants. Men of the barrio must decorate the chapel, prepare the fireworks; women must grind mountains of corn, cook the special dishes; boys must ring the bells. Arrangements must be made for the extension of market space, for toilet facilities, for the clearing of refuse, for stringing flags and threading streamers of pine and cedar. Without any frantic chief of staff, surrounded by telephones, messengers, secretaries and typewritten orders, it all gets done. It may be at three, it may be at five, it may be at midnight-but it occurs. The responsible group, whether barrio, church or municipality, sets the stage, each member, through long experience, doing his alloted share. The visiting Indians, through long experience, do the rest. Lines never form on the right; church aisles become all but choked; crowds congest to the bone-breaking point-but suddenly the pressure gives, nothing serious seems to happen; no fists are shaken, no irate voices raised, no lost children wail. The only arrests are the steering of an occasional gentleman, overfull of pulque, to the side lines.
To the northerner, used to rules, regulations, uniformed direction, orderly queues and one committeeman to every two spectators, the whole phenomenon is astounding. Something is going to break loose; something terrible will surely happen. It never does. Ultimately one comes to trust this strange unplacarded, automatic type of organization, and to realize that despite the baffling want of information, it has a broader base, handles crowds more safely than our own Coney Islands, football games and Fifth Avenue parades.
In my time I have criticized play in the machine age with some severity. I have said that it was over-commercialized, mechanized, standardized; that it tended to compound the strains and stresses set up by monotonous factory work; that there was too much sitting, watching, listening, rather than first-hand participation. I have cited the movies, the radio, the stadium complex, the funny papers, the motor car. How does this major form of recreation among machineless men differ in spirit; is it, when all is said and done, any more rewarding? Do Oaxaca and Tepoztlan really have more fun than Middletown?
I think they do. They take their fun as they take their food, part and parcel of their organic life. They are not driven to play by boredom; they are not organized intorecreation by strenuous young men and women with badges on their arms and community chests behind them; they are not lectured on the virtues of work and the proper allocation of leisure hours. In short there is no "problem." In the second place, while the dancers and active performers in a given fiesta are comparatively few, the crowd is not standing still waiting to be fed recreation with a spoon at so much a gulp. No. The crowd is moving, exchanging news, absorbing new impressions, bargaining in the market, participating, in a very fundamental sense. You can have a football game without a crowd, you can have a talkie, or a radio program. But a fiesta without a crowd would be unthinkable. The dancers, bands, rockets, ferris wheels, booths, are only the higher tongues of flame in a furnace.
The fiesta is the spirit of play released on a vast and authentic scale. The body receives very little exercise in the form of sport. Perhaps it should receive more. Perhaps these holidays could be improved by mass dancing, opportunities for games, races and competitions in muscular skill. Certainly I should not object to the experiment. But we must remember that Indians are almost never fat. As the full significance of this observation dawns, we realize that we are dealing with a population that never has time to sit down long enough to take on weight. It is exercising from cradle to grave. One glance at perpendicular mountain cornfields is enough to establish this point. It is reasonable to suppose accordingly that their recreation does not demand muscular exercise in the form of sport, and that the fiesta produces less active but to them even more rewarding forms of play.
In the case of children this conclusion is less tenable. The fiesta, as we have observed, is primarily for adults. Mexican children ought to have more sports and games. Fortunately the Revolution has engendered a strong movement in that direction. In front of every new village schoolhouse stands a basketball court. It was strange to see little Indian boys playing basketball in the sleepy plaza of Tsintsuntsan amid the mouldering churches and the ancient graves-a town. a million miles from no- where, once the capital of the Tarascan race. In Yucatan they are taking avidly to baseball. Mountain-climbing clubs have been organized. I spent the hot hours of two days in a Oaxaca swimming pool, and wished I could stay a fortnight. The boys were so pathetically eager to learn the crawl stroke, and proper form in diving. They were fearless in the water, but nobody had ever taught them the techniques which would add vastly to their enjoyment. Although the famous Latin game of Fronton-a kind of glorified handball in which the players wallop the ball with an enormous claw strapped to the wrist-is played publicly by Spanish professionals, many Mexican amateurs have their own courts. Newspapers carry articles promoting athletics. "Every child," says one, "will become a propagandist for sport . . . and interest, inevitable as gangrene, will infect the grown-ups."
I see room for a great development of this sort of thing. But I see no field at all for bridge tournaments, Marathon dancers, tree roosters, or publicity gained by pushing a peanut up a mountain with the aid of one's nose.