Mexico does not come immediately to mind when thinking about Carnival/Mardi Gras, but it does has a number of important events and unique traditions. According to Mexico Desconocido, there are ten important Carnivals in the country: those in Mazatlan, Veracruz, Campeche, in various small towns in Morelos, Mérida, Huejotzingo, Puebla, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, Chamula and Huistan, Chiapas, Tlaxcala and Ensenada, California. However, there are quite a few more.
Those in major cities such as Mazatlan, Veracruz, Campeche and Ensenada are very similar to those held in the famous locations of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, though Mexican themes show up in parades, especially floats. Giant colorful monsters called alebrijes, based on a handcraft of the same name, have also begun to be seen regularly in these events.
Perhaps more interesting and more “authentic” are the carnivals held in small towns in certain areas of the country. Carnival has a complicated history in Mexico, alternately supported and banned (mostly for making fun of authorities and upper classes) during the country’s history. For this reason, the small-town carnivals have developed mostly independent from one another, often integrating local dress, music and other customs. Most importantly, the traditional dress, masks and other paraphenalia are almost always made by either the participants themselves or by local craftspeople.
The largest of these “small” Carnivals is in Huejotzingo. Most of the 4-day event is very loosely based on the Battle of Puebla, focusing on four “armies” distinguished by dress style, wearing masks meant to depict Europeans and stage rifles which use real gunpowder. The vast majority of the participants are divided into four groups, depending on what section of the old town the participant lives or is otherwise connected to. Two of the group represent the invaders: Zuavos and Turcos and the other two the Mexican defenders: Zacapoaxtlas and Indio Serranos. Each has a specific style of dress to wear and all carry handmade wooden prop muskets/rifles, which blast real gunpowder (but no bullets). These costumes are not cheap, costing participants up to 30,000 pesos or more depending on materials and complexity. Almost all participants, wear bearded wax masks which originally designed for dances where Europeans were depicted.
Carnival celebrations in Morelos almost always center on dancing figures called Chinelos, men in heavy embroidered dress-like garment, tall hat and mask. The masks and dress of Chinelos originally developed as a means to make fun of Spanish colonial overlords and their fancy dress by the indigenous, but over time Chinelos has evolved to their own particular style. Chinelos appear in other celebrations year-round (particularly popular at weddings and certain processions) but are essential to Morelos carnivals.
In Tlaxcala, dress varies. Masks are often of Europeans but what distingushes them is use of indigenous-style headdresses and other elements.
In Mexico City, there are no city-wide celebrations (again because of past prohibitions), but a number of communities which were at one time rural and disconnected from the capital, have preserved carnival to varying degrees. These include Santa Maria Acatitlan (on east end of town) and Peñon de los Baños (now bordering the city airport). Since these communities have become part of the city, many of their carnivals have lost some or much of their traditional character, with carnival costumes mimicing those in other major cities and/or using pre-fabricated ones related to pop culture. The traditional costume for Acatitlan is based on the charro. Those in Peñon de los Baños are similar to those of Huejotzingo, especially the use of Renaissance-style garb, wax masks and prop guns. The reason for this is that this neighborhood experienced a large influx of migrants from Huejotzingo in the 20th century, which had a great impact on its development. While based on the Puebla tradition, costumes here vary much more, as they are not constrained by four, well-defined groups of participants with very specific roles to play.
More traditional costumes of Peñon de los Baños with variations, including some very non-traditional elements.
Carnival 2017 ends 28 February, with most of the main events happening on that day. Carnival 2018 will be from 10 to 13 February.
All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.