Chasing Chuntas – the Fiesta Grande de Enero in Chiapa de Corzo

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I’ve lost it completely! Alto! Alto! I scream. Alto! Alto! Todo la pueblo boom boom boom! My hands fly out from my head with each boom. Alto! I scream again. As I put my palms together at the side of my head to imitate sleep I scream Todo la noche NADA! Alto! Alto! In my limited Spanish what I think I’m saying, what I hope I’m saying is Stop! Stop! All the town gets boom boom boom! Stop! All night nothing! (as I mime sleep because I don’t know the word for it) Stop! Stop!

It’s nine in the morning of the fifth day at the festival. Our hotel is right next to the small family chapel for San Antonio. There was a live band in the street until midnight. At five in the morning it started up again. I’ve had no sleep. As we leave the hotel and walk by the band I see there’s nothing going on! There’s no party happening, there’s no one dancing, there are no people there except the band booming music out to the world from five in the morning. When I realize they are playing just for themselves, without caring how it affects the entire neighbourhood, I lose it. That’s when I walk right up to them and start screaming at them to stop.

They look at me bewildered at first: Who is this mad woman? Then I see one of them starting to get angry, but I’m already walking away. I don’t know if they stop or not. We walk down to the river to get some peace and quiet. I laugh and laugh at myself for my hilarious outburst.

We’re in the Mexican Magic Town of Chiapa de Corzo at the Great January Festival and the noise is pretty much relentless. At other festivals our hotel has been a refuge, but this time we’re right in the thick of it with the chapel to San Antonio right next door.

The festival, which includes a huge fair in the town square, celebrates Our Lord of Esquipulas, San Antonio, and San Sebastian, the patron saints of Chiapa de Corzo. It also celebrates and honours a woman of Spanish descent and her servants who helped the town during some rough years in the 1700’s. We’ve seen the Parachicos and Chiapanecas who dress as if Spanish, but we’ve not seen any Chuntas. Chuntas are men who parade through the streets dressed as female Spanish servants. They wear long skirts and embroidered blouses, and make-up, and baskets on their heads, but they don’t try to completely hide their masculinity. An English speaking local told us that they would be at the celebrations at night at the San Sebastian chapel but there were none there.

19th January. On the fourth day: If you follow the street that goes down to the river past the colonnades on the south side of the town square,



past the stairs leading up to the church,



past the women with their embroidery selling exquisite hand woven fabrics and hand embroidered blouses,



past dozens of temporary street stalls selling beautiful hand-crafted artifacts, you’ll come to iCafe. At iCafe we meet George, a fellow Canadian who has been spending time in Chiapa de Corzo for many years. He’s practically a local. He speaks Spanish. He knows people! George understands our predicament in trying to get information about what is on where and when. He takes us to meet a friend who owns a nearby shop. His friend tells us there will be Chuntas tonight at the party in the town square.

We walk through the festooned streets of the town







to the festival office but they don’t want to help us. They barely look up from their computers when George politely asks them about the festival program. So we go to see the mask-maker instead.

Antonio López Hernandez is widely recognised for carving high quality Parachico masks and in 1998 he won the National Prize for Popular Arts and Traditions. We find his house very near our hotel and peer through the open door. He is not there but we are allowed to take pictures of his studio. All his life Antonio has carved Parachico masks and religious figures. Now he is a master of his craft.





The carnival in the town square is as busy and noisy as usual. There are dozens of speakers booming out music from various stores and street restaurants. Every ride, from the Ferris wheel to the dodgem cars to the carousel, has it’s own clatter and musical accompaniment. Hawkers are shouting, crowds of people are chatting, and children yelling and squealing. It’s always acoustic mayhem, but no matter the noise everyday as we pass through one or another part of the huge fair we hear the same insistent voice over and over. Eventually we realize it is two voices in two different parts of the fair. Both are blanket hawkers and both have the same unique and puzzling way of calling out their wares. Each stands with a pile of blankets and pillows on his head, and into a microphone drones a consistent rhythm of words. It is completely flat. There is no change of pace or intonation or volume. No pause to take a breath. As they beat out their relentless staccato rhythm I imagine they’re saying something like: three blankets and one pillow only one hundred pesos five blankets for two hundred pesos get your best blankets here we have hundreds of colours and styles our pillows are the best in Mexico three blankets and one pillow only one hundred pesos and on and on. And they do it for hours on end. For hours! We never see either of them take a break. We do hear their voices gradually get more and more hoarse as the days go by.



We go to the town square at night because George’s friend has told us that the Chuntas will be there at eight. We see some men dressed as women, but they not Chuntas. They are cross-dressers out on the town on a night when such a thing is acceptable.



We sit on the curb in the middle of a great party.



I see a couple of Chuntas walking quickly by. I chase after them through the crowds for a couple of blocks. I finally catch them. They tell me there are groups of Chuntas on the road going down to the river, which is a couple of blocks further in the opposite direction. I go down there but the street is dark and empty. It is so difficult to get information. And we speak and understand a reasonable amount of Spanish. I rejoin Don sitting on the curb in the town square. On one side of us is a friendly man and we chat with him for a while. On the other side of us are the drunken lads.



It’s fun for a while but then it all gets to be a bit too loud and a bit too drunken so we head back to our hotel. There is loud live music from the chapel next door until midnight. I think my head will explode. I surrender as best I can.

20 Jan: On the fifth day: After I finish screaming at the band in the street outside the chapel next door to our hotel we go down to iCafe and visit with George for a while, then return to the hotel. In the street next to the hotel, in front of the chapel they are setting up a stage, and long tables. There are mikes and huge speakers on the stage. Clearly there will be a party here in the street. It starts at about two. We could join in if we wanted to but we are too sleep-deprived. That orange coloured wall on the right is our hotel.



Like refugees with nowhere to be we wander down to the soothing flow of the river and hang out there for a while.



On returning to our hotel we watch movies on our laptops to drown out the noise. The whole experience is a lesson in presence and acceptance. We are so grateful when the music ends at ten. We both fall into a dead sleep.

21 Jan: On the sixth day: We don’t even realize we’ll be in a boat on the river until they sell us the tickets. We just want see the fireworks and we see these big banners advertising ticket sales. Later we realize we could have stood on the shore for free. But being in a boat on the river? Best decision ever! There are thousands come to watch the fireworks: probably ten thousand lining the shore and another four thousand in boats.

Every January 21st as part of the Fiesta Grande de Enero there is a one-hour show of fireworks remembering some long ago naval battles. It is truly spectacular!

We get there very early and sit in the boat for a long time.



There must be about one hundred boats all in a row, and slowly they fill up. Suddenly, finally, it is time to leave and together all the boats pull away and start gliding up river.



It is high in the sky



and it is on the far shore,





and we are in a perfect position to see it all. On and on it goes, and just when we think it’s going to end more comes. Exploding colour, sparkling chimeras shining then fading only to be replaced by a red whimsy shooting across the sky or giant golden-white rays shooting up from the earth. Now a giant red spinning flower. Now a burst of red and white spirals. Now a brilliant chrysanthemum. Now a white luminous waterfall on the shore. It’s one of the best fireworks displays I’ve ever seen. It makes up for all the sleepless nights.

















Next post: Chuntas! There’s a parade on our seventh day in town. On the sixth day some Chiapanecas in the hotel garden tell us that the parade begins the next day in the town square at two. Yeah right! But we do eventually get to see Chuntas. And go on a river cruise through Canyon del Sumidero.



A detailed description of the festival in case you want to know more about it.






All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.