Tucson, Arizona is the most beautiful town in the Western United States. This spring we are dizzy with wild flowers in the surrounding desert due to unusually heavy winter rains which are treating us to the most painterly display of tender blooms: whites, yellows, oranges, purples and pinks. These last cool days with hints of the heat to come are true blessings, and we all know it. But it would not be spring without the local Yaqui Indians indulging in their mind-blowing Lenten celebration which includes animist and Christian traditions. The flowers are part of it too, and for the Yaquis, they are a portal to another world.
I speak without authority, on any world, and only as an interested neighbor to the tribe. I read the dry, dry anthropologists, but the light they shed is minimal. I mostly enjoy attending the outdoor rituals which are open to the public. I have a small group of friends who do the same, and we share information and experiences and impressions, and have done so for almost twenty years. I hope the reader, in light of this, will permit me to speak hearsay. As my friend Alex says, the Yaquis are keeping the world in balance for the rest of us. It’s a Hopi concept, but it feels true. Through the elaborate rituals, rooted in tradition, one glimpses other realities, as fleeting and intangible as poetry, and that is when I feel the world in balance.
It begins with Ash Wednesday, continues all through the forty days of Lent and culminates in an event called the Gloria on the afternoon before Easter. This is an emotional extravaganza that takes place simultaneously in the four plazas of the four villages scattered around town. I have read that there is another village in Marana , on the way to Phoenix, and another called Guadalupe, just outside of Phoenix, as well as one or two more back in Mexico, on the Rio Yaqui. Each village is set up the same with a small church at one end, with one wall completely open to the hard dirt plaza in front. Inside the chuches are the statues of virgins, Christ on the cross, and accompanying Saints. A lot of the activities of the women and children seem centered here, but the plazas are where most of the processions and rituals take place. Lining the sides of the plaza are tiny food booths, thrown up with pressboard and plastic tarps, which become family kitchens of fry bread and tacos, red chili burros and saladitos and slushies and everyone eats something as they are waiting for the mid-afternoon drama to unfold. Don’t ask what’s going to happen or when, because waiting is part of it. All aspects of the ceremonies must be felt; on this day the hot sun and the wind, on other nights the cold and the rain. Being outside, and just being, while you wait, is all part of the experience. Time moves slow here, especially for we hurry-up gringos.
The Yaqui population of Pima County is about 10,000, spread between the four villages which are: Old Pascua stuck between a big Cineplex and Oracle Road, south of Grant Road on the west side. Pascua means Easter in Spanish. You could have seen 100 blockbuster movies at the Century Cineplex and never see the village nestled behind it. New Pasqua is way out west of town a few blocks south of the Casino of the Sun. This is the actual location of the tribe’s reservation, established in the 70’s through great political effort. Again, the thousands of people who go to the Casino never see the church and plaza a few blocks away. Then there is San Juan de los Porres (of the poor), the tiniest of all, with a scant number of participants, its church tucked almost under a freeway overpass. And about ten blocks west from there, behind Pueblo High School, is the new location which we call 44th street, I don’t know what the Yaquis call it. The church sits with its back to the freeway that goes to Nogales, and is the only church made out of telephone poles, the others are adobe. It sprang up when there was a land dispute involving San Juan, but has grown in size to rival New Pascua . I always go to Old Pascua for the Gloria, probably because that is where I was first taken by my friend Catherine, almost twenty years ago.
Things are starting slowly today, as they always do. The crowd has formed rows down the long sides of the plaza, many have brought folding chairs, which are several rows deep, and also umbrellas to block the sun. The air is festive, all the kids are running around, buying their cascarones (painted eggs in a cardboard cone, blown out and filled with confetti) and bags of confetti for the big finale. And everyone is eating, the lines at the food booths are long and slow. There is great anticipation though. I am in line at a food booth when I see them, organizing their line to enter the plaza in the middle. I feel goosebumps when I see them. They are the Pharisios, the soldiers of Pontious Pilate, and they are determined and stoic in their purpose, entering our world from one more serious.
