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16-23 January 2017. So we’re sitting in the open-air breakfast area at Nomadis Hostel in Merida on the fourth of January. We’ve just about finished breakfast when we get chatting with a couple sitting near us. They tell us about an upcoming festival in Chiapa de Corzo. A festival! Nearby, and soon! I am immediately interested. Latin American festivals are among the best in the world and Mexico is no exception. We went to the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca several years ago and it remains one of the highlights of our travels.

Situated on the banks of the Rio Grijalva, in the state of Chiapas, in the far south of Mexico, is Chiapa de Corzo, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos or magic towns. There’s a magical feeling in the cobbled streets and colonial architecture, but it’s during the festival that the magic really happens. Every year Chiapa de Corzo is home to the Fiesta Grande de Enero, or the Great Festival of January.

16 January. On the first day: we arrive at about 4:00 pm, settle into our hotel room, and after dinner wander down to the fair in the main square. It’s huge. And loud. Every ride is vying with every other ride to be the loudest and brightest. Shops and makeshift restaurants lining the streets that border the square have their own loudspeakers booming music to entice customers. Crowds of people fill the space, eating dinner and enjoying the rides. It’s party time!

We’ve not been able to get any useful information from the hotel about the events of the next several days. There is no printed program, but in amongst the rides and the food carts and vans and temporary stalls and restaurants in the town square we find a tiny tourist information booth. From the man there we glean – be at the church tomorrow morning at ten. That much Spanish we do know: Iglesia, diez a la mañana.

The Fiesta Grande de Enero is a celebration of Our Lord of Esquipulas, San Antonio Abbott, and San Sebastian, the patron saints of Chiapa de Corzo, but it is much more than that.

In 1711 a Spanish woman named Maria de Angulo came from Guatemala with her ailing son. She found a cure for him in Chiapa de Corzo. The story goes that several years later when a plague of locusts destroyed the crops in the area, she returned, and in gratitude for her son’s recovery she gave out food and coins to the people of the village. As her servants distributed the alms they cried out “para chicos” which means “for the children”. Today the men, and some women, of the village dress in light skinned masks and straw hair to resemble the fair skin and light hair of the Spanish people who helped their village. They are known as Parachicos – for the children. But perhaps the name came from an earlier event. While the ailing boy was still in the village a man dressed up as a kind of clown, in a light coloured mask and hair to imitate the Spanish, and danced to entertain the child. His dance was “para el chico” – for the boy.

The women of the village, known as Chiapanecas and representing femininity and strength, dress in elaborate colourful embroidered dresses dating from the early 1900’s. The third important character in this grand theatre is the Chunta. Chuntas are men dressed as women in the clothing of Spanish servants of the 1700’s. They represent and pay homage to the servants of Maria de Angulo who distributed the food and coins to the children during the famine.

17 January. On the second day: We get to the church at about ten and find people starting to gather inside and out.

The band is waiting until it’s time to play.

A mass is held in the church, as gradually more and more people arrive. They come storming along the road towards the church, skirts and serapes flying, their rattles, known as chinchines, sounding out a steady rhythm with their chanting. It’s only the beginning, and the energy that will carry them through the day fills the air.

By the end of the mass there are hundreds of Parachicos and Chiapanecas assembled.

Those inside the church emerge carrying huge colourful banners and the statues of the saints.

The parade begins. The dance is a prayer, an offering of gratitude, and an offering to the saints. Their leader, or Patron, plays the flute and chants praises. The Parachicos respond with cheers.

We follow the parade for a while and then find a place upstairs in one of the buildings lining the town square. Here we can watch without the threat of having our limbs crushed by the crowd.

We go back to the town square at night to find the Chiapanecas and Parachicos still on the move.

Throughout the day they paraded through the streets dancing and chanting and shaking their chinchines, led by the drums and flute. They visited several churches, the cemetery, and the family chapels of San Antonio and San Sebastian. They come parading by, straggling now, slowly breaking up into smaller groups, lifting off their masks and headdresses.

Walking home we pass a group of them drinking micheladas – a horrible mix of beer, lime juice, assorted spices, and tomato juice, in a huge salt-rimmed plastic cup. They’re sitting at a table in the street. Music, as always, booms out from somewhere. As we pass I reach out to touch a headdress sitting on the table. The headdresses, hand-made from yucca fibre, feel like stiff brushes. One thing leads to another. We are both encouraged to try on the outfits.  Don becomes a Parachico and one of the Chiapanecas pulls him dancing into the street.

18th January. On the third day: We go searching for the family chapel of San Sebastian. Each year for twelve months a different family guards the sacred image of San Sebastian, and another guards the sacred image of San Antonio. The front courtyard and front room of the family home is turned into a chapel and dedicated to the saint. A huge “ceiling” of food – fruit and breads – is created by local schools and other groups and mounted in the entrance. It is left hanging there for several days. We’ve already found the family chapel for San Antonio, as it is right next door to our hotel. Since we’ve arrived part way through the festival we know the major celebrations for San Antonio are over, and the ceiling of fruit and bread has already been removed, but the festivities for San Sebastian are about to begin and we want to know where. It seems not even the locals know. We ask in the tourist office on the way down to the river front. They don’t know. They don’t even have a program for the festival for 2017 though they do give us one for 2016. We ask in the street and are given wrong directions. We ask again and again and finally our perseverance pays off.

The aroma is almost overpowering. The fruit and sweet breads have been hanging in the heat for days. The chapel is filled with flowers.

The sweet scent of the flowers mixed with the rich aroma of ripe oranges, apples, pineapple, papaya, bananas, and melon washes over me like a warm blanket. I almost think I will swoon with the potency of it. The buzzing of swarms of bees fills the air.

The family is seated inside the chapel and one of them speaks English. I am overcome with gratitude. Finally we might get some accurate information about what will happen when. She says to wait around until about two o’clock.

There is a band and piñatas next to the chapel.

There are groups of Parachicos and Chiapanecas milling about in the street,

and a crowd starts to gather in the seating provided.

More Parachicos arrive, make sure their outfits are complete and tie on their masks. 

And then the parade arrives. Carrying colourful banners and shaking their chinchines in rhythmic beat the Parachicos and Chiapanecas march up the street towards the chapel.

I do not know how they all fit inside. There is a ceremony inside, perhaps a kind of mass, there is chanting, and singing, and the band plays. And then it is over and everyone emerges back out into the street and the band plays some more.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, is served drinks, and a small amount of food. The Parachicos rest hot and exhausted in the tropical heat.

We head home for a rest and return in the evening because we have been told there will be Chuntas there, but it is not so. The number of times we tried to find out some kind of schedule, what was happening where, and when, and were given false information was dumbfounding. Many of the locals themselves don’t even know, but somehow it all seems to work.

So we stay for the service and singing, and are given plastic bowls of food at the end. Once again everyone is fed – tamales and something else that I can’t identify, and a bottle of orange pop.

There is loud live music until about three in the morning from the San Antonio chapel next to the hotel. As is usual in many tropical places with traditional Spanish colonial architecture, the high small window in our bathroom has no glass in it, only mesh. We might just as well be at the party next door. We tape my travel pillow over the window to try to block the noise but it doesn’t make much difference. Even with earplugs the beat of the drums remains insistent.

Next post: The fourth, fifth, and sixth days – around the town of Chiapa de Corzo, being refugees from our hotel, and a night of spectacular fireworks.

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.