The Mystery of Los Locos
By Jesús Aguado
“Be careful with your dreams because they can be a reality,” is an old saying. That is how the characters from your worst nightmares and from the most fantastic dreams will appear on Sunday, June 19, on the streets of this city, in the parade of Los Locos to honor St. Anthony of Padua.
More than 15,000 people participate in the parade, and the list of customs is infinite. On that Sunday, the streets of San Miguel are rivers of people, colors, and candies that fly in the air to be caught in upside down umbrellas by the onlookers. This is the day when there is no censorship for expressing emotions or likes and dislikes because the dancers just want to stand out and offer the best spectacle for visitors and locals. This is the Sunday when men reincarnate as exotic women, fairies, and superheroes. Women hide their bodies, disguised as gorillas, or wear masks of their favorite actors or the most hated politicians.
El Día de los Locos is a day of music, happiness, harmony, and fiesta. Atención brings you the information you need to know about this party that everybody enjoys, but just a few understand.
The workshop of dreams
The workshop of artisan and traditionalist Juan José Montiel is situated in colonia (neighborhood) San Antonio. With his mind and hands and the help of some women, he makes dreams come true for people who want an outstanding disguise. Montiel has been participating in the celebration to honor St. Pascual Bailón and St. Anthony for more than 50 years. At his workshop, the gypsum molds are spread out everywhere. Rows of masks dry under the sun, some white, and others with the final touches of decoration.
Montiel explained that people arrive at his workshop with a single photo of the character they want reproduced in a mask—Maleficent, Woody, The Red Queen, Snow White, Pinocchio, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster—the list is endless. To make a mask, the process starts with making a plasticized sculpture. Then the piece is covered with gypsum. When the mold is ready, the mask receives its shaping with paper and engrudo (paste made with water and flour). The mask is taken out and dried in the sun. When the mask is ready, it is painted with white paint, decorated with other colors, and finally lacquered.
Don Juan José said that this year the theme of his group of crazies “Los Camoteros” (Sweet potato vendors) is alebrijes.
These fantastic monsters—the alebrijes—are neither “expressible nor audible,” but they are visible, and they will be at the parade. The truth is that the history of these popular Mexican crafts is as magical as the creatures. Montiel explained that since he is an artisan, he wanted to create these lifelike donkeys with dog legs and horns and lions with dragon wings and cow legs. Don Juan José explained that by the end of 1930, an artisan from Mexico City got sick, and in his dreams he saw a forest full of chickens with horns and rhinoceros heads, and other fantastic things. When the artisan woke up, he was at his own funeral. After recovering, he remembered that the animals were playing and saying the word “alebrije, alebrije,” so he created them.
When we visited Montiel’s workshop, we also discovered that there will be groups of crazies in the parade wearing masks of birds, princesses, monsters, Taliban members, clowns, and all kinds of weird creatures.
The Mysterious Old Woman
Josué Patlán (the captain of Cuadro del Parque) told Atención that this year a group of people dressed as painters will head the parade (he did not give more details), and another group will participate as cowboys. The people are working on their disguises: “They are designing their clothes, boots, and even horses made of cardboard, and more.”
The parade always opens with a man dressed as an old lady. Untiringly he dances and moves his dress from one side to the other to the rhythm of music. Who is the old dancer who heads the parade? Patlán remarked that the character has always been anonymous because he dances moved by his faith, and he does not like showing off as a person. The captain said the man has been dancing the last 45 years with the same mask. “He started dancing when he was 15,” commented Patlán, and since the parade started, he has always been in the front. How can the people be sure that it is the same man every year? We did ask. “We know him, and when he goes to our office to get his badge, we all know who he is,” assured Patlán.
Blessing of the harvest and the cuadros
The area that today comprises El Obraje, El Parque, and the barrio of San Juan de Dios was the most fertile land in the city. In addition to large orchards, the families in the area also had their own small orchards at home. In early May, which was the end of the rainy season at that time, the orchard workers (taught by the friars of the church of San Francisco) used to go to the church of the Tercera Orden, next to San Francisco, to dance in honor of San Pascual Bailón and ask him for a bountiful harvest and a better year. In the afternoon, after the dances, the friars accompanied them to the orchards to bless them, after which the harvest began.
Although we do not know exactly when it started, the locos parade is not as old as some people believe. It began sometime in the 19th century. Members of the cuadros de locos (groups of crazy people) told Atención that the dancing orchard workers at the church of the Third Order attracted the attention of curious people, and as the years passed, the crowds grew, overwhelming the dancing space. Because of that, the orchard workers (hortelanos) decided to dress as scarecrows in their ritual. Later they also brought in raccoons, skunks, and opossums to scare the crowd and make space for dancing. That is why the onlookers started calling them “los locos.”
