Rooster Race: Day of the Dead in Todos Santos, Guatemala

Article # : 18814 
Category : CULTURE > PEOPLES  
Issue Date : 11 / 1999   Print   Close
File Size : 3,786 Words Page : 212 
Author : Barbara McClatchie Andrews
Barbara McClatchie Andrews is a freelance photojournalist based in Canada.

Todos Santos, the village of All Saints, huddles in a valley of northwestern Guatemala's Cuchumatanes, a blue-gray mountain chain clad in gnarled pines, hemlock, and the wind-warped trunks of ancient cypress. The Mayan village lies eighty-two hundred feet above sea level on an ancient trade route connecting Mexico to the city of Huehuetenango. The treacherous ribbon of road that threads its way to the town is sinuous, twisting as it rises and falls through the traditional family plots of corn, beans, and squash, the fields of golden wheat, and the mountain slopes of broccoli. Though Todos Santos is only fifty kilometers from Huehuetenango, the bus ride is nearly three hours long.

         In January, the vermilion bean of the coffee plant enlivens the hillside. Sheep, cattle, and occasional goats roam the precipitous slopes of the mountain peaks, which are garlanded in a softly shifting mist, especially in the rainy season, when the sun shows its face for mere minutes at a time. Sometimes you can see a man working on the slopes, tied to a tree so as not to fall to his death.
         Todos Santos is small; its immediate population is less than three thousand. But if one includes the population of the aldeas (hamlets) that ring the village, this mountain redoubt is home to thirty-two thousand inhabitants. Of these, several thousand make a pilgrimage to the town each fall. Some set out as soon as the farmwork is completed on October 30. Others come on November 1, just in time for All Saints' Day, also known as the Day of the Dead. They come bearing something to sell--sweet bread, plastic trinkets, squealing pigs, or trussed-up chickens--so that they will have money to take a ride on the Ferris wheel, buy cotton candy, and drink aguardiente (a local high-proof rum). They come on foot, on horseback, and in sagging, pockmarked school buses.
         By far the greatest throng to swell the mud-caked streets of Todos Santos arrives on October 31, the day of the Corrida de los Gallos, the Rooster Race. Dating back four hundred years, it is an unnerving three days of high drama with a cast of thousands.
         There are conflicting histories of the founding of Todos Santos and the inception of the Corrida de los Gallos. An apocryphal version places the town at its present location in the mid--sixteenth century, when the Mam carried out a successful rebellion against the oppressive Spanish government seated in Huehuetenango. After escaping on horseback, the founders are said to have made their way up muddy trails into the Cuchumatanes and toiled persistently northwest. On November 1, they arrived at what would become Todos Santos, halting near the present-day archaeological site of CumanchŌm. Here the rebels decided to stay, believing themselves safe and seeing abundant wood and rich soil for farming. Free of the tyrant and proud to have escaped on horseback (riding was strictly proscribed to Indians), the riders are said to have expressed their joy by careering back and forth across a small, level clearing that they named, simply, Tuit Nam, or "the village." The following year they reenacted the victory, as they have done every year since. The event is not a race at all but a pageant, a piece of theater. To merely participate is to win.
         Because the celebration occurred on November 1, Christian All Saints' Day, Catholic Church leaders renamed the town Todos Santos. Flexible and perhaps aware of the power of syncretic practices, the church persuaded many riders to ask a priest's blessing on their endeavor rather than that of their shaman. To this day, a small number of riders do so.
         Sacred duty
          Preparation for the race begins almost before the previous year's celebration is over. Before the miasma of alcohol has evaporated and the stunned participants have resumed their quotidian ways, a man may suddenly declare his intention to form a cuadrilla, a team of riders that he will lead. If he believes he has been inspired by the due–o del cerro, one of the spirits of the four surrounding hills, it becomes his sacred duty. Writing in the 1940s, Maude Oakes said, "Once this idea of forming a cuadrilla has entered his head, he must do it or else die."
