Ready for the World

A girl’s fifteenth birthday is a special event here. The tradition of the quinceañera goes back a long time, and has taken various forms over the years. But in essence, it declares a girl is now becoming a woman.

On the simplest level it says: “Our daughter is marriageable. Young men may now legitimately declare their lustful interest.” In today’s Mexican society, where the old custom of teenage marriages in the villages has declined, it has become more a rite of passage to adulthood, even if the older meaning still pertains.

A party is a must, of course, while some families can afford to accompany their daughters on a trip elsewhere in Mexico, or even overseas. The party easily lasts all afternoon and into the evening, and everyone can remark how the girl in question was just a rug-rat not long ago, and now look at her.

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Janika, all dressed up and all grown up, too.

Depending on a family’s means and status, it might be a modest celebration with immediate family and friends, or a full-on blow-out. At times, I’ve seen embarrassed young girls in colourful dresses paraded round the village accompanied by a band and a phalanx of protective male relatives. Janika’s, to which I was invited last weekend was in the upper range. There were over 150 people attending, a DJ, and hired waiters.

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Sobriety was not the aim of the event, even if the young lady at the centre of it can’t yet drink.

To round things out, a squad of costumed Chinelos was on hand to get everyone dancing. The Chinelo dance could be described as a vigorous solo samba, sometimes with the occasional touch of Saturday Night Fever thrown in, but it requires only minimal skill to get into. It’s hard to disgrace yourself, in other words, even if you’re naturally as flat-footed as I am.

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Flanked by her posse of close pals and relatives, Janika leads her squad of Chinelos to the dance-floor.

Janika’s family is a prominent one in the community, and we had barbecued pork, unlimited beer and a bottle of tequila on every table. There isn’t so much a guest-list on these occasions as an expectation that everyone who knows the parents and grandparents will show up to celebrate the girl’s emergence into the community. This young woman is about to graduate from her middle school, and will soon be moving with her family to Canada, so there was also a sense of a generous farewell and a lasting reminder of her roots.

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A very small Chinelo on the dance-floor.

Some families involve their small children in the Chinelo tradition, which conveys a measure of cool to the kids who have their own elaborate costumes made for them. I think the one in the photo above was a daughter who, in a few more years, will be having her own quinceañera.




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.