Dance of the Tastoanes
by Gabriel Cerda Vidal
The scene, which is played from a section of the Tastoan ceremonial dance and is still performed in modern day western Mexico, clearly demonstrates the strength of indigenous customs in the country.
The native monarchs tell the crowd how the new god is a fraud who has gone behind their backs, lied to them.1 He is unmerciful and violento It logically follows that they are indignant over the deceit. But their resentment is not only aimed at Santo Santiago, who represented the Spanish cause during the conquest of Mexico, but also against the Spaniards. The tremendous symbolism, the conflict between Christian and indigenous beliefs, played out in the Tastoan dance illustrates the inharmonious situation with powerful expression.
"Everything began during the conquest...," says archeologist Maria Honoria Hurtado Solis, director of the museum Museo Tonallan, in Tonala, Jalisco. Tastoan is a derivative of the word Tlatoani, which means 'sir,' or literally 'a person who has the final word or one who governs a region.' The name implies a certain civic importance. Tastoan is also the name of an annual ceremonial dance which is performed in various indigenous communities in western Mexico on the twenty-fifth of July in honor of the apostle Santiago, patron saint of the town once known as Villa de Santiago de Tonalla (now Tonalá, Jalisco). During the dance- or 'game,' as it also called- participants enact the eternal struggle between good and evil. The dancers' garb consists of a terrifyingly anthropomorphic mask, a wig of long blonde hair, a cane and a trench coat," explains the scholar.
Historically, one can trace the origins of this ceremony back to dances performed by the Spaniards to advocate fervor for the apostle Santiago, who is commonly pictured astride his spirited
and steadfast white horse.
In medieval and Renaissance Spain, truces between warring Moors
and Christians came only with the death of one of the two. Blood ran like water over the peninsula through
the end of the fifteenth century as the
two clashed for control. 2 There are numerous legends attributed to Santo Santiago- instigator of many of the massacres
against the Moors- and all are brutal chronicles. During Mexico's conquest, Santiago was also the blessed saint who supported Cortez when he seized Tenochtitlan and decimated the city.3
The Spaniards couldn't have been happier with their protector. To honor him, they improvised dances which reenacted the battles Santiago
had helped them win against the condemned Muslims. This reverence
was carried out with renewed popularity
in the Americas as the Spaniards paid their respects
for favors granted by the "Saint of the Sword."4 The practice was assimilated into the local indigenous cultures here, with their own set of idiosyncrasies duly tacked on. Obviously the dialogs recited during the dance, today not commonly used, were diametric to what the Spaniards originally had in mind.
The pro- Hispanic saint' s appetite for cruelty was not satisfied with the slaughterhouse of the high plains. Santo Santiago5 also dedicated his war-like labors to the cause when the atrocities between indigenous rulers of western Mexico and the conquistadors began.
Legend has it that when the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco was part of Tlacotán (1539), the town's inhabitants endured a fierce attack from a rivaling indigenous horde. It is the Franciscan friar Antonio Tello who, in 1650, relates the evento
The city's residents built an immense wall around their municipality, with two doors as the only means of exit. At the moment of attack, the Spaniards postponed a Mass they were celebrating and joined the assault. 6 Fatalities of domestic force s were so extensive that their bodies were piled and used as stairs to breech the walled city. A group of the town's citizens sought refuge in the local temple. After the battle smoke cleared, the
Spanish aggressors -who had not suffered a single casualty-found them hiding there, terrified. When they were finally able to speak, they told an interpreter of an imposing man who had just left the church. He was a giant, bearded being wielding a
sword and riding an enormous white horse whose hoofs never touched the floor. They claimed they did not really see him enter into combat, but they did see the triumph of their enemies in war. Take a guess at who he was.
Now, concerning the question of the saint, well he wasn't just a saint-- in the collective subconscious of the indigenous populace, a transformation of characterizations took place. The saint and the Spaniard became one single identity with two different faces. This part is not myth. The local population saw the violent attacks by the Spanish as being part of the saint's natural behavior, and vice versa.
