SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Men, women, boys and girls dance for several kilometers in colorful and printed tunics with tires placed around their waists.
Wearing amorphous masks, they parade across a southeastern Mexican city to honor the Virgin of Mercy, in a ceremony that dates back to the 17th century.
“It all started with the ‘Moors,’ a group that accompanied the virgin and danced wearing their typical costumes. At that time there were no masks as finely made as the ones we have now,” said Carlos de Jesus Garcia Fino, who has been participating in this tradition for 25 years.
Garcia Fino referred to a group that traditionally dressed up as “Moros,” or “Moors” – who ruled Muslim Spain between 702 AD and 1492 AD – and trailed the procession. But today, the Moors have been replaced by clowns.
Since the foundation in 1637 of La Merced neighborhood in the southeastern Mexican city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Catholic devotees began to hold an annual party to honor the virgin on Sept. 24, the day of her liturgical feast.
This year, the date was announced on Sunday with the annual parade of the faithful. They thanked all the blessings they received, followed by what were renditions of Muslims repenting and converting to Catholicism.
For some time now, those Moors have been replaced by the “Payasos panzudos,” or “the Paunchy Clowns.” The origin of such transition remains unclear, but there is photographic evidence of these clowns taking to the streets since 1927, although it is thought that they first appeared between 1880 and 1890.
These characters wore a torn palm hat, glasses, and put pillows under their shirts appear deformed.
Such deformation alludes to the same sinful condition as that of the Moors, and they always go behind the Virgin because they are Catholics, Garcia Fino told EFE on Sunday. He’s the fifth generation of his family that does so.
While some parades are organized to comply with the celebrations and religious ceremonies, others are there to brighten up the procession. Those are the paunchy clowns.
“Some of us do it because of orders, of promises. We come to dance for the Virgin of Mercy,” Saul Iñaki Zuñiga told EFE on Sunday. He no longer lives in La Merced, but his grandparents were born in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, historian Carlos Ivan Castillo Herrera – a baker by profession and resident of La Merced – expressed his enthusiasm for the virgin and the passion with which the “Mercedarians” come together to celebrate.
“Joy, tradition and magic. Long live the Virgin of Mercy. She is our heart, our sacrifice. We are here to deliver the faith to our most holy Virgin of Mercy and patron of the La Merced neighborhood,” he said.
On Sunday, more than 3,000 clowns danced to the beat of wind bands and Batucada music for more than six kilometers (almost 4 miles). The show attracted the eyes of thousands of spectators waiting on the sidewalks and balconies.
“I liked it a lot. It had been a year that I hadn’t come to see this parade. I thought it was beautiful, very large, long, varied, with a lot of families participating with children – the whole family,” said visitor Adriana Luna Orozco.
Each year, the love and devotion for the Virgin of Mercy take hold, and on this occasion there were more than 3,000 paunchy clowns and 20 vehicles decorated with different themes that adorned this festival of joy and faith.
Others travel hundreds of kilometers to be present with their families, reminisce and make traditions live. This is the case of Miguel Angel Jimenez, who traveled from the country’s northern border just to thank the virgin and his family.
“[I came] from Baja California. This is beautiful. We come especially to see this festival of La Merced. My parents are from here, I have customs and traditions, and I lived there. I’ve lived there for 25 years and I come here especially to see this,” he said.