         He will go to his family to announce his intention, persuading them to welcome his inspiration, and then plan with them how to raise money for the costly enterprise. He will confirm the rightness of his intention by visiting a chimán, a Mayan shaman. The putative leader then hires a marimba; stocks up on coffee, cigarettes, and rum; and invites friends to his home. By evening's end, aspirants have formally pledged their oath to ride at his side, accepting a bottle of aguardiente, which is omnipresent at sacred and secular celebrations throughout Guatemala. Superstition dictates that to break a pact thus sanctified is to court death within the year. The men further confirm their solidarity in a ceremonial killing of a rooster, whose blood they mingle with copal incense in a pichacha, a sort of censer. Then they eat the meat.
         The team has a distinct structure. There will be two leaders, or captains, in case of an accident or death. Two monos (monkeys)--so called for their agility and avidity--are next in importance. It is their role to attend to intragroup communications and publicity, announcing the race throughout town, for example. Some teams call the fourth and fifth riders venados, or deer, because they are swift in flight. Other members--seldom more than four--remain nameless and have no specific role to play. Six to eight riders is commonly the maximum, for the number of teams must accommodate those who would be captains. Although they are now clearly bound to one another in intention--a link that has obvious social and economic implications for the families involved--little formal activity takes place in the ensuing six months, until the group meets again.
         In June, preparations begin in earnest. There are horses to hire, a marimba ensemble to engage, clothing to weave, supplies to garner for the feasting. Most participants do not own a horse appropriate for racing, or, if they do, they are reluctant to risk its life. Thus, more often than not, horses are rented from the tierra baja (lowlands) of the Pacific Coast, where common wisdom has it that the best horses are bred. Ceremony surrounds the acquisition of a horse, though the custom's formal edge has apparently softened over the years. A week before the race, I accompany Miguel, 29, and four of his childhood friends to the nearby aldea of San Mart’n, where he will seek the blessing of his grandfather on the hiring of a horse. Afterward he will seal a deal with the horse's owner. The men all assure me that the fifteen-kilometer trip should take a mere twenty minutes ... should, had we not stopped half a dozen times at tiendas (small wooden roadside shops) to drink to the felicitous outcome of the soon-to-be-consumated deal. For tonight the die will be cast: Miguel will commit himself to ride.
         We hurtle through the lampless night in a 1995 Kia truck, crammed into the steamy cab. Our transport is merciless in its bone-rattling progress, seemingly hitting more potholes than road. Miguel--a native Mam speaker who has been educated both in North America and France--slips easily between his four languages as he consults his friends, then talks to me of the race. "It is brutal, savage, and dangerous," he tells me, his eyes giving away the deep thrill he feels as he paints an apocalyptic picture of this most revered and feared of traditions. Horses fall, he guarantees me, and men as well, trampled under the frenzied hooves of the wild-eyed beasts. But such disasters, he assures me, are propitious, guaranteeing a good year to come. I suppose one could think of it as a latter-day bloodletting in the best Mayan tradition.
         We arrive in San Mart’n around 9:00 p.m. and go directly to grandfather's house. Miguel accepts an abbreviated blessing from the old man, who is already in bed. Perhaps, having proved his mettle in some thirty-six races, he has lost some of his vigor. Nearby we find the house of Don Lorenzo, the man with the horse. Lorenzo talks to us in a hushed voice through a low window he has cracked partly open, spilling a pool of warm light onto the silent street. One of his horses, Canela, is small and feisty, he says; the other, a colorado (roan), is big and steady. This is what Miguel wants. They seal the deal with a glass of aguardiente. The horse will be delivered to Todos Santos on October 30.
         More preparations
          There can be no festive occasion in Guatemala without the marimba, and a team's captain must provide players for the event. Although investigation suggests that the marimba is not indigenous--archaeologists have uncovered no hint of the instrument's presence in pre-Hispanic America--Guatemala can legitimately claim it as the national instrument. It has reached a high level of development in this country, supplanting the lugubrious indigenous flauta (flute) and the tambor (drum) in popularity. Like Catholicism, this instrument "took" in Guatemala. It will be ubiquitous during the Todos Santos festival: In the town hall, the park, and the houses of the captains, there is no surcease during the three principal days and nights of celebration. The brave must dance until they drop, and a considerable number do just that. A majority of the marimba ensembles (from two to six musicians) will come from San Sebastián, twenty kilometers northwest of Huehetenango. They will have been engaged--at considerable cost--months before the events begin.
         By July, the women of Todos Santos are actively involved, for they must prepare new garments for the family. A wife's esteem for her husband can be measured by the care with which she designs and weaves his red-and-white striped shirts and embroiders his collar. The women weave new huipils for themselves and their younger daughters, as well, beautiful, densely embroidered blouses of red cotton that they wear with navy blue pinstriped skirts The racers must prepare an even more elaborate costume, crossing their chest with crimson sashes and affixing multicolored ribbons to straw boaters. Their hats sprout myriad feathers: chicken, dove, and rooster. Their pristine garments, spotless and stiff with newness, will have aged years by week's end.
         Although cooking begins only a few days before the festival, the celebrants must make some arrangements earlier. The captain bargains for sheep and buys roosters and chickens to fatten. Three days before the Day of the Dead, shepherds urge bleating herds through the cobblestoned streets to the houses of the various captains. Throughout town, racks of mutton soon hang from clotheslines. On wooden tables, rough and polished with age, sit bloody basins from which glare the accusatory eyes of the slaughtered creatures, bearded chins resting, surreal, on severed cloven hooves.
         By the light of a forty-watt bulb, women clean and chop mountains of vegetables: onions, potatoes, garlic, carrots. Each household must provide food for dozens of relatives and friends. Strong arms stir the meat and vegetables, which slowly thicken in enormous, soot-blackened cauldrons into a mutton or turkey stew. Beer makes its steady way up main street to the captains' houses, borne in gleaming red cases on the robust backs of men accustomed to heavy labor. They bring home aguardiente, too, sugarcane rum, redolent of Caribbean islands and as lethal as sunstroke. A casual survey of sales at Cantina Mendoza reveals a sharp rise in always brisk sales during the weeklong celebration.
         Restaurant and hotel owners gird their loins, as do families proximate to the center of town. For better or worse, this festival's fame is now extensive, and an undeniable component of the events--both socially and economically--is the tourist. Huddled against the sea of clouds that descends to earth at this high altitude, riding on express buses from Huehuetenango, the tourists arrive in droves as the day approaches. Americans, Europeans of every tongue, assorted Scandinavians, and--increasingly--Japanese will swell the town coffers; the influx of cash has become crucial to the economic survival of local shopkeepers and service people. Hotels expand their capacity by overfilling rooms; restaurants become frantic handling business to which they are ill accustomed. Handwoven textiles, of which there is usually a surfeit, begin to sell. Prices rise to catch the swelling tide, the brief economic bonanza.
         During the week before the race, most of the riders visit a chimán. To show respect for tradition, they bring with them candles and aguardiente. The chimán throws mixes, casting a mixture of red beans and quartz crystals onto a piece of woven cloth to calculate the forces affecting the future. For a successful divination, the shaman must be inspired by a visit from a due–o del cerro; if the spirit comes, the shaman can give crucial advice about the race. Two days before the event, Don Pasqual, Miguel's shaman, advises him that to ride on November 1 is to court death. Miguel declares himself unaffected by the news: "I'm riding; it's 95 percent certain," he announces. The following day, at his captain's house, Dutch courage still has him asserting it 65 percent sure he will ride. On the day of the race, Miguel is conspicuously absent.