In the Tastoan ceremonial dance, the "pagan s" revolt against
their powerful oppressors, but not without some feeling of culpability which "deforms" their faces into horrifyingly evil and perverse masks. Only in this fashion, behind the mask of anonyminity and with a feeling of penitence stimulated by guilt over their situation, can one hear their real voices, their clamorous voices, the most human part of their formo
"Alberto Santoscoy, a twentieth century historian," continues the Hurtado, "confirms the dance' s origin and has found similar examples of the ceremony in the towns of San Miguel de Mezquitán, as well as in San Andrés, Huentitán, San Juan de Ocotán, Tetlán Tatepozco, Santa Ana de los Negros, Nestipac, Ixcatán, and of course in Tonalá. Matías Mota Padilla, in 1768, referred to the existence ofTastoans in San Miguel de Mezquitán. The dance is also known to be practiced in parts of southern Zacatecas, specifically in Juchipila, Moyagua, Nochistlan. In the Tonala area, the dance is held in Santa Cruz de las Huertas, Zalatitán and in the municipality."
Another legend states that when the heartless Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán arrived at the outskirts of the kingdom of Tonalla, he was coldly received by the "pagans" who dominated the
local hills of what was then Xitépeti (now Cerro de la Reina). Mister Terror
Indigenous-killer was also present on this occasion, and managed to administer afine example of vini vidi, vinci. The few remaining survivors, whose vile
superstitions brought them a sense of shame, fted to rustic hillside villages to live offthe earth. They retreated with a corpse full of snakes,
spiders and other poisonous creatures... the same forms which appear on their modern-day masks.
Making of the Masks
From the beginning, the masks used for the Tastoan dance were invariably made of clay, mostly due to such factors as availability of material s and the local economic state. Early designs portrayed venomous and noxious animal s etched on the pieces in relief. Now, many incorporate modern horrific stereotypes- some depict detested countrymen or characters from North American popular culture, including contemporary psychopaths, while
other artisans have opted to please the tourist industry,applying simple designs of smiling suns and moons to their creations.
The Dance or the "Game"
The principal players are: the Tastoans, --traditionally between twelve and fourteen, but now not uncommonly over 100-Garrabás or Tastoan Verdudo (the executioner), apostle Santiago, the Dog, and the Kings- usually three.
The ceremony begins with the announcement of the fiestas honoring San Santiago. The chirimía7 cheers the long jaunt through town, which begins July sixteenth and ends with the final reminder on the twenty-fourth. The morning of the twentyfifth, the town sings Las Mañanitas (Happy Birthday) to the saint, whom they carry in a litter to the church. The dance organizers draw the clergyman's parishioners close: Las Hermandades de las Cruces (The Brotherhood of the Crosses). When they reach
the cathedral doors, the priest exits to give his benediction and
Mass follows. It is not until midday that the Tastoans approach
from the underworld- the rustic hillside villages- behind a
procession of chirimía musicians. Dancing menacingly past
the by-standers, they feign they are demons. The
procession finally reaches the town plaza, where they stop in front of the "kings' castle."
The Dog dancer joins the crowd, greeting them. He spies one of the kings, Garrabás,
and asks him to check on the condition of the city's boundaries. Garrabás agrees. Withdrawing to the outskirts of town, he quickly discovers the betrayal. The king returns to tell the assembly that their livestock has been devoured and their lands
invaded. A sentence of death is inevitable. When the mob finds Santo Santiago, he is lynched, ripped open by the angry masses with a knife. The dancer playing the role of Santiago pulls bloody chunks of raw meat from under his c1othing, which represent the saint's slashed open entrails.
The scene is played out with a rumbling, guilty silence. Time stops- something
evil is present.
The sense of spiritual conquest and Spanish doctrine is overwhelmingly evident. The
Immortal Saint is resurrected. Angry, he takes vengeance against the Tastoans, taking them
on in combat. One by one. On this occasion there are no deaths, but rather an imposing of one culture over another. The saint disciplines each individually, canes them as they attempt to distance themselves from the assault. The dance ends when the last Tastoan has received his punishment.
Note: El antiQuario would like to extend special thanks to the director ofthe Museo Tonalla, Maria Honoria de Jesús
Hurtado Solís, who will be releasinf? her publication on this interestinf? cultural manifestation in the near future, and to
historian Laura González Ramírez. Both scholars contributed information and photographs for this article.