Vigil in Tehuantepec

A hoarse and deliberate voice slowly woke me. At first I didn’t know what it was saying.

Translated by Harry Morales

A hoarse and deliberate voice slowly woke me. At first I didn’t know what it was saying. The timbre of that voice, as deep as a hole, was disturbing my dreams, devouring them, mixing with them, making them disappear in the confusion of its whirlwind. Little by little I realized that it was coming from a long balcony over the patio of the Oasis Hotel. The heat reached up to my face in waves— an oven door opening. The voice was directing itself to another man, who was listening in near silence and, like me, suddenly became immersed in the story he was being told:

“They hung them by their feet from the big tree in the plaza. The one that fills with white, sweet-smelling flowers every year. Since so many people had beaten them, their blood stained all of the flowers when they were hung. From a distance it looked like a family of jaguars had climbed the tree and was waiting to eat the outlaws. Even though they were already more dead than alive, they still let out a few screams of pain from some corner of hell. Then they were castrated and set on fire. Half of the tree burned all day and part of the night; the flames engulfed all the flowers. The smell hung in the air for months, and all of us carried it on our bodies despite how often we bathed. We smelled like burned garbage, but worse. The smell of the flowers and the sweet sap of the tree mixed. At first it was very disgusting, but later it was pleasant from time to time.”

I got up and opened the Venetian blind. There was no one in the corridor. Magui woke up at that moment, and I asked her if she, too, had heard the story.

“You were dreaming,” she affirmed, smiling.

But I seriously doubted it, remembering few occasions when I had mistaken dreams for perceptions.

We had arrived in Tehuantepec at night, very late and very tired from a trip along a dry, long and winding path. For several hours the road slid between the hills like a black snake between ochre dirt and rocks. The following night, “the vigil,” one of the most anticipated annual feasts, would be celebrated in Tehuantepec, and the two hotels in town were filled. We found two rooms in the Oasis Hotel because it was owned by the family of a friend of our traveling companion, Margarita Dalton, the director of the Instituto de Cultura in Oaxaca. Her friend is the director of the Casa de la Cultura in Tehuantepec, and tomorrow Magui and Margarita will go with her so that she can lend them traditional tehuana dresses. No woman can attend the vigil if she isn’t wearing the traditional dress, several entangled layers of petticoats over large bustles and a wide, lace border almost reaching to the ground. A plain, sleeveless blouse “a la Andalusia” called huipil corto is covered with embroidered flowers, like the skirt. On the head and falling onto the shoulders and back is a section of white lace, enclosed like a skirt, that is called huipil largo. At mass it’s worn in such a way that one’s face is completely concealed, like a white aura, and on the street, in a different way, more open. It’s the dress that Frida Kahlo wore so often in photographs; she adopted it as the uniform of her public persona. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the tehuana was the symbol of a romanticized Mexico. The myth of a matriarchal society nurtured that symbol. Sergei Eisenstein believed this in 1932, and one of the chapters of “Qué viva México” was dedicated to the tehuanas. Titled “Zandunga,” like the traditional wedding song, the chapter portrays a semi-nude woman sleeping in a hammock while her husband does the house and field work.

In fact, tehuanas and juchitecas exhibit a markedly bold personality. Their body language expresses more self-confidence, and their relations with men are more active. Beginning with their amorous courtship, the tehuana looks at and touches and says whatever she wants to. The beauty of the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is one of their traits.

Traditionally these women dedicate themselves to business and the men to field work. The women handle the money and, together, domestic and community life. A legendary woman named Doña Juana Catalina is the heroine of isthmus identity. Almost a century ago, she was a political boss of the region. Her house, a capital-like residence located in a rural town setting, rises near the train tracks and the market as a symbol of her economic and political power. Her affair with Porfirio Díaz eclipsed her role as an advocate and leader of her region. People say that at the beginning of the public festivities, she established the rules of the traditional dress, the headdress, the jewelry that should always be worn (a gold-coin necklace with the characteristic earrings) and, on one’s head, ribbons and braids intertwined to form a semicircle. The jewelry is purchased or rented for the feasts at a special market stand, between the sandals and the baskets. Dead for several generations, Doña Juana Catalina is present at all the feasts by virtue of the people’s strict observance of its rules.