         The day arrives
          The day before the race, the horses arrive in Todos Santos, spilling over the brow of a rain-swept hill. The sound of their hooves is muted by a surging fog that first envelops, then reveals them, ghostlike, shivering, already half dead from a nightlong trip. They are brought by teams, each one heading to its corresponding captain's house where family and relatives have been eagerly waiting. The staccato of exploding fireworks ricochets through town, marking the arrival of each contingent. Marimba music floats in the sodden air. The horses, still steamy and uncovered, are put to pasture at once, and the men move to the trestle tables where they will have coffee, fragrant with cinnamon and chocolate, and a mutton broth. Warming aguardiente follows, and the dancing begins. They dance until dawn, or at least until they fall, stumbling and comic as they struggle to lift increasingly heavy, mud-laden boots from the muck that was once a yard. There are some twenty tunes in most marimba repertoires, the most popular being the "Dance of the Horse," which plays over and over. The men--and an occasional woman--seem never to tire of the melody or the swaying, bent-knee shuffle they execute to its rhythm.
         The evening of the first fiesta night is marked by the U.S.- style coronation of a queen, Se–orita Todos Santos, in the local gym. Starting time is in question because the rain has been causing electrical failures, but candles appear while someone looks for a generator. Soon, the word runs about town that the event is imminent. Admirers flock to see who will take the three available titles: Miss Cordiality, Miss Physical Education, and the queen, Miss Todos Santos. Erect in their Uncle Sam pants, selection committee members and contestants address the audience, almost incomprehensibly, as the speakers' volume has been racked up past capacity. Ecology emerges as a popular theme among the women. Rumor has it that the election process this year is better than last year's, when vote purchasing (at .10 quetzales a vote) was legal. In short order, a new queen is crowned, marimbas strike up a tune, and the dance is on.
         The next morning, those who made it home from their captain's house ride out, proud on their horses, followed by an entourage of family. The race begins at eight, but some eager participants have arrived early, most of them dirty, bloodied, and still clearly drunk. Others turn up hours later. Officials have used logs to block off a five hundred-meter stretch of road averaging five meters in width. Stationed at both ends, they blow their whistles to indicate when riders should take off and when they should turn and dash back to the starting point. From eight until noon--pausing from time to time for a beer or some aguardiente--the riders surge back and forth, some riding no hands, others lurching about in the saddle and clinging to the pommel. Police brandishing nasty looking nightsticks keep the avid crowd behind a barbed-wire barrier. Inevitably, a rider falls and is crushed between his surging horse and the fence post. The audience strains to see, holding its collective breath. Incredibly, he is only bruised and will ride again in the afternoon. The riders pause for lunch, and at 2:00 p.m. the race resumes for another three hours. This time an exhausted horse, confused by its drunken rider, rears up and falls, breaking a leg. Later it is shot. The crowd is satisfied. Blood has been spilled, and success in the new year is assured. The race culminates with the appearance of the roosters, which the riders swing overhead, breaking their necks. The men dismount to slit the roosters' throats, mingling blood with the mud, which now forms a viscous river on the track. Finally, the riders and their families retire to the captains' houses yet again to celebrate until dawn.
         In town, the number of food stalls doubles for three days, and the odor of french fries and chicken wafts on the air. Patient customers shiver three abreast on the benches of a Ferris wheel, undaunted by its erratic functioning and the drizzle. Below them, the foosball tables are jammed, and from the tiny tin cabin issues the sound of a Sylvester Stallone movie. The evening demands one last round of drinks, one last night of dancing. By 9:00 p.m., as I dodge belligerent drunks on my way to the nearby hotel, I count ten bodies, supine on the cobblestones of the main street. Rain washes the dirt- and vomit-caked faces, and muddy water eddies against their comatose bodies.
         The aftermath
          The sky on the Day of the Dead is fit for a Shakespearean tragedy: a sorrowful sun almost obliterated by thick clouds. Families trudge the muddy, deeply rutted streets to the cemetery where, for once, the lugubrious flute and drum are more prominent than the marimba. Flower sellers line the road offering plastic wreaths. Beer and aguardiente are abundant, but the tone is more sober. The keening of widows rises on clouds of copal incense, while bereft mothers cling for support to the grim-faced men of their family. Yesterday's heroes--those still upright--come on horseback one last time to pay their respects to companions and ancestors. Near dusk, they trudge home.
