GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Every July, hundreds of residents of the western Mexican town of Tonala recreate the mythical fight between the pre-Columbian Indians and Spanish conquistadors in a tradition that goes back 200 years.
Men of all ages turn out to reenact the battles fought during the historic war, clad in costumes representing the mighty Tastoanes, which means “high ruler” in the Nahuatl language.
Jesus Delgado, the chief Tastoan, told EFE that the tradition combines religious beliefs with pre-Columbian customs and dancing to celebrate the apostle James the Greater, Spain’s patron saint.
“Santiago” – which is the Spanish version of the name “James” – was a common battle cry for Spanish troops in the era of the conquest of the Americas.
“For some of them, it is a (religious) vow,” the 62-year-old man said, adding that some dedicate it to children with cancer, while others are preoccupied with the preservation of the tradition.
Tastoanes proudly flaunt their masks made using calf horns, cow tails and plant fibers and wear costumes fashioned out of cow hides months prior to the event.
The masks are decorated with imagery of animals considered to be protective, as well as the faces of ferocious Indian warriors marked by the smallpox that spread throughout the region following the conquest of the Europeans.
Some of them even don protective gear to guard them against the flogging that the figure representing Santiago gives them using wet mesquite tree branches.
Participants dressed as warriors then perform dances in which they seek a man dressed in white, representing Saint James, in order to eat him.
Saint James revives and a clash against the Tastoanes ensues, in which the Indians go around dodging the lashes, while a few of them kneel before the saint as a sign of humility, which warrants the public’s cheers.
The festivity is closed with a Mass in honor of the Saint.