Rooster Race : Day of the Dead in Todos Santos, Guatemala

By McClatchie Andrews, Barbara | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview
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Rooster Race : Day of the Dead in Todos Santos, Guatemala

McClatchie Andrews, Barbara, The World and I

Todos Santos, the village of All Saints, huddles in a valley of northwestern Guatemala's Cuchumatanes, a blue-gray mountain chain clad in gnarled pines, hemlock, and the wind-warped trunks of ancient cypress. The Mayan village lies eighty-two hundred feet above sea level on an ancient trade route connecting Mexico to the city of Huehuetenango. The treacherous ribbon of road that threads its way to the town is sinuous, twisting as it rises and falls through the traditional family plots of corn, beans, and squash, the fields of golden wheat, and the mountain slopes of broccoli. Though Todos Santos is only fifty kilometers from Huehuetenango, the bus ride is nearly three hours long.

In January, the vermilion bean of the coffee plant enlivens the hillside. Sheep, cattle, and occasional goats roam the precipitous slopes of the mountain peaks, which are garlanded in a softly shifting mist, especially in the rainy season, when the sun shows its face for mere minutes at a time. Sometimes you can see a man working on the slopes, tied to a tree so as not to fall to his death.

Todos Santos is small; its immediate population is less than three thousand. But if one includes the population of the aldeas (hamlets) that ring the village, this mountain redoubt is home to thirty-two thousand inhabitants. Of these, several thousand make a pilgrimage to the town each fall. Some set out as soon as the farmwork is completed on October 30. Others come on November 1, just in time for All Saints' Day, also known as the Day of the Dead. They come bearing something to sell--sweet bread, plastic trinkets, squealing pigs, or trussed-up chickens--so that they will have money to take a ride on the Ferris wheel, buy cotton candy, and drink aguardiente (a local high-proof rum). They come on foot, on horseback, and in sagging, pockmarked school buses.

By far the greatest throng to swell the mud-caked streets of Todos Santos arrives on October 31, the day of the Corrida de los Gallos, the Rooster Race. Dating back four hundred years, it is an unnerving three days of high drama with a cast of thousands.

There are conflicting histories of the founding of Todos Santos and the inception of the Corrida de los Gallos. An apocryphal version places the town at its present location in the mid--sixteenth century, when the Mam carried out a successful rebellion against the oppressive Spanish government seated in Huehuetenango. After escaping on horseback, the founders are said to have made their way up muddy trails into the Cuchumatanes and toiled persistently northwest. On November 1, they arrived at what would become Todos Santos, halting near the present-day archaeological site of Cumanchoem. Here the rebels decided to stay, believing themselves safe and seeing abundant wood and rich soil for farming. Free of the tyrant and proud to have escaped on horseback (riding was strictly proscribed to Indians), the riders are said to have expressed their joy by careering back and forth across a small, level clearing that they named, simply, Tuit Nam, or "the village." The following year they reenacted the victory, as they have done every year since. The event is not a race at all but a pageant, a piece of theater. To merely participate is to win.

Because the celebration occurred on November 1, Christian All Saints' Day, Catholic Church leaders renamed the town Todos Santos. Flexible and perhaps aware of the power of syncretic practices, the church persuaded many riders to ask a priest's blessing on their endeavor rather than that of their shaman. To this day, a small number of riders do so.

Sacred duty

Preparation for the race begins almost before the previous year's celebration is over. Before the miasma of alcohol has evaporated and the stunned participants have resumed their quotidian ways, a man may suddenly declare his intention to form a cuadrilla, a team of riders that he will lead. If he believes he has been inspired by the due-o del cerro, one of the spirits of the four surrounding hills, it becomes his sacred duty.

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