         But the participants will feel the impact for some time. The marimba player must be paid. And to this debt--easily several thousand quetzales--one must add the cost of a horse, a minimum of 600 quetzales. Food and drink--mutton and turkey, oceans of beer, and rivers of aguardiente--can easily augment costs by several thousand quetzales. Then there are the garments, whose makers go unpaid but whose raw material is costly. All told, incurring a debt of 6,000 quetzales is normal. When one realizes that an average monthly income in Todos Santos is a mere 800 quetzales, it is easy to surmise the economic havoc wreaked on a family of six or eight people. At least several family members will have to go to the coast in the year to come, where they will pick cotton or cut sugarcane to settle their debt.
         The effect of alcohol is not inconsiderable, either. Todos Santos is a town in which alcohol regularly fuels catharsis, but during the fiesta, consumption takes on a new dimension. Violence is the inevitable result. Drunks beat wives and children and fight with their neighbors. Bones are broken and worse. The celebration at Todos Santos is a letting go of such magnitude that the participants lose precious days of work recuperating.
         Such abuse has provoked an unhappy annual division of Todos Santeros into two camps: the teetotaling evangelical Protestants and the rest of the population--Catholics mostly--for whom spirits have always been an integral part of celebration.
         Tourism has its impact, as well, and not all of it is positive. Foreigners come armed with cameras and camcorders, instruments they sometimes use indiscriminately. They are conspicuous in their Gortex jackets, Teva sandals, and Hi-Tec boots. They are tuned into Walkman cassette and CD players, and their state-of-the-art watches are good for diving in Caribbean waters. Usually well intentioned, they are often ignorant. They congregate in Ixcanac, a bar/restaurant that caters almost exclusively to foreigners. This mostly young crowd has money to burn. Some, oblivious to the implied insult, go native, adopting the local dress; many get into the spirit of the party by getting drunk. While feeding the economy, they stir up desire and envy, creating dissension among the Todos Santeros.
         Endurance and change
          From a Western perspective, it may be difficult to understand why this semisecular pilgrimage endures. But the Todos Santeros could explain it.
         The celebration of Todos Santos is an unspoken assertion of political sentiments. It is a declaration of independence, from the ever-encroaching Ladino world in particular and from foreign domination in general. On this day, the riders relive that real or imagined past when their ancestors faced the Spaniards and escaped. And they recall all too well recent threats to their independence.
         The Todos Santeros had the misfortune to live in the wrong place during Guatemala's thirty-six years of civil war. The villagers were caught between the guerrillas who sought refuge in the mountains and the army determined to eradicate them. Most would have preferred to remain apolitical. Few were given the luxury. By 1982, no family had been spared the army's genocidal sweep: Women had been raped, children bayoneted, and men shot or "disappeared" (a verb that originated in this country). Those who were spared were forced to take up arms and police their own people as members of civil patrols. An ensuing diaspora scattered the Todos Santeros across Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Most are home now, and this particular tradition is an assertion that--though changed--they remain culturally intact.
         The race is an expression of pride, not merely in one's culture but in oneself. Poor for the most part, marginalized in their own land, the villagers have few ways in which to assert their personal value. Schoolteacher Benito Ramirez explains, "You can be a journalist, a teacher, a doctor, an astronaut, but the simple man cannot, so [the race] can be a way of establishing identity. People will say, 'Look how many horses he has! Look how he rides! Look how he salutes the people!' Women fall in love with him."
         Having endured half a millennium, the race is still unique. Nowhere else in Guatemala is there such a tradition. In fact, with their high cheekbones and jet hair, the racers bear a greater resemblance to their Mongol ancestors than they do to their Latin neighbors.
         The celebration at Todos Santos is full of ritual, some of it constant, some changing, Dance was once an integral part of the festivities. By noon on the day of the race, dancers, masked and beribboned, would fill the plaza in front of the Catholic church, reenacting the Spanish conquest or emulating a deer hunt. In 1998, there was no dance in Todos Santos. The people tell me that, due in part to money and in part to weather brought by Hurricane Mitch, each year there are fewer dancers and fewer marimbas. The beauty contest is a recent addition, a mere decade old. It undoubtedly satisfies the drive--conscious or not--to emulate North America.