Dawn arrives early in Tehuantepec. While the others wake up, Magui and I go out to explore the streets to see how the people go about planning the beginning of their day. As we leave our room, we realize that it is covered from floor to ceiling with glazed tiles, including the bed and the shelves, giving the impression that it is cleaned by spraying water from a hose. Only the sheets and the mattress have to be removed. It’s refreshing, and it could be hygienic, although, with the tremendous heat that exists here, sweat surely condenses on the ceiling, drop by drop, during nights of agitated lovemaking. It’s now dawn, and the heat and humidity are already everywhere. The sea is very close but not close enough for us to see it from where we are. It arrives in the air with waves of heat. We’re on one of the streets of the market in the central plaza, filled with trees. I instinctively look for a tree that is burnt—an immense one is missing a section. Could it be the one from the story I heard in the confusion of my dreams? The plaza is full of flowers. The market surrounds it on two sides, and the municipal office of the president on a third. It seems to be in a state of reconstructed ruins; there are half-built walls, and the enormous back patio where the feast will be held is no longer surrounded by anything. Later in the day, it will be closed off by a wire fence.

Walking toward the market, we see women coming and going with their shopping baskets. They almost always wear their hair loose and have an arrogant way of walking. One of them passes by us like a mythological being on a moving cloud. She is standing on the back of a small scooter. It’s like a Roman chariot without horses. She supports herself with one hand, proud, with her face to the wind.

Suddenly another chariot appears, and then another, among a cluster of people walking. We discover that they are three-wheeled taxis that the women hire when they exit the market. Some are carrying two passengers with their baskets at their feet. A multitude of chariots appears at the corner. They come and go as if floating. The drivers are barely visible because they’re in the front, inside a small cabin. No automobiles contend for the street with the flying or walking tehuanas. Their presence is imposing, strange and hypnotic.

We arrive at a juice stand at the outer edge of the market in front of the plaza. There is a counter and five tall stools. We calmly sit down to wait for the juices we ordered: a guava, a pineapple and a mango. The noise of the chariots can be heard clearly. But in the background, very far away, another sound also can be heard; it is like an orchestra of distorted breathing sounds coming from a distant radio. After observing us pondering the sound, Zumero, the juice vendor, explains, “That noise comes from the Pan-American road. It’s the horns of the big cargo trucks. Only one road comes from South America, crosses Central America, and unites the north with the entire subcontinent—and it goes by Tehuantepec.”

“Do they always blow their horns when they go by here?”

The man laughs at me before slowly responding, “No, they are blowing their horns because they can’t pass. The road is blocked.”

He is about to tell us something else when a truck filled with soldiers enters the plaza. It drives up to the edge of the market, and then the soldiers descend, making tremendous noise with their boots. Another truck arrives immediately and does the same.

“What’s happening over there?”

“Well, nothing—what always happens in these cases. They’re going to lynch them.”

“Who is going to be lynched?”

“The thieves. And with them the three policemen from the township who tried to remove them and take them to jail but surely planned to set them free, with a mordida as payment. At the moment they’ve already received a good beating. Here the people ask for and carry out justice when the police fail them. The taxi drivers are striking, and they have blocked the streets leading into town and closed the Pan-American. And to top it off, the soldiers come to protect the thieves. How disgraceful. Everything is upside down.”

A mob rushes out of the center of the market. Women hit the soldiers with everything they have in their hands. The policemen, with their uniforms torn to pieces, cover their heads and faces with their arms and try to position themselves behind the soldiers. In that galaxy of blows that rushes toward us, the two thieves look like a pair of old, bloody rags. Finally, the people take one of the thieves to the market again and lock him in a wire cage used as a storage shed. The soldiers take the other one and lock him in the town hall office.

A very short woman with a thunderous voice suddenly appears among the crowd and orders everyone to be quiet. The silence makes her bigger. They let her say six sentences, and then the shouting, the anger and the insults start again. None of the factions is willing to give up its part of the human spoils of war.

In the middle of the shouting, the little president no longer knows whom to listen to and gives the order that the town people decide, right then and there, who will represent them, because she can’t talk to everyone at the same time. “Also decide what you want to attain. Because you’re not going to kill them just like that. That’s not going to happen here again. We’re not animals.”

