Bring on the mojigangas!
By Sheridan Sansegundo
Every month is a fiesta in San Miguel de Allende, but September is la neta. Independence Day is just past and just ahead is San Miguel Arcángel, whose celebrations include the 4am Alborada—a procession and fireworks commemorating the archangel’s fight with evil—dances in remembrance of a bloody 1531 battle between Christian and non-Christian Chichimeca and Otomí and daylong music, dancing, costumes, floats, the Entrance of the Xúchiles at the Parroquia, mariachis and, of course, mojigangas.
Mojigangas are one of those joyous surprises that Mexico likes to spring on the unwary, like ear-shattering fireworks at 4am. On a day of fiesta you might come round a corner and be confronted by a terrifying 10-foot-high leering devil or a gaudy, shameless Amazon who seems to have lost her bra.
With a history dating back to the Middle Ages in Spain (where they are known as gigantes) the tradition of huge puppets of cloth and painted paper and wood was brought to Mexico in about 1600. Depicting the traditional figures of good and evil, with sometimes a satirical commentary on contemporary figures or mores, they are still a vital part of parades and national celebrations in San Miguel.
So who makes and operates them? The Estrada family in Valle del Maíz keeps the tradition alive, as does Hermes Arroyo Guerrero. If you climb calle San Francisco to its steepest part, you will come to the old colonial house where he and his family of mojigangas live.
In a high-ceilinged room beside the front door the mojigangas are playing Sardines: a huge skeleton is pressed against a plump Amy Winehouse, a tuxedo-clad giant rubs noses with a flamenco dancer. They look a little ticked off, as if they want to escape and dance in the streets, as they should be doing.
The neighboring studio —filled to the rafters with paint pots, beads, feathers, Catrinas, half-finished heads, ribbons and satins—only adds to the theatricality of the place. In the patio is a shell of carefully molded, pleated craft paper, awaiting the paintbrush—a vermilion flycatcher mojiganga which has been specially commissioned by the Audubon Society of Mexico for its 45th anniversary party on October 6 (www.audubonmex.org).
“I love working with Audubon, which is doing such a good job protecting our environment, so I want it to be the most beautiful mojiganga bird in the world. I want it to have a touch of the theatre but at the same time be recognizable as a wild bird,” said Hermes enthusiastically.
He has been making art since he was a child and had the good fortune to have Genaro Almanza, the last santero of San Miguel, as a mentor. He studied art in Monterrey and has been teaching special education for the last 20 years, first in San Miguel and then in Comonfort. It was in Monterrey that he developed his love for both the traditional, as demonstrated by his santos and mojigangas, and the avant-garde, as can be seen in the abstract iron sculptures and glazed ceramics he makes. A man of boundless energy, he also gives mojiganga classes to San Miguel children in the summer.
“It is not very orthodox. I just go out in the street and find kids who are interested. When they have made their mojigangas, the children get to take part in a parade. I’m from San Miguel and my life is here and I want to support its traditions because I love the town and wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
To celebrate San Miguel Arcángel, Hermes, and most of his 10 siblings, will strap themselves into the supporting harnesses inside each figure, carefully duck through the doorway, and dance away down the hill, part of a San Miguel tradition that hasn’t changed over the centuries.