Parade puppets

Mojiganga in the streets of San Miguel de Allende

It seems cruel to write about a handcraft for festivals during this seemingly interminable COVID lockdown, but it will be over. Until then, it is nice to think about what we have to look forward to.

In some places in Mexico, one of these is the appearance of giant puppet figures on the streets. They can go by various names such as gigantes (giants) or monas de calenda (party dolls), but the most common one is “mojiganga.”  Originally, the term was used in Spain for a kind of comical theater to counter serious religious functions such as processions.

In some places, like Zacualpan de Amilpas, Morelos, the word is used in that respect, which oddly does not include giant puppets.

Parts for mojigangas and other crafts at the workshop of Hermés Arroyo in San Miguel de Allende

Mojigangas are found primarily in central Mexico into Oaxaca, but they haven’t been adopted everywhere in this region. Only certain communities have them, with their uses and forms varying widely.  Towns noted for their use include San Miguel de Allende (and some surrounding communities), Pátzcuaro, Oaxaca (city), Santo Tomas Jalieza and Cuilapam de Guerrero.

Devil mojiganga from Guerrero at
the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Mojigangas are a multimedia craft in the sense that they require the ability to work with several kinds of material. In almost all cases, the head and perhaps the torso are made of papier mache (cartonería) over a reed or wire frame, and the outfit from cloth. Hair, jewelry and other accoutrements vary in the materials used: yarn, ixtle fiber, papier mache, commercial products and more. Only in the town of Celaya, Guanajuato are mojigangas made entirely from papier mache.

Different materials are used to take advantage of their different properties. One major advantage of cloth over papier mache is that cloth moves as the figure prances along the streets. For this reason, the arms of the figure are almost always made of stuffed cloths and hang loosely from the shoulders to let the swing wildly.

Another advantage is using different materials is that experimentation can be done to find ways to make the figures lighter. Mojigangas are “worn” on the shoulders of a single dancer, often out in the sun. Noted craftsman Hermés Arroyo stated that over time he found ways to reduce the weight of his mojigangas from over 50 kilos to about 22, even though they can reach 4 meters in height when worn.

What mojigangas depict depends heavily on the community and the occasion. They can be sexy women in revealing attire, figures from Mexican history, devils, angels, skeletons, indigenous people, and even non-Mexican images such as astronauts and Einstein. They are meant to depict agreeable figures and not hated ones.

Bride and groom mojigangas on the street

They are an integral part of life of San Miguel Allende. Despite being run over by foreign expats, the local population has still managed to preserve many of its folk Catholic and other traditions. One unique use for mojigangas here is the creation of brides and grooms that accompany the bridal party and guests. In San Miguel, it is customary for all after mass to walk from the church to the wedding hall. The mojigangas makes this a kind of parade. In many cases, couples spend the money to have their mojigangas custom-made to look like them.

Mona de calenda depicting a woman of the Tuxtepec region of Oaxaca. Piece and photo by Tonitiuh Estrada

Mojigangas are also an important part of various religious festivals in and around San Miguel, as well as celebrations of Mexico and San Miguel’s patron saint day.  They have become so connected with the town’s identity that they can be seen almost any given day on or near the main plaza, allowing dancers to earn a little money by entertaining tourists.

The cultural and economic advantages are not lost on those of the city of Oaxaca either, although not to the same extent as San Miguel. Called monas de calenda, they are an important part of many local and regional festivals and make an appearance at the state-sponsored tourist extravaganza called Guelaguetza. More than a few stores in the center of the city of Oaxaca have monas on the street in front of them to beckon passers-by.

Featured image – mojigangas en the streets of San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco

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