Yaqui Easter Festivities-Sabado de Gloria, Tempe AZ 2013

The drive into Guadalupe is strange. The city of Tempe has swallowed the little town whole. Suddenly at the end of a busy city street a sign marks “Entering Guadalupe” and past this sign the streets narrow and slow. The buildings are suddenly older, patchworks of paint and plywood surrounded by fences. Here and there a well-kept house surrounded by a garden breaks the pattern. The streets are lined in every direction with parallel parked cars, and people dart from in between them across the street. They are all headed in the same direction and the member of my class will soon join them. The parking lot near our final destination says “Lot full”, but my teacher is unperturbed as she turns shortly before the lot and heads down a side street with our caravan following closely behind. She has been here many times before. We park a block or two away from the lot. I grab my backpack and the paper bag full of avocados and other fruit that was on the floorboard of the car that my teacher asks me to carry.

The class and I trace our way back up the block. My teacher, Pegge, tells me the two of us will make a short stop to drop off the fruit which is a gift for her friend in the community, Merced and his wife (whose name I have forgotten).  Pegge asks the class to wait for us on the side walk while we cross the street to a small brown house.  A smiling man with gray and black streaked hair and a blue and white button down shirt greets us happily. Merced. Pegge announces she has arrived to view the Yaqui festivities and she has come bearing gifts. Merced asks if I am her apprentice, and Pegge looks at me and says “Yes, and I’ve brought the rest of my class as well”. Merced welcomes me and we can’t decide if we should shake hands or hug (Pegge hugged him, but I do not know this man, nor his customs). We awkwardly dance into a half-hug. Merced notes that our number is large but decides to extend an invitation for us to visit later that day if we wish. Others are in the front yard as well, sitting in lawn chairs. Merced ushers us into the house to present the gifts to his wife. I walk up the two concrete steps into the house. It smells like spices and simmering meat. Pegge calls out to Merced’s wife who rushes out of the kitchen to greet us. She is blonde and has freckles on her face. Pegge introduces me, and I take the initiative to stick out my hand and shake hers to avoid the awkwardness of my last introduction. She smiles warmly at me and grasps my hand. As she and Pegge talk, I take note of my surroundings. Her son, not more than 6 plays on a computer in the corner, the brown laminate that covers the floor is peeling at the seams, and the green paint on the walls stands out to me (a pale Easter green, that I note is right for the season in my culture, and yet is a part of their life year round.) The wall is covered in a series of goat masks with long beards and bright painted faces. They are the masks of the Pascolas, that we will see perform later that day. In the corner of the room is also a long strand of leather covered in butterfly cocoons that the dancers will wear around their ankles. Pegge has finished her conversation with Merced’s wife, who then invites us to eat when I remark how wonderful it smells. Pegge politely declines, and says we must be on our way since we have others waiting for us. We say our goodbyes and head out the door.

Merced is still in the front yard when we exit. He calls out to Pegge and tells her to look behind at the potted plants near the house. He beams and says that here he has many caterpillars he is waiting to cocoon and turn into butterflies. Merced just so happens to help make the butterfly cocoons ankle straps that the Pascola dancers wear. He tells Pegge she must tell her class that can come see the baby caterpillars if they want, and she promises she will. We say goodbye and head back across the street to meet our group.

The class is distracted by a small clearing between two houses where some young men are dancing the dance of the Matechinis. Pegge says she has never seen this happening in this location before. Some of the students ask if we could move closer, but Pegge says we should not go anywhere we do not see other non-members of the community. We are viewing religious ceremonies and need to keep our distance for respect. Just as we are about to leave a tall Yaqui man comes down the driveway, wordlessly he hold up his hands with his fingers in the shape of a square and shakes his head. No pictures or film (we were already told this by Pegge in advance). He then motions for a few of us to move closer up the driveway to the dancers. The rest of us continue down the sidewalk heading to the plaza.

We arrive at the edge of the Plaza, which is sandwiched between a neighborhood and a carnival which shares the empty community space. I can already smell a multitude of foreign foods and hear a crowd on the other side of the carnival trailer, just out of view. We walk onto a sandy dirt lot. Pegge announces that this is the plaza where all of the day’s festivities will be taking place, but from here on out we must experience it on our own, make mistakes, learn from them, and learn from the religious ceremonies and dances of the day. We are in charge on our own experience. The further we trek into the plaza, I noticed the ground is littered into colorful paper confetti and eggshells. The remains of cascarones, (empty eggs filled with confetti that are smashed to represent the blood of Christ being shed to forgive our sins) crunch beneath our feet. It is the site of a war we did not get to see, perhaps among children and adults, earlier that day or many days before. I imagine what I must have looked like to see the colorful confetti float through the air and hear the giggles and squeals of the children who played here before it became space for mingling crowds.

