Part I of II

The Dance of El Negrito de la Pastorela, New Year's Day, Ocumicho-style
Written January 19, 2003

All background research is from Behind the Mask in Mexico, Janet Brody Esser, Editor, Museum of International Folk Art, New Mexico Press, 1988, pages 106-141 entitled Those Who Are Not From Here: Blackman Dances of Michoacán by Janet Brody Esser.

In the village of Ocumicho, Michoacán, New Year's Day and January 2nd of each new year is celebrated with great pageantry and ceremony when the dance, El Negrito de la Pastorela, is performed on two consecutive days. Invited by our artisan friends to enjoy the festivities, we were filled with the anticipation of seeing over 150-strong dance in the famous masks and ornate costumes.

As described in Behind the Mask in Mexico, 300 years of Spanish Viceregal dominance brought more than 250,000 black slaves to Mexico (page 122), including to the Purépechan empire. But even before the Spaniards arrived, black signified the direction of south, and was a color signifying great power or a position of honor. Painting their bodies with soot, priests blackened themselves in order to see visions and warriors did so before battles in pre-Hispanic Michoacán (page 123).

Africans slaves brought to Mexico by Spaniards came from Lisbon or Seville, and in addition to serving as cowboys, soldiers, builders, traders, tailors and artesans, were especially employed as servants of the wealthy and were dressed in extravagant finery. Thus, the dances are romanticized depictions of events actually experienced during the colonial period (page 123).

Left: A proud Negrito participant. Right, the rear of the headdress resplendent with long ribbons and strands of tinsel.

The African slave servants moved between both the Spanish and Indian worlds, yet truly belonged to neither. The "space in between" that the black men came to occupy became sacred in the Purépechan world view…a sacred and powerful space…with the black man taking on the Purépechan names of Blackman, City Man, Foreigner, and Lord Principal Being (page 140).

The present day Negrito dance survives as a tribute to the role of Africans in Michoacán, whose image over time evolved into the Black Lord, an idealized village leader. The Dance of the Negritos remains one of the most important dances of the Purépechan year, and an important part of lore and Purépecha self-image (page 140).

Unlike other principal villages described in Behind the Mask in Mexico, Ocumicho's rites are unique is several ways. Naturally, a confrontation, dance and appeasement of the devil must be included in this pueblo most famous for its devilish imagery!

Left: The village women cook for the masses before a special shrine in the background. Right: Younger "Negritos" must have energy for the day's festivities, and stop for candy before heading to the church courtyard.

As we enter town, we hear bands practicing, smell the huge cazuelas of food being prepared, and see costumed participants rushing down the street toward the church courtyard. It is the job of appointed women to cook and serve all who participate, which easily numbers beyond 200 including dancers, town officials, and the musicians.

While the starting time is not exact, festivities began around 3pm with the Maringuillas (female little Marys from about 16-22 years of age) lining up to form an inner circle, and the Negritos de las Pastorelas (black-masked males from about 16-22 years of age) lining up to form an outer circle. In the center stand the queen of the Maringuillas, and the king of the Negritos with their respective courts in line behind each. El Director of the event (a most important elected position in this community who is assigned as the keeper of the tradition) is our own friend, Natividad Quiroz. Seated before the steps of the church are rows of officials, with the an entire front row occupied with tiny girls (approximately four to five years of age) dressed in pure white in the role of virgin angels, complete with white wings covered in ivory duck feathers. The scene was set.

Left: Ornately dressed "Little Marys", Las Maringuillas, watch and listen to the recited lines of the confrontation with the devil. Right: The Maringuillas dance in a giant circle before the church to the band's beat.

The Director signals the band to begin, and the circle within the circle dances in opposite directions around the primary characters. Then all dancers stop and the focus turns to within the circle as the director prompts the lines of the principals. At last, the devil and his consorts (clowns and masked gorillas…los feos) enter the circle, and a dramatic showdown begins. With the devil's back to the church, the devil marches forward with proclamations and the queen and king step back. Then the queen and king step forward with pronouncements renouncing the devil, forcing the devil backwards toward the church. This verbal showdown is repeated several times. Ironically, this recited drama is all in Spanish in a village where only Purépechan is spoken to one another.

Only young adults participate in the church courtyard dance and pageant, although all are fully costumed, from babies to older children.

As is the case with any school recital or children's event, the line of video camera-equipped parents was formidable and I didn't want to block the view of the proud abuelitos seated in the shade. Let's just say that getting a picture of the angelitas and the devil drama was impossible!

In the very middle of all this, a honking pick-up truck comes creeping though the crowds, and a gentlemen comes out to chase everyone off the grass lawn … the familiar, "Stay off the grass" from the parish priest!

Then without a discernable ending, everyone suddenly disbanded, scurrying home to prepare for the next day's festivities.

Our happy group climbed the hill to enjoy a wonderful comida at the home of friends Tomasa and Rutilio (Tomasa is the creator of the incredible Twin Towers shown in a previous edition of Postcards from Mexico). A delicious meal of tortillas a mano and carne asada was enjoyed until we could eat no more. This was a very special occasion as meat is reserved for holidays only in this household.

We left as the sun was setting, ready to return the next day for the Negrito posada…the visitations to individual households.

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO