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The Deer Dancers of Mexico

For four days at the end of March, Rancho Camargo, one of five villages in the heartland of the indigenous Mayo in Sonora, Mexico, celebrates Easter. On the day before Easter, the deer dancer, a central figure in Mayo fiestas, comes. Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna, who's been dancing for almost seven years, since he was 15, puts on a white shirt with an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, wraps his legs in rattles and his waist with bells, and finally, on his head, ties the head of a deer. Ozuna has become the best-known and most respected deer dancer because of his skill and inventiveness in reinterpreting Mayo traditions. He and the other dancers leave the church as villagers throw leaves and break eggs filled with confetti over each others' heads. They make a procession to the two crosses erected in the dirt of the plaza, and then the dance begins. Musicians pounding on gourd drums line the floor next to the space where the deer dancer performs. Throughout the evening, and into the next morning, Ozuna sweats out his hoof-stamping, head-bucking imitation of the deer. And on Sunday it ends.

Above:The first day, men dressed in the surreal horned masks of the fariseos (the Pharisees) look for the viejito, an old man chosen to symbolize Christ in a combination of Catholic and indigenous symbolism. Children scream and chase the fariseos as they rush back and forth, from house to house, pretending to look everywhere for him. Finally, they bring the viejito from his hiding place, wrap ropes around him, and walk him down a road through sagebrush and desert scrub to town. There he's interned and the Easter ritual begins.

The musicos are all old men, who fuel themselves with aguardiente, the bottle with the White Horse label passing from hand to hand until it's empty and another takes its place. In the crowd, bottles of Tecate beer are exhausted at an even more rapid rate. Easter in Rancho Camargo is when otherwise sober-minded people are expected to consume as much alcohol as possible. It creates an atmosphere that is almost trancelike for musicos and dancers -- and an exhilarating time for everyone else. On Easter, after the deer dance ends, the musicos and dancers lead the town around the plaza, and back into the church.

Above: For the first two successive evenings, the Veronicas (young girls dressed in white, called the "Tres Marias" in some villages) conduct everyone on a peregrination through the 14 Stations of the Cross, as they accompany the viejito bound in ropes. They walk and run down Rancho Camargo's dirt streets -- a crowd on foot, bicycles and horses. Then they file back into the main square, and uncovered electric bulbs go on over the dancing ground, a dirt-floor area 50 feet on each side, enclosed by a roof overhead, across the plaza from the church. During the first three nights, musicians play flutes, drums, violins and a harp, while the pascolas, men dressed in white with ribboned masks behind their heads, their ankles wrapped in small rattles (or sonajas), stamp out the first dances. On Easter, the Veronicas get the blessing from the old men who, because Rancho Camargo is so small that no priest ever visits, lead the prayers and perform the rituals.

Above: Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna: "At this fiesta there's another young boy dancing the deer. I think he's around 6 or 7 years old. I don't know for sure, but I do know that he dances very well. He has the desire to learn. But I don't know if he will dedicate his time to dance or to studying in school. He could do both, but no one can obligate him. No one can tell him, 'you have to dance' or 'you have to study.' Only he can judge how far he's going to take either one. People come to my house, asking me to teach their son or nephew how to dance, so that later they will have someone to leave in my place when I no longer dance. That idea makes me happy -- to teach so someone can continue doing what I did, and do more than what I could."

Above: Many residents are so poor that they pick beans left behind in the fields after the harvest. Most Mayo don't travel far, and few cross the border to the U.S. Since there's not enough work for everyone for the whole year, many Mayo travel to other parts of Sonora, or to Sinaloa or Baja California, making the circuit as crops ripen and are ready to harvest. But the cultural life of Mayo communities is so strong that most people want to be able to return for the fiestas and the other occasions which mark the holidays, the changing of the seasons, and their own connection to a collective past.

Above: Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna: "When I'm dancing I think about everything. I think about the saint I'm dancing to, whether it's Christ, San Juan, Santa Maria or San Jose. When the fiesta starts, I focus on the saint and give thanks for being able to learn, for knowing what I know. I don't want to worry about what people will expect. You'll never make people happy, but the saint you're dancing to will be happy. I think about him and focus on him. I pray that nothing bad will happen to me or that nothing will fail. We are the new people, the people of my generation. But we are trying to learn what our ancestors gave us, trying to follow the culture that the ancient ones left behind. They did lovely things. The culture is beautiful, and we don't want it to end."

Above: Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna: "When I'm not dancing, I have to work in the fields. We harvest zucchini, chiles and tomatoes, and we weed. I can get permission to go dancing, and the days that I don't dance, I go to work. I think the people we work for are Arabic. They treat us well and we have work there all year around. But a week's work doesn't even come up to two fiestas. In one fiesta, a simple one, we earn what we would in three days of work in the fields. In the fields it's only 60 pesos per day. Sometimes you can earn 200 pesos in one fiesta. That's how I support my family and buy the groceries. From the fiestas and from the fields, we have enough to eat and I can clothe everyone. We dance day and night, but I'm young and my body's used to it. I've danced for eight days straight at different places."

Above: Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna: "My father was a deer dancer for 27 years. When I started I didn't know how to dance. I'd never even been to a fiesta to see it. But without knowing why or how, I wanted to do it. Wanting to dance was born within me. I never saw my father dress in his deer clothes. But before I started dancing, I saw in my dreams a large field in my hometown, and a fawn jumping there. Then a large snake attacked me, and the fawn told me what to do. At first the little animal was in shock, and then with his little head he told me to follow him to where his parents were -- a female deer and a male deer. I had no idea at the time that I was going to dance, but I kept dreaming this and he called out to me again and again. When I got to the place in my dream, I would touch all the animals. My father says that's where I picked everything up without him telling me."

Above: At night, after the dances are over, a fariseo guards the masks used during the ceremonies.

Above: The fariseos, who keep order during the pascola. On Easter, the fariseos are forgiven their imaginary crimes and burn their masks.

Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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