The Plaza is a large rectangle about 100 yards long and maybe 10 yards wide (Oh how I wish I was better at visual measurement). All along the sides were vendors of food and religious regalia mixed in with families who had back in the beds of trucks and were sitting and eating waiting for festivities to begin. At the far end of the plaza were two small churches, one was decorated with a flag that stated the establishment of the chapel in 1519. On top of the church are 3 colorful crosses decorated in tissue paper flowers. To the left of the building I can see men in costume gathering and making formations. Preparing. In the middle of the plaza some elder men are creating a pile of logs and bags of tender around a large effigy of Judas. The effigy had a large mask similar to the ones that would appear later on the Chapayeka dancers. Hundreds of bright colored scarves and ties were tired on the figure of Judas, reminding me of a maypole from childhood story books.

I watch the people walk by. Most of them ignore me completely, but a few give my group quizzical glances as we start to shuffle along the edge of the plaza following the smell of Indian fry bread. Many of them are wearing a special rosary made of wood, with only horizontal portion of the cross hanging from it and a bright colorful tassel hanging from that. It was the most unusual rosary I had ever seen, almost more japa mala than Catholic Rosary. If you know history of the Catholic Church, the rosary was actually adopted by the crusaders when they were going through India. They were inspired by the prayer beads religious people used to maintain focus on prayers and thought it would be a wonderful addition to Catholic prayers. The rosary has been a Catholic staple ever since and it bear 108s beads including one “master or teacher” bead just before the crucifix, just as a traditional japa mala had. 108 is considered an auspicious number by many cultures. I wonder if the Yaqui rosary is more similar to what conquistadors carried when they traveled into Mexico, or if they altered the rosaries to represent a traditional value or idea that was pre-colonial. [Later that evening I was watching my favorite film, the 1999 version of The Mummy, and noticed the warden in the prison, where Rachel Weisz rescues Brendan Fraser’s character, is carrying what appears to be a Yaqui rosary in his hand. I researched online and found that this particular actor is of British and Iranian descent. I’m not sure of how the rosary ended up in the movie, or if similar rosaries are indeed used in the area where the film takes place.]

After stuffing myself full of fry bread and smoked chicken I decide to head alone up the edge of the Plaza to get closer to the churches and to observe the actions of the participants in the religious ceremonies preparing on the left of the church. I find a space where other people are gathering near to the church but within the plaza and decide to stand with them. I do not know if they are part of the community or not. Other members of my class are dispersed throughout this little crowd. Now comes the waiting. Waiting for something anything like what we studied in class to happen.

At 5 minutes past 1pm, the announcer on the PA systems comes on and asks everyone to clear the plaza and get behind the tables. Tables…ok…tables…..where are the tables? I don’t see any tables anywhere so I push myself closer to the edge of the plaza where the families and vendors have their trucks and wares parked. Everyone else does the same. The announcer comes on the PA system again and says “please move behind the tables”. The plaza appears empty to me, where am I supposed to go? I don’t understand. Members of the community are getting upset with us, can’t someone just tell us where to go? The announcer asks us again, but then I hear a difference in the words. Cables. “Please move behind the cables.” But where are the cables. I look up overhead and see a long cable connecting poles on either side of the plaza. Cables, ok. But the members of the community are so close to the edge of the cables there is no room for the people who were once in the center of the plaza. They tell us to move or we will be run over, they are angry or annoyed. I can’t tell but my heart is racing a little bit. I motion for the 4 classmates who have joined me where I am standing to move further down the edge of the plaza. We dart between two trucks that families are perched on. So close we are practically on top of one another, but hopefully we are also out of the way. The families on either side of us give us glances, and talk amongst themselves that we are in the way and need to move so members of their family can join them at a later time. We squish closer together, but it is too late to move, because the ceremony is starting. [None of their other family ever shows us during the ceremonies, I concluded later that we were just in the way or invading their personal space and they didn’t know how else to articulate it to us.]

The Caballeros are at least 100 in number. They begin marching down the left side of the plaza in rows 5 people wide. They shuffle their feet, kicking up the dust around them. The locals cover their noses and mouths as the Caballeros pass, and quietly say “Muchas Gracias” repeatedly. They all wear black riding capes with three little ribbon flowers in a row on the back, in the colors green, red and purple. Some of the men on the end carry large staffs with red and green flags on them. All wear black hats in styles similar to a fedora, with a black handkerchief tied up over their nose and mouth and tucked into the collar of their black button down shirts. They wear black close-toed shoes in various modern styles, and black pants.

Behind them come the Chapayekas. They are carrying long wooden swords and short wooden daggers and clang them together in some type of code to the others around them. They walk normally and do not stir up much dusts. Their fanciful masks look like totem pole faces with bat-wing ears, and sharp noses. They wear cotton material wrapped around their torsos like a well-fitting poncho. Their pants are simple brown trousers that are rolled up around the ankles to show their traditional Yaqui leather sandals. They shake their hips every now and then to jingle the collection of animal hooves on their belts.

