I knew something was up when a man in a wolf mask, clad in a Mexican flag inspired skirt, white long sleeve shirt and black glove on one hand ran past me, disappearing up the stairs into the town municipal building. Children clustered at the end of the veranda, with the younger children hiding behind older ones. Legend has it these wolf men are part coyote tricksters, part pied piper and sometimes they led the children away with them, never to return.
This week, the week after Easter, is Carnival in Teotitlán del Valle, a weaving community located about 30 minutes’ drive to the east of Oaxaca. In a week of continuous celebrations, Carnival is known for el Baile de los Viejos, or the Dance of the Old Men, an annual Zapotec tradition.
Heralded by 2 “old men” who in masks resemble those two cranky guys who sit in the balcony on the Muppets, this dance is designed as a reminder by the people to the village leaders to listen to their people, and to also act with integrity. The story goes that the spirits of the old men guard over the village. Each year they return to remind everyone that they must act with honesty, integrity and respect.
Teotitlán is divided into 5 zones, and so each day this week, one of the zones in turn will have a party in one of the streets (think pot luck on a giant scale) which starts around 2pm to welcome the Old Men from the spirit world. The “Old Men” are elected in each zone by the people, but their identity is hidden by masks so they are anonymous. They alone have the power to speak to all the people in that zone; listening to issues, suggested improvements and raised grievances so they can speak for all the people in that zone. Obviously, being elected to be an “Old Man” is a huge honour and responsibility as they must have the integrity to pass this information – good and bad – on to the village leaders.
The “Old Men” also bring their wives, with them (representing the women in the community) – men dressed as women with scarves covering their entire faces, and sunglasses perched on top, looking a bit like when the invisible man wanted to appear visible. They are later accompanied by several other men dressed as women, chosen I think for their ability to dress in heels, and for their high-pitched laughter which was triggered every 10 minutes – much like an alarm clock set on snooze. Young boys also dress up as part of the day – I saw Spiderman, Captain America, several luchadores and an array of incredibly scary looking killer clown masks.
At around 6pm, that zone will head to the zócalo so their “Old Men” can speak to the village leaders, ask for permission to act as the community leaders for the length of the ceremony and to share the feedback they have from that zone. Chairs are set out around the zócalo to create a square, and people crowd all available seating areas. After the old men come out of their discussions with the leaders, the traditional dance begins.
Regardless of their actual ages, the men depicting the “Old Men” dance as such, with bent backs, quivering legs and walking sticks assisting their every step. The attendant (men dressed as) women, complete with bizarre masks – dance as couples to the live band, who play from the veranda of the municipal building. The wolf-men – still in constant motion – hover on the peripheries of the square, ready to provide assistance if required, and to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
The Old Men give an offering of mezcal to the village leaders to signify the community is in balance. The dancers also throw lollies into the crowd for the children which causes mayhem among the seated crowd as children pounce down steep stone stairs and under chairs for concealed lollies. Afterwards the men of that zone serve mezcal to the leaders, and at the end of the dancing, the Old Men hand back power to the village leaders in a formal ceremony. The party then moves back to the originating street and dancing, food and music will continue until that zone’s “Old Men” depart back to the spirit world, around 4am, destined to return again next year.