Picture by Carlos Baizabal
On September 17, 2010, Hurriccane Karl unleashed its fury, stirring the waters of the mighty Papaloapan river to a feverish pitch and flooding the picture-perfect, candy colored Tlacotalpan, Veracruz. The waist-high waters would not recede for 19 days but miraculously this UNESCO World Heritage site’s 630 plus splendid Caribbean-Colonial buildings were largely able to be restored to their former glory. Economic recovery has not been as quick, but fiestas in Mexico are often designed to bring in tourists and their money, and the best Tlacotalpan fiesta is the one dedicated to it’s patron saint , La Virgen del Carmen.
The Feast of La Candelaria in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz is certainly one of the most spectacular and joyous celebrations that I have ever been a part of.
People flock here from all Mexico at the time of the major town fiesta, La Candelaria(Candlemas Day), February 2. I have never seen the famed Pamplona-like running of the bulls (ferried over the river for the occasion from the cattle ranches that surround Tlacotalpan) or the decorated barge that takes the splendidly-clad image of the town’s patron saint, The Virgin of the Candelaria, down the river to calm the waters. But it is one of my ambitions.
To get the full effect of Tlacotalpan’s beauty, you should first see it from the river, which is joined here by a large tributary and is massive even when it isn’t flooded (which happens often –- hence the importance of the Candelaria ceremony). No one is building high-rise condos in this tranquil backwater! The tallest things you see on the skyline are the palm trees that rise above the cathedral of San Cristóbal and an array of old colonial houses painted in tropical-looking pastel schemes with striking color contrasts.
Tlacotalpan has worked hard to preserve a side of Sotavento that is half lost or becoming scarce elsewhere. In its heydey it was a place of style and importance. Its glories were exports of tropical woods, rubber, cotton, and beautiful furniture; imports of European luxuries; the gorgeous little nineteenth-century Natzalhualcóyotl opera house (the only one in Sotavento); and a wonderful tradition called the fandango. Of these the fandango is still going strong, and so are some of the local crafts that make it what it is.
I could say that a fandango is a dance, but it’s really a whole art festival rolled into one. The inspirations are Spanish and Afro-Cuban. Though they are also celebrated in Alvarado and other Sotaventan towns, the fandangos of Tlacotalpan are the most elaborate. The dance is performed on a resonating platform called a tarima, said to have come into use when colonial masters forbade the Africans to play their drums. It involves a particular style of musical accompaniment with a harp and two forms of small guitar, the jarana and requinto. The dancers stamp out a series of intricate rhythms on the tarima; either they or the instrumentalists also keep up a dialogue of verses, usually the beloved décimas that Sotaventans learn to invent from childhood on. The subject can be anything from love to local personalities and events, and the decimistas pick up and cap each other’s rhymes with daring, often bawdy wit. Sometimes the women dance in exquisite costumes with wide snowy underskirts of deshilado (a lacelike kind of drawn work made by pulling the threads from white cotton cloth into patterns called rejillas) that flash out dramatically as they lift and twirl the thin underskirt.
The Tlacotalpan fandangos are living history not only because of the performers’ magnetism but because other necessary skills are so carefully kept up. A local champion of the deshilado tradition, María Antonia Guzmán de Ramos, has fostered a revival of the art and founded a thriving crafts gallery, the Casa Artesanal, that sells among an array of other articles) fandangos costumes, tablecloths, and other priceless deshilado creations. The jaranas are lovingly crafted in workshops, along with the traditional furniture of the region. The eighty-one year-old official town poet, Don Guillermo Cházaro Lagos, is still helping the younger generation acquire the art of inventing décimas. Meanwhile the town historian, Don Humberto Aguirre Tinoco, keeps Tlacotalpan’s continuity with the past before the public eye through both learned and popular books and essays.
No place in Mexico better merits the honor bestowed on Tlacotalpan in 1999 of being chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage of Humanity Site