Let’s Have Some Fun at El Valle del Maíz
By Jesús Aguado
The annual fiesta of El Valle del Maíz has returned, and it features what you can no longer see in the local celebrations—yokes, religious plays, greasy pole, súchiles, pre-Hispanic dances, wars, and for all, the good mescal. All this is to celebrate the Holy Cross, for closing a cycle and starting a new one. The festivities go from Thursday, May 26, to Monday, May 30.
City historian Graciela Cruz states, “The neighborhood is a site of cultural resistance. It is one of the most emblematic and traditionalist places in the city.” What is also surprising for Cruz is that when people visit the site, they realize that neither the traditions nor the community have been consumed by the cosmopolitan and urban nature of city. Cruz states that for the celebration, El Valle preserves a community structure. “If you go to El Valle, you feel like you are in a rural community; you cannot believe that you are just a couple blocks away from the Historic Center,” she said. This neighborhood is a clear example of resistance to the social and cultural changes of San Miguel.
Those who do not know El Valle may think that it is a tough neighborhood; however, people are very solid yet kindly and welcome all visitors—who should always respect the rituals and traditions and make an effort to understand what they see and hear. Graciela Cruz told Atención that there is no written history of El Valle before the 18th century. She noted that there is a religious census of the Villa of San Miguel el Grande dating from 1747, and there the Valle appears for the first time. But also, in contrast, she said that there is a second one from 1792 and El Valle is not there. “In 1792 there was a military census and this place is not mentioned. The reason is simple; the natives were not allowed to participate in the militia. There is a document at the parish of St. Michael the Archangel from 1793, and again the Valle is mentioned. I have reviewed documents dating from 1570 to 1590 at the parish archive, and there is nothing about this neighborhood. But I understand that according to their oral history, the Valle was made up of Chichimecas-Guamares, Guachichiles, Copuces—dominant nations,” assured Cruz, who also said that in 1793 there were not more than 40 families at the site.
Polo Estrada, an artisan of the mojigangas (giant puppets), grants interviews at his house in El Valle only if the interviewer agrees to drink one, two, or three mescals. That is part of the solidarity and an endeavor to make people understand that the celebration here is not a fair—where everything is sold—but a party where people share what they have.
Traditionalist Estrada comments that from oral history he knows that El Valle was founded at the same time as the Villa of San Miguel el Grande. “The Spanish needed the natives for working but they did not want them close to their women. That is the reason why the neighborhoods of El Valle, El Tecolote, El Obraje, and Guadiana were founded. At El Valle there were Chichimecas, Otomíes, and Africans, and that is very easy to see in the people’s features.”
The Holy Cross
The conquest of the Chichimecas was evidently the consequence of the worship of the Holy Cross, wich was originally made of stone. The natives found a way to still worship their gods and goddesses of rock—and that was also the natives’ excuse for reuniting annually after a year of work in the haciendas. Estrada comments that in the past, the natives did not see each other the whole year, and for that reason they started loving the festivity of the Holy Cross.
On Thursday, May 26, some documents dating from 1802 will be exhibited at the church of El Valle. Estrada commented that there is proof that at that time there was an old chapel with walls made of stone over stone and with a reed ceiling. There will also be some pictures from 1940 showing that, according to the traditionalist, the contrast with the Valle of nowadays is abysmal. The current sculpture of the Holy Cross turns 114 years old; through it and the dances, prayers, and rituals, the residents of El Valle found a ladder to heaven, and they dedicate their celebration to God.
The new year is about to begin
“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,” the late Don José Centeno used to say. On Monday, after the celebration, all those who participated in the festivity die when they go to sleep after the Coloquio, a religious play. However, they revive when they wake up, and 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 27, at night. On that day, pilgrims from many rural communities start arriving in El Valle with animas (souls)—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 toward El Mirador, and from there 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 an alborada (daybreak) is celebrated with music and fireworks.
The greased pole and the wars
The greased pole is installed early on Saturday, May 28. It consists of a five-meter pole that 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—that is, if they do not get tired and someone smarter comes and gets the reward. It is a tradition, but it also becomes a spectacle at times.
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 on their necks the owners hung offerings made of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. It was a tradition that soldiers—representing the Spanish—came down from the hills and stole 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 28, at 5:30pm, a procession will leave from El Valle heading toward the Plaza Real del Conde, at the space adjacent to the Tuesday market. 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. The procession goes back to El Valle, where the soldiers and Chichimecas go to a cave to celebrate other rituals. The festivity continues in the neighborhood.
The marotas and parandes
On Sunday, May 29, 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 him come the mojigangas, which have the job of cleaning the path that God—represented by 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 they 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 that talks 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.
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 26 years ago thanks to Dr. Estrada, an iconic traditionalist in El Valle. Since 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 (Mexican guitar). Their music is classic from the mountains of Xichú. While the musicians play, Velázquez improvises lyrics related to the political, economic, and social problems in the country. This year, the band will perform on Thursday, May 26, at 9pm and end when people gets tired of dancing—by 1 or 2am.