Juchipila is a fairly small agrarian-oriented village of roughly 12000 in Mexico’s state of Zacatecas. Yet, once a year, thousands upon thousands of Zacatecanos living abroad return to Juchipila and its surrounding areas, ultimately swelling the region with an enormous multitude. It is Juchipila where my dad is from and it was for the festivities dedicated to Santo Santiago that my family ended up visiting.
The apostle Santiago (James as he is known in English) is said to have traveled to Iberia following the early efforts at Christianization and was martyred after capture by the Romans. Legend purvey about his role in helping the Spanish reconquer Iberia through his role as an otherworldly fighter for which the nickname Matamoros (Moor-slayer) also is used to refer to him. Whether this is true or not is not important but as legend goes, Santiago was prayed to in the conquistadores‘ hour of need due to the overwhelming strength of Zacatecas’ restless indigenous people who were resisting the European push northward into the mountains. In the Spaniards’ most desperate hour, they were surprised to find the natives retreating and questioned them to find they had been scared off by a bearded man riding a white horse. It’s a curious legend that has spurred on festivities dedicated to the saint throughout the region, with much of the iconography relating to the reconquest of Spain and the fight against the Moors.
To celebrate the festivities or tastoanes, traditionally men dress in thick leather chivarras or chaparreras ( horse riding leggings) used by the horsemen of old known as the charros. To compliment this, the get-up is accompanied usually by leather boots and a large mask that covers the face. This mask is notable for the large whiskers and bushy hair made from beef tails with a blond color. The wearing of bright clothes completes the transformation of the faithful who set out to dance and occasionally fight throughout the week-long celebrations of late July. In a large-scale procession emanating from the church of Juchipila, thousands of people march along with the tastoanes while a man dressed in white and red riding on a white horse leads the procession as a nod to Santo Santiago. A small glass case with the saint encased inside is also lovingly carried throughout the procession.
In the plazas of the nearby towns stalls of food, games, souvenirs and even ferris-wheels are installed for the celebrations. This yearly festival sees families from far and wide be reunited as many go to great lengths to return home for the festivities. For many it is a time to rekindle friendships that may have been severed due to distance or for young couples to be formed as they travel back and forth between villages for the various attractions that each town offers. Crowds gather to see the tastoanes, both old and young, jump around and dance in the center of the crowds.
The upbeat atmosphere and multitude of activities offer something for everyone, which perhaps is partly the reason for the arrival of so many. Of course there’s another side to this story, in that its a celebration of the conquest of Northern Mexico, a remnant if you will of the old Spanish Empire that has morphed into religious celebration in honor of the agricultural towns. Much in the same ways these towns have increasingly lost out to foreign competition as highly subsidized U.S. agricultural products have made livelihoods more difficult. In part this is the reason why starting in the economic downturn of the 1990s so many people from Zacatecas, my dad included, turned northward to the U.S. in hopes of better economic opportunities. Over the next decades the money sent back to families slowly transformed small little villages into well-paved and well-maintained areas outside of the urban sprawls of the country. But Zacatecanos are slow to forget where they are from and the festival in Juchipila is a good excuse for many to revisit the places of their youth.