Carnival in Tepoztlan

Two or three of the best restaurants in town closed yesterday, and this afternoon, the largest coffee shop followed suit. This morning, I saw a truck coming in with police reinforcements from a neighbouring town. We expats are all passing on the word to each other about avoiding the place till next week, and looking for places to hang out that can be reached without passing through it.

Corona Virus hit us, you think? Or we had a dire prediction of an earthquake from one of the more noted local seers? Nope. It’s Carnival time, as happens each February.

Yesterday, the people who work in the market began pulling it apart. Every year at this time, it moves to the adjoining streets. They have to make space for a midway, a lot of oompah bands and dancing, and a huge milling crowd that will be impossible to push through by Sunday.

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Kids in home-made Chinelo hats parade down the Avenida Cinco de Mayo on Carnival’s opening day. The ones in the black outfits, near the left, are actual Chinelos.

When I first learned Tepoztlan had a carnival, I was optimistic it would be fun, full of folkloric activities and old traditions. Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of booze and food. And while I’m personally downbeat about noisy celebrations, I discovered last year that some of the restaurant owners can’t stand Carnival.

“I just hate the drunks,” one restaurant owner confided to me.

“Don’t they spend money, though?” I responded.

“One fight, and you can lose a lot of revenue,” he replied mournfully.

I’ve learned the hard way to stay out of town on the Carnival weekend, and to minimise my visits on the surrounding days, and I know what he meant. One time I went in to see what Carnival Sunday was like, and was compressed into a crowd that crawled and staggered down the main street and into the zocalo. I was possible the only sober person among three thousand people, and I’m by no means a disapproving abstainer. Once caught up in that mass of staggering people, I had no way of escape until they veered into the open space, and I could slip to the side of the mob and out of the surge.

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All mixed in with a brass band, people dance round the marketplace as Carnival opens.

The town council, I think, is trying to reclaim Carnival as a family event, as well as still one for local people, as it used to be. It doesn’t publicly start till tomorrow, but today there was an opening Chinelos’ dance around the marketplace, where the traditionally robed celebrants did their hopping samba led by a brass band and accompanied by two hundred schoolkids in home-made Chinelo hats. The largest parking space in the centre has a stage set up in it: the city fathers and mothers don’t want people driving into the downtown, and then drunkenly trying to leave it. The musical program is also promoted more this year than in the past.

There’s supposedly a ban on selling alcohol in the streets, but there’s also a rule that people who’ve held a Carnival vending permit for decades can continue to obtain it every year. A lot of those who have such permits operate small bars in the closed-off main streets. So, that idea is almost unenforceable.

I am, I confess, no fan of noisy celebrations, and as some other posts here make plain, Mexicans can make noise like nobody else. There are local people who are happy they’ll make a tidy sum selling enchiladas and quesadillas, or micheladas (beer with lime-juice and chili), but otherwise the event tends to overwhelm the town. It’s promoted online and elsewhere, then the place waits for the onslaught. Wiser residents stock up on basic food, and pretend it isn’t happening.

Feliz fiesta, folks: it’s all yours.


When Tim opened Juanito’s five years or so back, it was a kiosk at the edge of the market, two metres square, that sold meatball subs, Chinese and Thai food, and the best hamburgers for miles around. After a month or two, it wasn’t worth queuing there on weekends, because the wait was too long.

In a couple of years, he moved across the street to a proper restaurant, catering to expats, but more to Mexicans who liked an occasional American-style meal. Since then, he and Claudia have made Juanito’s a destination for visitors who want something other than tacos, quesadillas or iffy pizza.

So, when he told me he was closing for Carnival to do renovations, I was surprised. Carnival draws in thousands of outsiders to Tepoztlan, and they come to eat and drink. That should be a restaurateur’s delight, yes?

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Streets are closed to accommodate the Carnival crowds.

But the drinking put Tim off.

“During Carnival, this town’s full of drunks,” he shrugged at me. “It’s not worth being open.”

He was right, and for the past four or five days I’ve tried to avoid being in town. The whole place was a mass of slow-moving, slightly unsteady people. But today was the last flourish, which meant the Chinelos came out in force. Their dance marks the annual conclusion of Carnival.