Now I understand what the man who had woken me that morning was talking about. The juice vendor clarifies it for us. “Yes, it was exactly a year ago, the day of the vigil, when thieves who weren’t from here (they always come from other towns) wanted to rob a jewelry stand in the market. They were greatly tempted by so much gold jewelry dangling off of the women. Later they spotted a small stand in the market, and it was easy for them. The people badly beat them, castrated them, doused them in gasoline, and while they were hanging, still alive, set them on fire.”

I point out the half tree that I had seen.

“No, that was from another year. About seven trees have been burned in the plaza over the last 20 years, some of them several times. The good thing is that with this sun and this humidity, everything grows again. That one was from last year.”

He points out a very large tree without any trace offire or lynchings, filled with white flowers.

“When someone has been hung from a tree, the young women from here absolutely do not want any of that tree’s flowers in their hair. They say that the flowers give them bad luck and then steal their boyfriends.”

The president quickly walks up to us, the only strangers in the plaza, and asks if we are journalists. When we tell her no, she looks relieved and walks away without saying goodbye. Three steps later she calls over an assistant and gives him an order. “Take those Guatemalans to the Casa de Cultura and entertain them with speeches and dancing. Stage something for them that will keep them quiet so that they don’t notice anything.”

I ask the juice vendor who the Guatemalans are that they are going to distract. I hope that he doesn’t think it’s us.

“It’s a group of 20 municipal officials from Guatemala who are here for a conference, invited by the Oaxaca government.”

“And are they going to be able to conceal this?”

“Yes, the people who don’t know, don’t know. At most they will believe that there’s a little bit of disorder. That they should see so many soldiers shouldn’t be rare to them. They say that in Guatemala there are even more soldiers in the streets. The bad thing is that when the robbery occurred, someone spread the rumor that the thieves had been Guatemalans. There were already many people carrying sticks and torches heading for their hotel when a few taxi drivers grabbed the real thieves and brought them to the market. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are no other strangers here today except you, the Guatemalans and the thieves. The roads are blocked, and no one can enter or leave, not even the tourists who want to come to the feast.”

Magui and I spend the entire day walking around the city. We visit the house of Doña Juana Catalina, shown to us by her granddaughter, who is already a young grandmother. The furniture of a century ago occupies the same space; like ghosts, the chairs speak of a distant pleasure, forgotten conversations, disjointed legends. We visit the Santo Domingo convent, which houses the Casa de Cultura, and walk through the neighborhoods, each one with its own small church. Preparations for the feast continue everywhere. Each neighborhood will present its queen tonight. The orchestras are rehearsing their tunes. All over town, we hear passages of the song that identifies everyone, as if it were a regional hymn: “Zandunga.”

But we also see traces of the potential lynching everywhere. Everyone talks about it and, from time to time, we hear or see mobs running from one place to another. The negotiations with the president shift from one place to another throughout the city to escape being seen by the Guatemalans, as in a comedy of errors. Everyone helps. It is like hiding an elephant in an anthill, with the ants pretending that they don’t see anything, and apparently they are successful. The feast serves to justify all the anomalies. A lady from Guatemala is at the market buying the traditional cheese from Oaxaca, quesillo—long, narrow strips of white cheese wrapped around each other many times to form a ball. The woman tells the president that the explanations she has been given about the chaos aren’t very logical. For example, the cars stopped in traffic: It seemed that this didn’t help the feast preparations but, rather, impeded them. The woman selling the cheese simply replies, “That’s the way we are in Oaxaca. In what other place in the world is even the cheese rolled up?”

In the afternoon, the line of cars and trucks on the road extends for kilometers—some say 20; others say 50. The truth is that the scandal that was coming from that side of the horizon was worsening as the day progressed, just as much as the heat. We thought obsessively about a good hammock for the siesta. Heat devours people; it drains their energy. But people nourish themselves until they get indigestion and close their eyes. Even at night the heat doesn’t decrease; it remains quiet, blind, invisible, always tactile.