They wear a sort of dated gangster look with black pants, black shirts, black hats and today for the Gloria, black sheer scarves which cover their faces under their hats. Catherine told me that they have made a promise to the Virgin, who saves their skin at some point in their lives, and that they will participate in this society devoted to Mary to pay their debt for being saved. There seem to be at least a hundred of them, some are old men and some are as young as six, most fall somewhere in between. They hold painted sticks like swords leaning at rest against one shoulder. There is one that beats a drum twice, and that is followed by a dirge on a wooden flute, played by another, and they begin their procession into the plaza. The dust and the rhythm of their steps permeate everything, the crowd just watches.
They are followed in close lines by the Chapeykas, who wear masks made of animal hides, some smooth and painted, some stiff furred javelina (local wild pigs) and plaid blankets like ponchos, cinched with wide belts of javalina hoof rattles at the waist, and ankle bracelets of coccoon rattles. (I marvel at the tiny hooves, maybe 100 in one wide belt, where do they hunt them all? And who finds and gathers and dries the cocoon rattles?) The Chapeyekas make their masks new every year, these will be ashes by nightfall. The masks range from classic animal representations with big ears and long noses, painted in a limited pallet of white with black and red accents. There are also more historic and human styles which range from a horned Viking with a blond braid to circus clowns, and even a green Shrek. Their heavy ponchos make them all look big and their masks completely cover their heads and necks. The Chapeyekas also carry carved wooden sticks, one long and one short, painted white with red and black stripes and designs, which they clap together for rhythm. They are the personifications of evil, which they take precautions to prevent from infiltrating the real men beneath. They must lay down and cover their heads as they put their masks on or off, and Catherine told me long ago that they wear these little black charcoal crosses around their necks and bite the crosses in their teeth to prevent evil from slipping in when the masks come off. As a little two year old, my girl loved these characters, who on occasion will tease or interact nonverbally with people in the crowd, pointing their sticks on the ground and shaking their hips for the sound of the rattles. Now that my girl is twelve, they scare her very much. There are at least a hundred of these guys too, and while none are so young, a few are very old. It looks very hard to wear these elaborate dressings, especially when the day is hot, and you can tell who is suffering by their gait. No one breaks the rhythm of the line, but for a few you see the effort in each step.
The two groups have begun their slow and methodical marches up and down the length of the plaza, to the church and back to the far end again. This distance is almost as long as a football field. Their feet are in traditional thong leather sandals. They shuffle along, making the sign of the cross in the dirt with the ball of each foot, very subtly before they shift their weight to the other side, and do the same with the opposite foot. They make single file lines, Chapayekas following Pharisios, and the lines double back on each other so it appears their numbers are increased. Standing on the edge in the crowd, you see a multitude of characters in the the field in front of you, going both directions, which makes it seem like the participants are multiplying.
On this day of the Gloria, all of them are here. As we have visited several nights over Lent, their numbers started small, only a couple at first, as they did these same maneuvers up and down the plaza, under no moons and full moons, their numbers grew gradually until now, throughout holy week and on this day the big villages have a hundred or more of each Pharisios and Chapayekas, and the little village of San Juan de los Porres has only about a dozen of each. On those nights that we have come sometimes there was only one food stand open, sometimes we were early enough to see the Pharisios carrying the masks of their compatriots to make the sacred pile where the Chapeyekas then would dress themselves. Sometimes when we come the Chapeyeka’s masks and sticks are in a very organized pile, and they sleep in blankets on the ground around a fire. Sometimes it has been very cold, and even rainy and sometimes there is a bitter wind, but still they do these things. It is an exhausting physical expenditure, and my friend Alex had a Yaqui kid in his high school class who very badly wanted to be a Chapeyeka, but his mother said no to his participation in the festivities, because lack of sleep would imperil his school work. These guys spend so many nights out here over the period of Lent I don’t think they could work jobs for the duration. It’s a matter of priorities, and not every Yaqui male participates. But thousands of Yaquis are in the audience today and extended families are all around.
After a white man’s hour or more the Chapayekas prepare to make their assault against the little church, which will repel them twice over a long afternoon, but the third time accepts and saves them. They stand and whoop and holler and wave their arms in mock anger toward the church from the far end of the plaza, but the curtains are pulled shut across the front of the church, and at the sides an array of women and elders and children sing hymns, and throw flower petals and confetti for their protection against the evil forces.