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Team leaders with banners encourage the dancers. Note the young Chinelo (centre right).

The Chinelos, it’s generally conceded, started in Tlayacapan, a sister town a few miles over the hills from Tepoztlan. Anthropologists say the name Chinelo comes from an old Nahuatl word, zienloquie, which means ‘disguised,’ though everyone has their own explanation for its significance, and for what a Chinelo is. Folk traditions seldom yield to one simple explanation.

There’s definitely a satirical aspect, directed at the elaborate dress of the rich in the late 1800s, an attitude that flowered more violently some years after the tradition’s start, in the Revolution of 1910. During the late 19th Century, both women and men of means wore elaborate clothing, especially for their entertainments, while the poorer people, who were often mere serfs on the plantations (haciendas) of the rich, wore very simple attire. But also, the ‘Chin’ part of the name possibly referred to China, whence came high quality ceramics and other fashionably stylish goods. The headgear of a Chinelo could also owe something to Qin Dynasty Chinese hats:

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Chinese Qin Dynasty court official’s hat.

Each town in our area has one or more groups of Chinelos. They wear a full-length, unbelted robe, frequently embroidered or decorated with religious or political imagery. The hat, like an inverted cone, has strings of beads, and feathers on top. The wearer has a mask with a bland expression and a pointed, up-curving chin-beard.

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Going for the  Santa Muerte look.

Chinelos, therefore, in the spirit of many Carnivals round the world, are protected from identification, even if the satirical side of the tradition has now passed. They enter in a group, to a fast march, played in a major key by a brass band, dancing a kind of lively samba, and inviting others to join in. Today in the marketplace, which is cleared out for Carnival, they gradually made their way round the space, up to a hundred people joining in at times.

The dance goes on for an hour, maybe more, some Chinelos dropping out as the heat (it was 28 degrees C today) becomes too much in those robes. Occasionally, a smaller figure goes to the sidelines to drink water, and you realise it’s the young son or daughter of a Chinelo parent: the tradition is strong in this way. The figures are all outwardly male, but there’s more going on than is stated, or revealed by the costumes.

Having seen Chinelos at a half-dozen late-winter Carnivals, as well as at other celebrations, I’m always struck by how upbeat their music is. There’s a sweet, sad tone to a lot of Mexican folk music, but there’s a triumphant tone to the main Chinelo song.

That means, when the Chinelos come in on Ash Wednesday morning, there’s always a lift. They embody … what? Something ancient, like conquering or redeeming spirits from the past. I won’t say they represent a happy ending, but rather they embody resilience; that ‘Mexicanidad’ that sees this country through bloodshed, endless scorn and incomprehension from its northern neighbour, and the ever-present possibility of disaster and poverty despite years of hard work. “We are more than our woes” is something only to be expressed by a people that, a half-millennium on from conquest and the destruction of whole cultures, still feel the lost struggle. The Christianising of old gods and goddesses into Catholic saints was never entirely complete; I’ve listened to fierce arguments over glasses of mezcal about whether the Virgin of Guadalupe, the nation’s great unifying icon, is or is not ‘really’ the goddess Tonantzin. A score of old legends form the historical basis for shrines to today’s local iterations of Jesus.

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Three Chinelos pose for a photo.

The Chinelos are an answer to all this. The old ways are still vital, they say, and have ways of reviving themselves. We old guardians changed, but we never truly went away.

And we dance. Just as preHispanic Mexico danced.

Carnival brings a lot of money to Tepoztlan, which has tourism for its main income today. In a country such as Mexico, which still has great inequality, that’s not to be spurned or denied. Still, I was happy to see the Chinelos today. Their tune, the vibe they bring, this morning re-established the norms of the town that has been … maybe not my home, in the usual sense, but a centre of gravity to my life, for a decade and more.

And of course, their dancing meant that Juanito’s opens again tomorrow. Tim’s burgers are too huge for me (the place gets through a lot of doggie bags), but I’m a sucker for his chicken parmesan baguettes. No, there’s nothing outwardly traditional about the place, but Tim’s wife is local, and the food features some chilis and other ingredients that link it to a much older cuisine.

So, maybe the Chinelos preserve the town and its traditions in ways you’d never imagine just from their dancing.