The music for the dances was supplied by a drum and a flute called a chirimía. Later, the orchards started to decline and only the tradition of dancing in honor of St. Pascual Bailón remained. Those involved formed the first cuadro of locos, called Cuadro del Parque, led by Antonino Velázquez and several coordinators. Later, because of disagreements, the group decided to split and form new cuadros, such as the Cuadro Nuevo of Primitivo Luna in 1961, the Cuadro Antiguo (formed around 50 years ago), and the newest one, the Cuadro of el Tecolote. Currently, every cuadro of locos includes 13 groups formed by different families who have been in those cuadros since the beginning.
The first image of St. Pascual Bailón used by Los Locos was an oil painting, but it was burned by accident. The camoteras (sweet potatoes vendors), Lola (Montiel’s mother), and Carmen, among others, paid for a new painting on brass to prevent another burning.
In the 1950s, when that cuadro split up and new cuadros were formed, the painting was handed over to a family not connected to the Cuadro del Parque. Later, the painting passed into the hands of Cuadro el Tecolote.
The locos and the fiesta of St. Antonio
The Cuadro del Parque has participated in the festivity of San Antonio de Padua since the early 1950s. Its members used to leave from calle Terraplén, where the image of St. Pascual Bailón was displayed, and they danced through Centro, tossing fruit to the crowd to announce and invite them to the fiesta of San Antonio.
Doña Angelita Martínez is 83 years old. Since the death of her husband, Primitivo Luna, she is in charge of the Cuadro Nuevo. She said that the locos parade as we know it now started approximately 30 years ago, when a priest from the parish of St. Antonio invited the four cuadros of crazies to attend a mass on the church’s esplanade and have just one parade. They did so, and the first big parade left from the Puente de Guanajuato, moving toward Centro.
Juan José Montiel has participated in the festivity of San Antonio for 45 years. He remembers that in the past the esplanade of the church was not paved, and those in charge used to build a corral on the esplanade where the locos danced and a heifer was released. According to Montiel, there were around 20 locos—his parents among them—all dressed as marotas (grotesque women).
There was also a dance of hortelanos. “The men used to wear colorful shorts and shirts as well as bells on their shoes. Women wore all kinds of dresses and carried baskets with fruit and small dishes. All of them danced to the rhythm of the chirimía and the drum,” said Montiel. Jorge Baeza from the Cuadro Antiguo confirmed this information.
Baeza told Atención that the Cuadro Antiguo was formed approximately 50 years ago and is currently made up of 13 families. Every year, he said, that cuadro tries to preserve the tradition by wearing costumes similar to those used in the past and by wearing artisanal masks. Baeza commented that the music of the chirimía and the drum was replaced later with wind instruments and, finally, due to the high costs of the bands, which could charge up to 15,000 pesos for the event, with recorded music. He commented that his grandmother, who is also in charge of the cuadro, heads their group, playing a drum as in the past. This is also the only group that features a torito (ox) made of cardboard and moved by a dancer. This cuadro is the biggest because it is the “pelotera,” meaning it includes all those who do not belong to another cuadro. It has up to 2,000 members, but the cuadro is not responsible for those participants.
The party and the route
The celebration in honor of St. Antonio started a few days ago, and each day pilgrimages have arrived at the church from different communities in the city. The final pilgrimage will be held on Friday, June 17. It is called Pago de Mandas. The pilgrims, members of the cuadros, crawl more than 500 meters on their knees to thank the saint for granted miracles.
Before the parade on Sunday, June 19, a mass is held at the esplanade of the church for all the locos, while many groups start gathering on Salida a Celaya. The parade starts at 11am, leaves from Salida a Celaya next to the convention center, and passes along Ancha de San Antonio, Zacateros, Canal, Hernández Macías, Insurgentes, Pepe Llanos, Mesones, Núñez, San Francisco, Plaza Principal, and portal Allende, ending in Cuna de Allende. After the parade, the locos dance in the church from 4–7pm. At 10pm the celebration ends with fireworks.
The locos parade is divided in four groups (cuadros). Each cuadro is made up of 13 or 16 subgroups formed of families, friends, and neighbors. The order of the cuadros is: Del Parque, Antiguo, Nuevo, and Tecolote. At the end of each cuadro is a subgroup called La Pelotera, and that is made up of all that people who want to parade, but their disguises do not match with the theme of the other subgroups. The pelotera is made up of approximately 500 people.