On Thursday after school I headed over to my Mexican family’s shop to recieve a costume for the Fiesta de Chuntas. This fabled event that I`d heard about is the jewels in the crown of the fiesta month in Chiapa de Corzo. All I knew was that the men of the town dress as women (which was, in all fairness, an event in itself), but tonight I was to find out a great deal more. My family had asked me, grinning over the dinner table some days ago, if I would be interested in cross dressing with everyone else and, pursing my dream of cultural immersion, I enthusiastically (and rather naively) accepted.
On my arrival at the shop, Madre Tone rushed me around the corner to a seamstresses house where we were duly rejected; no more clothes for a man of my size. Thus I was left standing in the house of Tone`s sister some ten minutes later, clad in the traditional women’s garb of a long flowing purple skirt with floral print and a low cut cream blouse with frilly sleeves and lace lining . The occupants of the house watched with glee as extensive makeup was applied to my face, my hair was gelled back and a floral headpiece duly clipped in place. Tone and her sister spared no expense; beauty spots, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick – my first experience of being made up was thorough to say the least.
My transformation complete and the trappings of my previous male persona dispatched to my house via Tone, there was no escape. Her sister Icha, my incredibly kindly self nominated guardian and guide for the evening bundled me into the back of the family car with her clearly amused husband and deposited me around at the house of one of her relatives to meet with other participants of the impending party. Sat on their sofa, dressed in full regalia and sandwiched between two archetypal Mexican men, large and trying very hard to assert their machismo, I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake.
Thankfully I wasn`t subjected to this for long and amongst a selection of women wearing the same outfit as me, we progressed from the house into the night. Apparently heading for the heart of the party, I saw groups of men swaggering around in dresses and the crowds of spectators begin to swell as we approached the centre of town. I was quite a spectacle, with cars honking their horns and winding down their windows to shout at me; I dutifully shook the maraca at them with which I had been issued.
We rounded the corner by the base of the steps below the waterfront Church and suddenly encountered the procession of the Chuntas. It was a vast, pulsing mass of colour, noise, movement and pure, powerful energy, preceded by a single figure covered from head to toe in black body paint and cut off jeans, sporting a broom with which he swept the streets in a shuffling, hopping dance before the mob. Icha and I were swallowed up by the procession, and I found myself surrounded on all sides by jubilant dancing Mexican men wearing frilly dresses.
The procession was driven by the relentless pounding of marching drums and whistle flutes played by groups of three or four musicians interspersed throughout the spectacle. The sound was elevated to incredible proportions by the rhythm that came from every single member of the party, stamped out with their feet as they danced and from the thousands of maracas shaken simultaneously. It was a jubilant racket, punctuated by wild cries from indiscriminate callers within the crowd, most indecipherable to my ear but some like “Viva Chiapa de Corzo!” , answered with a roar from the rest of the crowd within earshot.
The procession crawled its way up the hill to a church where the revellers spilled into it, filling the building to capacity and beyond within minutes. The noise and passion from the participants was truly something to behold, amplified by the the high, arched ceilings. As quickly as the had arrived, the Chuntas surged for the small exit doors on the side of the church. The vast mass of people squeezed through the tiny apertures, firing out into the street like a champagne cork from a bottle.
My initial feelings, aside from complete overawe and detached amusement were of inhibition. I didn`t understand the words of the people around me, I felt intimidated by the passion and intensity and was very self conscious about all the attention I was attracting from my fellow party goers and the army of spectators; I really was the only white guy in a dress.
A glass and a bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila were thrust in my face by a dancer and his group, grinning encouragement at me. I obliged, polishing off a few shots, and my inhibitions slowly melted away, allowing me to become infused with the spirit and energy of the night. Icha was dancing and shaking with gusto dutifully beside me as I picked up my skirts like everyone around me and began to issue calls and drunken exclamation to the Mexican skies. Fireworks exploded above and ahead of us. They were being sporadically set off, I was later to learn, by an elderly gentleman with a full arsenal inside a huge backpack who trudged ahead of the revelry to direct the masses.
The crowd squeezed through the constricted streets, at times so tightly packed that it was almost impossible to walk. The beat of the drummers would waver and die at these times, crushed and drowned by the press of bodies, but the crowd would rumble at the silence and shift and within seconds the pounding rhythm would begin again, accompanied by a roar from the surrounding dancers.
Icha suddenly took me by the arm and pulled me inside an empty house whose doorway faced the street. Before I knew what was happening the single, empty room with a huge alter at one end was packed to the rafters with Chuntas and wild dancing ensued. At some point the beat slowed and Icha bade me lower the maraca that I`d been shaking relentlessly for the last hour and a half. Only the dancing persisted until, without warning, the beat quickened and the assembled revellers cheered and the maracas were sounded again in earnest. As quickly as it had filled, the small room emptied leaving only a tiny wrinkled elderly woman with nut brown skin sat on a chair before the alter, head bowed.
We had, as far as I could ascertain in my awful Spanish, just paid homage to a saint by dancing in their house. The purpose of the procession was to visit each saint house and church in the town over the course of the next seven or eight hours, ending at about four in the morning. I still have no idea as to the purpose of the cross dressing.
I ended up dancing in the procession for four hours, finally conceding at midnight. The locals, who had waited a year for the opportunity to cut loose, eventually finished up at about 8am in the morning with the stench of alchohol filling the street.
I wasn’t expecting to say it, but I’ve never had so much fun wearing lipstick.
Chiapa de Corzo
10th January 2009
Footnote: It was brought to my attention that at some point during the evening I was interviewed on national television. And yes, I have the footage.