The feast begins, and all faces become illuminated. The women, proud of their beauty and their dresses, are on parade at all times. The dress transforms the tehuana into the center of the world. Or makes it more evident. Covered by embroidered flowers that sprout from the fabric is a garden—the garden of gardens. When she moves it’s a promise of paradise. Her dowry of gold coins announces her central position in the community and is a symbol of her power. By the gold splendor of her appearance, one presumes that she is the axis of courting, of coquetry, of the preludes of love life. Her hairstyle and makeup, highlighting her eyes, reveal the power of her gaze.

The men are scrupulously dressed in white shirts and dark pants, some with sombreros and brightly colored neckerchiefs. The head of each family presents a carton of beer before the table of the major-domo who is in charge of organizing the feast—a symbolic participation in the expenses of the community, an indication of everyone’s belonging.

The isthmus son is a slow dance of smooth and elegant movements. The dance partners initiate the dance. The men look small and fragile. The women frequently dance among themselves, bringing their voluminous waists together. The layers of petticoats make the body bulkier—being thin is synonymous with ugliness. Grandmothers dance with their granddaughters, the daughters with their sisters. Their feet are invisible because the dress almost drags on the floor. The headdresses being worn are inserted with small paper banners. The most voluminous move smoothly, maneuvering on the dance floor like trans-Atlantic liners in a port.

The president, festively dressed, with a smile as wide as her leadership ability, joins the feast. Everyone greets her, entertains her. She sits at the head table like a King Solomon of the tropics and the desert, but the real queen of the feast has been crowned hours before. Her entourage includes the queens of each neighborhood. They have placed an elevated throne behind the dance floor, from which she watches all the activities of the feast with her shiny crown and her scepter in her right hand.

We learn that the taxi driver’s strike has ended and everyone has reached an agreement. The truck drivers, who had been stopped on the road all day, angrily invade the city, driving only the cabs of their trucks. They make an indescribable noise with their horns and motors. There are more than 20 that surround the patio where we are celebrating, driving round and round us. Every now and then, they blow the same tune with their horns: ¡Chinga tu madre! It’s infamous in Mexico as an insult. No one at the feast gets the message, and they continue dancing, as if nothing was happening. A lady next to me says, “We’ve been lambasted, but with this heat, it’s even appreciated. There isn’t even rain for this feast.”

The truck drivers continue making noise that is strangely soothing; the president gives the order to raise the volume of the music. The horns vibrate, as do the glasses on the table. The sound is felt on the body as if something were touching us, a rough massage of vibrations. But the people keep dancing as if nothing is wrong. These caresses turn into rapture for everyone. The slow tone of the feast quickens in the midst of the threat of aggression, and a new orchestra, more modern, goes into action.

The truck drivers stop suddenly to look at the three singers of the orchestra in their shiny, little bikinis. They drive around a few more times in their vehicles with immense wheels and then disappear, as if they had been dissolved in the tremendous and chaotic noise they favored. Many people don’t even notice that they’ve left. When the windows of a nearby house shatter, someone lowers the volume of the music.

Some say that the feast is called a vigil because no one sleeps the entire night. Others say it’s because of the cirio, a mourner’s candle that is offered to the patron of either the town, neighborhood or trade union during the feast. The appearance of the sun extinguishes all the candles and takes us by surprise while we’re dancing. Magui wants to take a stroll underneath the sweet-smelling trees of the plaza before we return to the hotel. The chariots and their crew members are still sleeping. The market slowly comes to life. A few youngsters go directly from the feast to open their vegetable or flower stands.

We spot a burned tree at the farthest edge of the plaza. We can see that it was from last night and that it was extinguished with dirt and water. It’s useless to ask what happened; no one knows; no one will say anything. Stains, perhaps of blood and oil, can be seen under the dirt thrown on the cobblestones of the plaza and on the absorbent petals of some white flowers. Even the vendor at the juice stand is evasive. “Nothing happened here,” he says. “Well, yes, there was a feast. Who didn’t go to the vigil?”

About the Author

Alberto Ruy Sanchez

Alberto Ruy Sanchez is the author of Los nombres del air (1987), translated into English in 1992 as Mogador, as well as Los jardines secretos de Mogador [The Secret Gardens of Mogador].

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