Arriving on the outskirts of Chiapa de Corzo, we were surprised at the unexpected quiet, hearing only our own footsteps and the gentle flapping of the jewel-colored flags that were strung across the road as they danced in the breeze. We spied a masked duo a block away and began to follow them, certain they would lead us to what we had come to witness.
Under the heat of the high noon sun, I knew the pair must be sweltering in their black clothing, heavy serapes and ceremonial headgear. As we made our way down the near-empty street, past casitas painted in pastel shades, others in similar costumes emerged from doorways and side streets and fell into step. Greetings were called and the low buzz of excited chatter and laughter began to hum, punctuated by a percussive rat-a-tat-tat as members of the growing crowd began to shake silver tasseled rattles they held in their gloved hands.
According to legend, in 1711, during Mexico’s Spanish Colonial era, Dona Maria de Angula was a rich Spanish woman who traveled to Chiapa de Corzo in search of a cure for a mysterious paralytic illness afflicting her son, which no doctor could cure. When she arrived, she was directed to a curandero, a local healer, who examined the boy, and instructed his mother to bathe him in the waters of a small lake. To amuse the boy, a local group disguised themselves as Spaniards with masks and began to dance, explaining “para el chico,” which means “for the boy.” The child was cured and the tradition now known as Parachicos endures today.
The Parachicos’ masks are made with cedar or Guanacaste, an endemic tree, and carved to resemble the European features of a Spaniard, and then lacquered with oil obtained from an insect called aje. Their wigs, adorned with flowers and ribbons, are made with ixtle, a rough fiber derived from agave plants.
We were swept along with the current of smiling strangers, anonymous behind their painted masks, eventually spilling into the town’s plaza. Clusters of raven-haired women congregated, showing off their full-length, off-the-shoulder dresses emblazoned with vivid floral designs. As they vamped and vogued, teenage couples stole kisses in the shadows of La Pila Fountain, a Moorish structure with eight immense arches constructed in 1562. A father and son were beginning to dress in their Parachico attire, with the older man crossing a red sash around his mid-section and the boy wrapping a bandana around his head before donning the heavy headpiece.
Flowing with the widening stream of revelers, we found ourselves in an arcade — also dressed for the occasion, its timbered white ceilings festooned with brightly-painted bowls hung by ribbons. A grandmother held a chubby-cheeked girl with a lavender ribbon in her hair almost as big in diameter as her head. Old men in pork pie hats greeted each other with a warm embrace. A middle-aged woman cinched the waist of her 20-something daughter’s dress, and they squabbled affectionately as the mother tightly tied the bow.
The tide of revelers then moved us through an archway, down stairs and into a park pulsating with wildly dancing Parachicos, cavorting to the pounding beat of a ten-piece mariachi band. In the shadow of the towering Santo Domingo church, serapes swirled, rattles waved high in the air, and dust rose around the writhing bodies. On the stage, a trio of full-figured matrons held their flouncy skirts high and twirled while three marimba players displayed artful choreography on the xylophone-like instrument with Mayan roots. The brass section soared and swayed in time, all in matching pale yellow shirts, their hair slicked up and gleaming.
I was unable to resist the call and tore away from my husband Tom and dove into the midst of the crowd, determined to do a shutterbug dance and shoot pictures while shaking my hips to the music. Quickly realizing my motor coordination skills only permitted one of the two activities, I surrendered my solo avocation to become one with the Paracheco movement, slinging my camera over my shoulder and joyously dancing with abandon, inspired to let loose a loud whoop, knowing I couldn’t be heard.
Eventually, sweaty and panting, I found my way back to Tom’s side and we re-joined our guide Jesus, who beckoned us to the plaza in front of Santo Domingo. An even bigger crowd milled about, and a sense of anticipation emanated. Jesus tugged at my elbow and pointed in the opposite direction. Up the neighboring hill was a sea of ixtle wigs, bobbing up and down and then advancing toward us. An immense procession of Parachicos made its way to the church, with hundreds of elbows flying, legs kicking, knees jerking, and fingers pointed skyward. Entranced, as I watched, the individual gyrations blurred into a sensation of one giant mass of jubilant energy.
Chiapa de Corzo’s Fiesta de Los Parachicos is held every January, and is part of a month-long celebration known as Fiesta Grande. The Parachicos celebration has been named by UNESCO as an item of intangible cultural heritage and is often described as the best mestizo festival in southeastern Mexico. Mestizo is a term traditionally used in Latin America for people of dual heritage, often meaning a mixture of European and Amerindian.
The pageantry of the Parachicos celebration and its exuberant, uplifting and showy display was in stark contrast to the more private, somber and mystical rituals of the Mayans that I had glimpsed in my travels around the Chiapas region. Epitomizing that difference were attitudes toward being photographed.
While the Parachico participants gladly hammed it up for the camera, we had observed Mayans having a visceral negative reaction to having their picture taken. On the cobbled streets of nearby San Cristobal, as well in the small squares of mountaintop villages, we witnessed people shrink back and protectively cover their faces with a shawl or their arms, or reach out with their hands flayed, blocking the lens of the offending camera. Even in instances where picture-taking was permitted, most Mayan subjects — save some of the children and teenagers — averted their gaze, unwilling to make eye contact.
As an avid street photographer with a fondness for faces the world over, I was disappointed when told photographs were often off-limits in the Mayan communities — but unquestionably respectful. I have long struggled to defend my own delicate boundaries and would never want to violate another’s. That sensitivity made me rather timid in pursuing portraits of interesting-looking people whose path I crossed — I always worried that rather than flatter someone by asking to take their picture, I would offend them. I ruefully berated myself for my lack of self-assurance, certainly not a flaw suffered by the Nat Geo photographers I so admired. Over time, l gradually became increasingly comfortable asking a stranger to pose for a picture. An awareness eventually dawned that my new-found courage to make the request directly correlated with my expanding ability to risk rejection, to be vulnerable.
Driving back to San Cristobal atop the spine of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, we watched the sun slowly sink in the sky, casting a golden and then rosy glow that spread across the valley below. Breaking the relaxed silence, our guide Jesus asked if we had heard of the term enganchadores. Shaking our heads no, he explained that loosely translated the word means “trappers.”
In the late 19th century, some Spanish hacienda owners employed these men to lure or kidnap Mayans for what was essentially slave labor.. The enganchadores would venture out into the Mayan highland settlements with cameras. They would take pictures of members of the communities then review the images with the plantation master, selecting individuals to be captured. Jesus said that while today’s Mayans may not be familiar with this particular piece of history, its impact is seared on their collective consciousness.
Silent again, we rode the back of the mountains as darkness descended and the silver sliver of a new moon appeared in the night sky. I thought about the fears that had been passed down from one generation to the next in my own family lineage, struck by the irony that the key to my freedom had been a camera.