After all of them shuffle by a small group of church men and women pass carrying a cross draped in white fabric. They stop shortly before the Judas effigy placed in the center of the Plaza and then turn back to face the church. I cannot see into the cloud of dust that the Caballeros and Chapayekas have kicked up around themselves at the other end of the plaza, but I can tell they are moving through different formations. Just then from closer to the church come the Pascola dancers. They skip and move cheerfully down the plaza with their eyes on the Chapayekas. They also wear traditional Yaqui leather sandals, but their pants are held tightly around their ankles with straps covered in butterfly cocoons that rattle when they step. I can only imagine how many caterpillars the Yaqui had patiently waited to turn to butterflies so they could use the left over cocoons to transform their men into Pascolas. The Pascola men are shirtless and around their right arm they have a wooden goat mask with a long beard and eyebrows. The face of it sticks to their right shoulder blade so they look like two in one, man and goat. They also wear belts made of animal hooves which they shake to amuse themselves. The Pasocola closest to me wears a red flower pinned on top of his short hair, and smiles broadly. The white of his teeth contrast starkly against his very tan skin.

The Pascolas begin to taunt the now calm Chapayekas by throwing little twigs and leaves towards them from the surface of the plaza. The Chapayekas respond with pretend advances towards the Pascolas, and shooting pop guns, and throwing arrows gently through the air. The Pascolas pick up the arrows and throw them back towards the Chapayekas. Meanwhile the Caballeros remain at the far end of the plaza, stepping in place in rhythms of 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

The church men and women start to sing. Their voices waver through the sounds of the clouds and the stepping making goose bumps raise on my arms.

Pascola “red flower” throws a stick at a Chapayeka and then pretends to hid behind some of the children at the edge of the spectators who giggle in delight before he skips out again. Red flower continues to be a favorite with the children, especially when he pretends to be camouflaged behind a tiny twig with four leaves on it, and the Chapayekas play along as if they can’t see him. This game between the Chapayekas and the Pascolas goes along for at least half an hour.

Every once in a while the great Deer Dancer, with the deer head tied on top of his own head prances among the Pascolas and then back towards the church. His movements are so animal like, I forget his human face and concentrate on the deer one. The eyes dart from side to side as he prances, and the bright white of his head wrapping is so crisp and clean compared to the much earthier Pascola and Chapayeka dancers which adds to his ethereal qualities. He flinches each time the pop gun is heard, as do most of the spectators. Then in true deer fashion, he finds a new place to graze or hide.

The wailing women and men holding the cross begin to move back up the plaza as they continue to sing. They head towards the church. Once they reach the church the bell tolls three times. Just then everything springs into action.

The Pascolas retreat back to the side of the church, and the Caballeros and Chapayekas come rushing towards the church at full force. Some of the Caballeros kneel down near my little group and cross themselves. The specatators begin to throw confetti over the running actors. They run towards the church and then away from it towards the Judas pyre. I think this is the end of the ceremony, but the rushing occurs twice more. All the while confetti begins to color and cover everything in sight.

This advance and retreat occurs three times. At the end of the third time the Caballeros and Chapayekas run to the figure of Judas and throw their swords and masks onto the pyre and pray.  They then rush back to the church where they are met by women who throw a blanket over their heads and take them inside. [It is inside the church that they become rededicated to Jesus].

The Caballeros and Chapayekas have dispersed and the crowd begins to meander through the plaza again, still covered in confetti and shreds of flowers. My group moves to a food stand to get juice and drinks. We have been standing watching the ceremony for over 2 hours.

I turn from the stand to watch the men around the Judas effigy light it on fire. The flames grow 50 feet in the air, and the heat is intense. We retreat to the far end of the plaza where the Caballeros had been making formations to watch Judas dissolve away in smoke in ash, along with all the other props from the ceremony, and the sins of the Caballeros and Chapayekas. Beyond the pyre I can see the Matachines begin to dance in front of the church. Their bright and colorful hats bob up and down above the crowd gathered around to watch them. My group decides they’ve had enough for the day, and we head back to the car walking down the neighborhood streets that are completely empty. Everyone is still in the plaza.

Soon the images of colorful floating confetti leave my mind as we head back home into Tempe. Leaving a world behind us, that we do not belong to and that we still must try to understand. I think about how nice it would have been to see the baby caterpillars Merced was so proud of, and regret losing the chance as I get closer to home.

You may read more about the Yaqui culture, fesitivities, and characters in the Sabado de Gloria festivities here: http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/YaquiEaster/events.htm

*I do not have pictures or film for this post because as a religious ceremony it is against Guadalupe law to use any recording devices, and as a cultural law if you do so a curse is placed upon you and your media. The featured image for this page is a wikipedia commons photo of the church in Guadalupe, AZ on a non-festival day. 

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