El Valle del Maíz, Escape Sorrows at the Fiesta
By Jesús Aguado
“As the flower to the cane, the fiesta returns to El Valle,” says one of the verses of a poem especially written by Guillermo Velázquez of Los Leones de la Sierra for El Valle del Maíz, the “barrio más barrio” and one of the most important fiesta in San Miguel.
On the last weekend of May, from Friday 29 to Monday, June 1, the mojigangas—giant puppets—hold their yearly ritual where there is güiri güiri (talk), and there is mezcal. During this celebration, time and space kiss, and the fiesta lessens the participants’ sorrows.
The ritual celebration starts nine days before the major festivity. During those days, through prayers and ancestral rituals, the dancers, organizers, and residents of el Valle ask for God’s permission to hold the celebration to honor him. They pray to four cardinal points asking for a good season and for a celebration without major incidents.
Those who do not know say that El Valle del Maíz is the fiercest neighborhood of San Miguel; however, the residents of this place assure that, on the contrary, they are at a peaceful place but—joking—say, “take care of your chicks because the rooster is on the loose.” What is certain and evident is that the Valle del Maíz was a fertile place where the water flowed down from the mountains. People used to work the land with yokes until May because they knew that with the celebration to honor the Holy Cross, the rainy season would begin, and the rainfall would flow as mezcal does now. There is now no water from the springs; but there are people who love, treasure, and defend their ancestral traditions.
El Valle’s foundation is as old as the foundation of the Village of San Miguel el Grande. All the workers—Otomíes, Chichimecas, and others—served the Spanish who lived in that area. Over the hard-working years, they found in the Holy Cross a way to meet, talk, and share their experiences with friends.
During the celebration, their bosses gave them two or three days off. The documents from residents state that in 1802, there was a humble chapel at El Valle, and in 1902 the current Holy Cross made of stone was “inaugurated.” Through the Holy Cross and the dances, prayers, and rituals, the residents of El Valle found a ladder to heaven, and they dedicate their celebration to God.
Ending and beginning of a cycle
“The residents of El Valle are ready for dying every May after the celebration, but they are also ready to resurrect and start a new cycle,” Don José Centeno used to say. On Monday after the celebration, all those who participated in the festivity die, when they went to sleep after the Coloquio, a play. However, they revived when they woke up. That is how they start a new year: full of hope and vitality.
Although they have to ask for nine permits to hold the celebration, the biggest is the one that they request for Friday, May 29, at night. That day pilgrims from many rural communities start arriving in El Valle with the animas—small crosses that represent the spirits of their ancestors, and at 6:30pm, a band plays the Tardecitas to the cross. The people start gathering at the church in order to hold the Ensaye Real—Royal Rehearsal. This procession is headed by the pilgrim Holy Cross that visits rural communities during the year, and it is followed by a band playing live music, dancers, locos (crazies), and devotees. The procession heads from the church to the cross situated in front of the Misión del Molino Hotel, and from there it goes to the cross located in front of the Callejón del Valle. The procession follows Salida a Querétaro towards El Mirador, and then it turns around and goes back toward the church again. On the way, the organizers collect fireworks, candles, flowers, and some donations that neighbors make for the festivity.
That night, after the Royal Rehearsal, the residents start preparing the xúchiles—offerings made with cucharilla—the leaves from a cactus brought from Los Picachos. A vigil is held at the church. The xúchiles need to be ready at 4am and exhibited as an offering to God outside the homes where they are prepared. At 5:30am, corn flour drinks and tamales are given to the attendants, and later there is an alborada—daybreak—with music and fireworks.
The greased pole and the wars
The greased pole is installed early on Saturday. It consists of a 5-meter pole, which holds fruits, beverages, and sometimes electrical appliances on the top. Those who want to reach the articles have to climb on another man’s shoulders, but first they will have to deal with the grease and count the times that they will fail and fall before they reach the top if they do not get tired and someone smarter comes and gets the reward. It is a tradition but also a spectacle.
In El Valle, at least 60 years ago people still used yokes for working the land. With the governmental changes in land use and the construction of the libramiento, little by little people stopped working the land. When the celebration began, the yokes were taken to mass, and in their necks the owners hung offerings made of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. It was a tradition that soldiers—representing the Spanish—used to come down from the hills and steal the offerings. The natives were angry, and then a confrontation called guerritas began.
There is no specific day when the guerritas started, but they are still reenacted. On Saturday, May 30, at 5:30pm, a procession leaves from El Valle heading toward the Plaza Real del Conde. There will be mojigangas, locos, live music, soldiers, and Chichimecas. After a strident explosion, the war starts, and it ends when both soldiers and Chichimecas get tired of capturing people from both sides. Later, the festivity continues in the neighborhood.
Among marotas and parandes
On Sunday, May 31, the celebration continues in the neighborhood in early morning with fireworks and music. At noon, a parade leaves from Salida a Querétaro to the historic center. It is headed by the tarasca, a demon, and behind this animal come the mojigangas, which have the job of cleaning the path that God—the Holy Cross—is about to walk. The cross is followed by dancers, allegoric cars, and marotas—men dressed as woman—the most popular group of crazies from El Valle. Dr. Leopoldo Estrada comments that in the past, the men who did this as a way of entertaining people used to dance with other men who had to give alms to the church for dancing with them or were kidnapped by men on horseback. The marotas did not wear masks. They just painted their faces; they also wore long skirts. Now the marotas are just “men who want to have fun.” The parade goes through calles San Francisco, Plaza Principal, Portal Allende, Correo, and Salida a Querétaro to El Valle.
On the same Sunday at 5pm, people start arriving in El Valle from different rural communities or other neighborhoods with parandes, rectangular structures made of wood adorned with colored flowers made of paper. On the structure, people place giant sweet bread from Acámbaro, fruit, tequila, rum, and other alcoholic beverages, and all kinds of articles. Each offering is given to whoever wants to take it home, on one condition. Next year they have to bring it back with the exact same quantity of articles or more, “but not less” states Dr. Estrada.
To end the celebration, the play The Hidden Treasure starts at 7:30pm, and it ends the next day at 7:30am. It is a play about the arrival of Jesus the savior and how the evil one tries all kinds of tricks to divert the shepherds’ path to Bethlehem, where they were heading to adore baby Jesus. It is comical; it is entertaining and full of color and music.
The cultural program and Los Leones de la Sierra
The cultural program features dances of all kinds as well as different musical genres. Among the performers are the Leones de la Sierra, a band that arrived to stay 25 years ago; thanks to Dr. Leopoldo Estrada—an iconic traditionalist in El Valle. After he met Guillermo Velázquez from Xichú, he started traveling with his mojigangas to different countries with the band, and now the Leones de la Sierra come annually to honor the cross. The band plays music with violin, guitar, and guapanguera. Their music is classic from the mountains of Xichú. While the musicians play, Guillermo Velázquez improvises lyrics related to the political, economic, and social problems in the country. This year, the band will perform on Wednesday, May 27, at 9pm. There will be a trio of women with the same musical genre; Las Palomitas Serranas, who will play at 8pm before the Leones.