There are other societies in the front too. There are about sixteen Matachin dancers, who are accompanied by violin players and wear conical hats decorated with paper flowers who dance a sort of delicate Spanish quadrille. They will do a Maypole dance at sunrise on Easter morning, but I have never gotten up early enough to see it. The deer dancer is also up front, with his three Pascola dancers. He stands with his arms squared across his chest and his white scarf pulled down over his forehead so you can’t see his eyes, the complete deer’s head with antlers strapped to the top of his head. When he turns, he seems to be using the big brown eyes of the deer to see. At Old Pasqua the deer dancer is a young man, not the one that we saw as a young kid, who showed up one year with MOLINA tattooed across his chest and facial hair. He is not here anymore. Maybe he was swallowed up by the world of the night. At San Juan de los Porres there is an old man who I really believe becomes a deer, and we will go see him later tonight, when it is the deer dancer’s time. The Pascolas who always accompany the deer dancer go shirtless, with a blanket tied like pants, and ankle rattles, small metal rattles that shake against one hand and small simply carved masks that they wear on the back of their heads until it is their turn to dance, which they do one at a time, followed by the deer dancer. They are always are irreverent and comedic, even imitating and mocking the so serious deer dancers.
This is not where or when this group really dances, but once at 44th street, between assaults of the Chapeyekas against the church, there was a pantomime of two Chapayekas advancing as hunters, their sticks at the shoulder as if guns and the deer dancer , running around in front of the church, taught and frisky as prey. The deer dancer, galloping in circles and ducking and hiding, outwitted the clownish hunters, who buffooned failed shots at their target. The deer dancer scampered right in front of where I was standing on the sidelines, behind some old men sitting cross legged on the ground with a blanket spread in front of them, which was a foot deep with real flower petals, peeled from roses, soon to be tossed like confetti. The deer dancer, with the joyous abandon of a deer evading his death, rolled on his back in the petals like an animal. There is a point when the man becomes a deer, I can tell you. But today I am toward the end of plaza and cannot see these characters.
When it is time for the third assault on the church, the men who have been standing on top of the church at the bell tower on either side, get their cue from an old man shooting blanks into the air at the far end of the plaza, and pull the cords on the clappers of the bells for all they’re worth. The bells go crazy. There are fireworks too, shooting off from the funeral pyre for Judas, at the opposite end as the church. The Chapeyekas whoop and holler and it is time, but first they must strip off their masks and put them on the fire with Judas. For this task they are helped by family members, who earnestly take off their belts with deer hoof rattles and ankle bracelets with cocoon rattles and take care help to cover their heads with flowered scarves as the masks are removed. It is a dire race to burn the evil masks and sticks, and then run to the church to be saved. Some men run alone and like the wind, holding the flowered scarves flying above their heads. Once I saw a man I knew, a dentist, running so hard, grimacing with determination, terror in his eyes. Some run held up at the armpits by their family members, stumbling and tripping with exhaustion. Some small boys are swooped up and carried the distance by others, who have more strength to run. Why is this last trip so fraught with terror? There must be a lot of bad juju flying around in the air, at least until the bonfire consumes it, and I know there is a fear that being last or stumbling on the final run at the church means certain illness or death in the next year. This part always brings me to tears. The sheer emotion of it, the terror of failing and the sweet assistance of the families. A women next to me whispers “faster, faster” as she watches her important person.
But joy wins, in the form of flower petals and confetti and the cascarones being smacked over various heads, and the dust and wind is whipping up the color through the crowd and the music all breaking loose at once. There are hymns being sung, and violins and the Matachins dancing, and the metal shaker rattles of the Pascola dancers, and the deer dancer dances now too and everyone crowds into the little church which is too small for everyone and spits them back out, happy and speckled with flying flowers and confetti.
The Chapeyekas are sat in chairs, all around the plaza, tended by their families, given sodas and tacos, and believe it or not, I saw a pizza delivered right here on the plaza in the middle of the crowd this year. As my brother said, they adapt. In some ways, yes, but they don’t allow cameras at these events, and are on code red for cell phone cameras now, too. They seize them if they see them, you’re warned as you walk in. You are only allowed to take your own visions home for proof of what you have seen and felt.