As the sun goes down over a hillside cemetery, three women pray over a relative’s grave. It’s ‘El Dia de los Muertos,’ and they’ve come to greet the dead with flowers, food, and candles.
It’s a common tradition throughout Mexico, but on this small section of the pacific coast, there’s a twist.
Across town, the devils are dancing. A procession of 30 young men stomps and twirls down the street. Wearing elaborate masks and black capes, they move to the rhythmic beat of music screaming from speakers on a moving truck.
They’re on their way to the cemetery, and that’s where two cultures will collide. Mexican Catholic tradition shares space with the influence of West African rituals.
“It’s our way of celebrating the people who are no longer with us,” said local historian Eduardo Anorve. “The devils represent the spirits of the dead who return to spend time among the living and accept offerings from their loved ones.”
In the town of El Quiza, a woman gets on the loudspeaker and calls the devils to life. Here, the music is played live by a three-piece band.
As the devils dance in front of them, one man keeps the rhythm by scraping a stick across the teeth of a horse jawbone, while another plays an African-inspired gourd instrument called the bote. Sitting next to them, town elder Bruno Morgan holds the melody with a harmonica.
Morgan is 78-years-old, and he leads the dance every year. With shades on, he looks a bit like Ray Charles in a cowboy hat.
“The tradition comes from, well, it doesn’t come from here,” Morgan said. “It came when a ship wrecked here. I don’t really remember.”
Like many people here, Morgan struggles to explain the origins of the dance, and of his African ancestry. Some residents say a slave ship crashed in the 1500′s, freeing its captives. Others believe the slaves were gradually freed by their masters as Mexico fought for independence.
“Nobody knows for sure, and if I try to tell you, I’d be making it up,” Anorve said. “Let’s just say there are some similarities and coincidences, and that’s why we talk about the African heritage. But it’s incredibly difficult to be able to say who, when, where, and why.”
Anorve says the residents of El Quiza are lucky to have a band at all. In Lo de Soto for example, recorded music is played because the musicians who knew the songs have died and few youngsters are willing to pick up the torch.
“In some places they won’t dance if there’s no harmonica player,” Anorve said. “A few years ago in Tapextla, the bote player died. So they took the bote apart and just played it like a drum. Nobody wanted to bother learning to play it, even though it’s not difficult.”
In Cuajinicuilapa, the largest town in the region, the Museum of Afromestizo Culture offers a basic history lesson, filling a critical void in public knowledge. Angelica Sorrosa runs the museum’s daily operations.
She worries that lack of awareness will eventually lead to the disappearance of this unique culture. And she partially blames the gradual shift in family life from the oral tradition to modern technology.
“It’s not like the old days, when kids would sit down for dinner and talk to their mom and dad,” Sorrosa said. “They used to have that time and space. But now, hey go into town, use the Internet or watch TV, and there’s no time spent with the family.”
However, the ‘Dance of the Devil’ remains alive in the youth. On a side street in Cuajinicuilapa, neighborhood teenagers keep it alive, suiting up in homemade masks and dark clothes.
75-year-old Ermelindo Sarate, the bote player from El Quiza, says it’s up to him to make sure the tradition goes on in the future.
“My grandfather left me the heritage of the bote,” Sarate said. “He died and passed it on to me. It’s the only bote in the village. So when I’m dying, I’ll teach someone else to come and take my place. But I haven’t done that yet because I still feel strong.”
Sarate and his devil dance live to play another day of the dead but when he and his old buddies pass away, the Costa Chica might hear a lot less authentic African music, and the devils will be left dancing to a CD.
Credits: Audio: Grant Fuller, Photos: Myles Estey