Deer Dances in Las Labradas on the Spring Equinox

The two gentlemen in the photo above very kindly explained
a bit about the dance to me, and walked me through the ceremony.
They live in a pueblo between Guasave and Los Mochis.

Last year we were privileged to welcome spring with the famous Deer Dance (danza del venado), conducted in the scenic oceanside setting of Las Labradas petroglyph park, a 30 minute drive north of Mazatlán. The dance was conducted by the Yeu Matchue, a traditional dance group of Mayo or Yoreme Indians.

The dance will be conducted again this coming Wednesday, March 21 in the same location, as part of Mazatlán’s International Friendship Week. Be sure not to miss this event!

The Mayo are considered to have the purest native blood in Mexico. While centuries ago they performed the Danza del Venado in full deerskin clothing with a bow and arrow (it’s the dance of the hunt, and I am Dianne, the goddess of the hunt, ha ha), to welcome the spring solstice at Las Labradas they wore white cotton manta (symbolizing purity), leather belts with deer hooves and bells, they wrapped their shins in leggings made of shells (representing snakes entangled in the deer’s legs), red bandanas (to honor the deer’s sacrifice of its blood), and sonajas or wrist and ankle bands made of nuts and shells. They carry red gourd maracas or shakers.

I grew up in northern Arizona, spending many weekends as a child in the 70s with my friends on the Hopi mesas. I was able to witness the Snake Dance, eat my fill of piki bread spread by hand over a hot rock, and play with the Mudheads. The deer dances soooo reminded me of the Kachina dances! Amazing similarities in dress, adornment, line dancing, movement, underlying beliefs of harmony with the environment, even the music and chanting. The noise makers (shells, gourds) were reminiscent of artisan rattles worldwide, whether from Africa, Asia, Oceania…

There were at least two dancers who wore taxidermic deer heads decorated with flowers, fastened to their heads with leather straps. They pranced, twitched, paused and sniffed, incredibly evoking the sense that we were watching a deer move through a clearing. It was eerie and beautiful to watch.
It was gratifying to see so many young people involved in the ceremony. It is obvious the young Mayo/Yoreme are eager to carry on the traditions of their elders and ancestors.
Above is a minute or so of video of the dance.
In addition to the boys with the headdresses, there were quite a few others dressed similarly but wearing masks. The masks were made of torote or poplar wood, both very sacred, and painted with smiling faces as well as Christian crosses, with long hair. Again, the long hair reminded me of the kachinas.

The musicians included a couple of fiddlers who sat in wooden chairs as they played, a large harp (played standing), gourds (sonatas de bule), jiruquias, and various drummers including a water drum.
The shaman had an altar or offering of fresh fruit, as well as a container of incense that he used for purification during the ceremony as well as to purify or bless the spectators afterwards. The purification ritual was very similar to what I’ve experienced at Teotihucán on the solstice, or in Mexico City nowadays on the street corners.
The dance was an interesting mix of indigenous and Christian ceremony, in the Mayo language and rhythms. When we arrived we saw several flags or banners with crosses on them on the beach. Beside these were placed the deer headdresses and rattles.

During the ceremony, the dancers made the Catholic sign of the cross and held their hands in prayer. It was evident that the Jesuits of the 16th century had much influence on these indigenous rituals.

As with almost any special event I’ve attended in Mexico, the Deer Dance ceremony also included fireworks.

An exhibition of the ancient ball game of ulama was also part of last year’s Spring Equinox events. It took place just outside the museum. A game is on the schedule for this year.

Las Labradas is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oceanside petroglyphs, mystical figures carved into the rocks, are dated by INAH at 1000-1500 years old and of Toltec origin. There is a small museum at the site.

Mazatlán is named after the deer, which in the Náhuatl language is Mazatl (Tlaloc in the Aztec).
If you’d like to attend this event next week you can drive north of Mazatlán on Highway 15, exiting at Km. 51 where you’ll see the large petroglyph marker on the west side of the maxipista. It is a dirt road after you leave the highway, through Chicayota to Las Labradas. Alternatively you can take one of the buses that the Sinaloa State Tourism Office has arranged, to depart from la Mujer Mazatleca monument in Olas Altas at 9:00 am. To reserve your spot contact, or telephone 191-2005. Be sure to wear white clothing.

Update May 26, 2012: Today the Noroeste ran an article about these dances, including some of the dancers photographed above. It’s in honor of Festival de la Juventud.

Meseta de Cacaxtla Tour with Conanp – La Chicayota

Today we had the very good fortune to meet some awesome people doing wonderful work to promote economic development, environmental sustainability, and ecotourism in La Meseta de Cacaxtla preserve.

We accompanied Gaby from CONANP (Federal Department of Natural Protected Areas) and Martha Armenta from CONREHABIT (Conservación y Rehabilitación de Fauna Silvestre) on a tour of several villages in this protected area: La Chicayota, Comunidad de Guillermo Prieto, and Los Llanitos. CONANP invested 1.5 million pesos last year (2011), with more requested for this year (2012). 100% of this money goes towards projects in the 50,000 hectare La Meseta de Cacaxtla preserve.

