Mil­len­nia-old tra­di­tion turns ‘peo­ple into birds’ in Mex­ico

Gulf Times Community - - FLIGHT - By Amelie Richter

Herib­erto opens the wings at­tached to his arms and leans his head back­wards. One last look at the sun, and the Mex­i­can volador (flier) lets him­self fall head first from a plat­form 20 me­tres high.

Only a yel­low rope tied around his waist sus­tains the 29-year-old as he twirls around the pole up­hold­ing the spin­ning plat­form he jumped from, grad­u­ally low­er­ing him­self to the ground. At the last minute, he swings up­right and lands safely on his black leather boots.

“I feel very proud to be able to rep­re­sent this tra­di­tion,” Herib­erto says about the cer­e­mony that he and three other voladores per­formed in Pa­pantla in east­ern Ver­acruz state, where it is pop­u­lar among the To­tonac peo­ple. It is also per­formed by other eth­nic groups in Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica, in­clud­ing the Maya in Gu­atemala.

Mex­ico has about 1,000 voladores, in­clud­ing 50 women, ac­cord­ing to a cul­tural cen­tre pre­sent­ing To­tonac tra­di­tions in Tak­ilh­sukut Park near El Ta­jin ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. In ad­di­tion, about 200 chil­dren are cur­rently study­ing to be­come voladores in spe­cial schools around the coun­try, one of which op­er­ates in the park it­self.

Madai, 11, proudly shows off her bird cos­tume. She was a lit­tle afraid at first, she ad­mits, but now she can hardly wait to dis­play her skills. “I like the fact that this tra­di­tion is passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion,” she says.

The stu­dents are not only taught to per­form the cer­e­mony, they also study the lan­guage of the To­tonac – an eth­nic group com­pris­ing about 400,000 peo­ple – and the his­tory of the rit­ual, a teacher ex­plains.

Herib­erto, whose al­most en­tire fam­ily be­longs to voladore groups, started prac­tis­ing “fly­ing” at age 5. “Our cos­tumes are based on the orig­i­nal ones that ex­isted be­fore the Spaniards ar­rived in Mex­ico,” he says.

The cos­tumes rep­re­sent ea­gles, owls or the Latin Amer­i­can quet­zal birds. The Span­ish con­querors con­trib­uted red pants, a white shirt and head­gear with colour­ful rib­bons, which flap in the wind like the wings of a bird, ac­cord­ing to sources at the cul­tural cen­tre.

The cer­e­mony of the voladores is be­lieved to date from preColom­bian times. It seeks to ex­press re­spect and har­mony with the nat­u­ral and spir­i­tual worlds, ac­cord­ing to the UN Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion (Unesco), which listed the cer­e­mony as form­ing part of the world’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in 2009.

The tra­di­tion was born at the time of a drought in Ver­acruz, as leg­end has it. The elders were try­ing to find a way of ap­peas­ing the de­ity and sent a group of men to find the high­est tree in the for­est.

The tree was hacked down and blessed with a dance be­fore be­ing taken to the vil­lage, where it was turned into a pole. Four men – the first voladores – then climbed the pole, each rep­re­sent­ing one of the four car­di­nal di­rec­tions.

Today, the poles can be up to 40 me­tres high, and the cer­e­mony is cer­tainly not with­out danger.

An av­er­age of one volador is killed ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to Salomon Bazbaz, a spokesman for the cul­tural cen­tre in Tak­ilh­sukut.

The most dan­ger­ous role is that of the ca­po­ral, who stands on the plat­form and plays a small drum and a flute to the sun and the four winds while the other voladores fling them­selves off into the air.

Most of the ac­ci­dents oc­cur when equip­ment is be­ing taken up to the plat­form, Bazbaz ex­plains.

But de­spite such risks, Mex­i­cans would never con­sider giv­ing up the cer­e­mony, which does noth­ing less than “brings to life the myth of the birth of the uni­verse,” as Unesco puts it. – DPA

TRA­DI­TION: Voladores in Mex­ico swing around a tall pole with only a rope around their waist as part of a Unesco-listed tra­di­tional cul­tural cer­e­mony.

BIRDS: The voladores’ cos­tumes rep­re­sent ea­gles, owls or the Latin Amer­i­can quet­zal birds.

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