While the Meseta de Cacaxtla was named an ecologically and archeologically protected area in 2000—it is home to 26 species of amphibians, 59 species of reptiles, 79 species of mammals, and 340 kinds of birds, as well as to numerous pre-historic sites including Las Labradas—that status has had little meaning. No efforts were made to stop the hunting and poaching of protected animals, nor the looting of archeological sites, and the local communities continued, as they had for generations, to be generally poor and lacking in resources and infrastructure. Five years ago, however, CONANP began investing in the Meseta: ecotourism projects in Barras de Piaxtla, La Chicayota, and El Pozole, and productivity projects in Guillermo Prieto, Coyotitán, Los Llanitos, Toyua, and Mármol.

This first post will be about our first stop, La Chicayota. We have driven through this small town many times on our way to take visitors to Las Labradas, and once I know we stopped there hoping for some refreshment. CONANP federal funding is supporting quite a few plans for La Chicayota because it is the gateway to Las Labradas Petroglyphs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To reach it, you exit at Km. 51 on the maxipista just north of Mazatlán.

The first order of business should definitely be road improvements, as it’s long been our complaint that entrance to this gorgeous area is quite the bouncy, dusty, pot-holed endeavor! While we didn’t hear about any CONANP plans in this regard, we are still hoping federal or state tourism authorities or others are budgeting for this much-needed improvement.

The town is named after this tree, la chicayota. My dictionary tells me it is the same name in English, but I am not familiar with it.

The main street in town shows you how (un)developed La Chicayota is. The residents keep the area very well-tended, with many flowering trees and other plantings.

The community consists of 12-20 families. With CONANP funding they have built a community kitchen. It is a beautiful building using local materials, building techniques (sort of woven limbs) and builders.

Outside the community kitchen is a large earthen oven for cooking breads.

Inside the community kitchen is a wonderful wood-fired comal, great for cooking tortillas or almost anything else (cooking refried beans, below). You can tell from this cook’s smile how friendly people were and how welcome they made us feel. They are so eager to learn how to cook, give tours of their local area, and in other ways help national and international visitors to the area.

The indoor wood-fired comal smartly vents to the outdoors, and I was fascinated with how beautiful the smoke looked against the woven wood, the cactus, and the roof tiles.

Beside the indoor kitchen is a very large community meeting space or party place.

In addition to the community kitchen, there is a smaller “guest” kitchen, with another wood-fired stove and sets of dishes. Behind these two kitchens and the meeting space are public restrooms. Right now they flush by dumping a bucket of water into the basin, but there are plans to install a septic system or dry toilets.

The community center area also has a nice playground for the kids: teeter totter, swings…

For breakfast this morning the ladies kindly served us freshly made tortillas de maiz with queso fresco (de vaca), fresh-picked basil, freshly made salsa and refried beans. They ROCKED! There is nothing like a tortilla cooked on a wood-fired comal with fresh cheese!

One of the terrific women I met here is named Nereida. She told me that the quesos or cheeses are made in a nearby town. Some are made from goat’s milk, other’s from cow’s milk, and that they are made in several different styles. She gave me her cell phone number and invited me to call her anytime, as she’d be happy to take us on a queso-making tour. I can’t wait!

Almost just as wonderful as the fresh tortillas con queso were the panes de mujer, served fresh from the oven and dripping with brown sugar glaze.

I noticed that these wonderful breads arrived from the house next door, so of course I wandered over there. In a spotlessly clean outdoor kitchen I met Silvia, mixing up some more bread dough.

She didn’t measure anything–just eyeballed and dumped all the ingredients into a bowl, mixed with warm water, and set to baking more wood-fired-oven-baked panes de mujer. OMG they were good!

Above is a video of Silvia removing the breads from her wood-fired oven or hornillo. At the end of the clip you will also see José, one of the project’s leaders.

To be honest, what really brought me over to the neighbor’s house was noticing this: a temazcalor sweat lodge.  Silvia told me all about how to fire it up and make it work. She said her grandchildren and her get in it every other night, and that it’s terrific for fighting colds and maintaining good health. She said after sitting in the temazcal for a while, you feel that every impurity has been cleansed from your soul. Then, she also gave me a cell number, and said to call her anytime I wanted to take a sweat. You bet I will!

This is a fish-eye view of the inside of the temazcal. You can see that Silvia and her family made it with recycled materials. No Home Depot purchases for them!

Next to Silvia’s kitchen and temazcal, on her front porch, is La Chicayota’s video arcade. The kids seem to love it.

In Chicayota you can eat, take a boat tour, go fishing, mountain biking, or horseback riding. The best way to visit, at this point in time and if you are not very comfortable with Spanish or rural Mexican travel, could be to get on one of CONANP’s tours.

Let me close this post with a video of Gaby telling us a bit of history about the Chicayota project. Martha is translating. Behind them, against the wall you can see José (far left) and Nereida (far right with glasses). To see the second post in this series, about our stop at Comunidad Guillermo Prieto’s community orchards, click here.