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Yaqui and Mayo Indian Easter ceremonies

History | Flowers | The Enactment | more masks, etc.


The Easter Ceremonies of the Yaqui and the Mayo Indians of Arizona and Sonora represent a tradition that dates back to sometime in the early seventeenth century. At that time, pioneering Jesuit priests came into the valleys of the Río Mayo and the Río Yaqui in what is now Sonora, Mexico. The Catholic ceremonies and the Mayo and the Yaqui ceremonies blended into a cycle which includes sacred elements of both worlds.

[Chapayeka wearing white fur hide mask: 39k]

Figure 1: This Chapayeka wears an older style white mask made of hide with long ears and a sharp nose. His folded blanket is also worn in the traditional manner. Chapayeka means "long nose" in Yaqui, perhaps referring to the early Spaniards.

Some of the Yaqui fled Mexico as war refuges after 1886 and into the 1930's. They later revived their ceremonies in Arizona. There are three Yaqui villages in the Tucson area: Old Pascua, New Pascua and Barrio Libre, plus another village in Marana and also Guadalupe Pueblo in Phoenix. The Yaquis were officially recognized as a tribe by the United States in the 1980's. Their own name for themselves is the Yoeme.

To an outsider, the ceremonies of the Yaqui and the Mayo have much in common. Visitors are usually welcome, but no outside cameras are normally allowed in the villages themselves. Do not enter the church without permission or intrude on the ceremonial areas.

The photos on this page were taken in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico in the spring of 1997. The Chapayekas came to town and to the Sunday Tiaguis Market on the weekends preceding Easter to ask for contributions to help pay for the performance of the rituals. The Chapayekas were sometimes accompanied by unmasked men and boys who carried small, portable shrines and donation boxes. They played drums, chanted and acted as interpreters since the Chapayekas may not speak. Alamos is at the southern edge of traditional Yaqui country which centers around the fertile valleys of the Río Yaqui. The Mayo live in the next big drainage area south around the Río Mayo.

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Many Yaqui songs emphasis flowers and this focus is carried over into the Easter ceremonies.

[Arizona Gold Poppies: 19k]

Figure 2: Desert or Mexican Goldpoppy (Eschscholtzia californica ssp. mexicana)

Flowers in the desert are more than just beauty. An abundance of flowers across the western deserts in spring is unusual - an indication of plentiful rain. The majority of seeds lie dormant, waiting. Researchers now think that the right sequence of warm winter rains may happen only every 20 to 40 years. When it does, golden poppies, lavender lupine, magenta owl's clover and all the other flowers flow over the hillsides, splash down the arroyos and roadside ditches and sheet-wash the desert flats with colors. Flowers mean the right rains have come, the desert will be fruitful, it's inhabitants will prosper and thanks is joyfully given.

Flowers (sewam) are in the old songs and stories of the Yaqui deer singers. The home of their brother, the deer (saila maso), is in a world under the dawn in the east, the sea ania, the flower world. Flowers are also associated with the Virgin Mary. Her heaven is full of flowers and flowers are the reward of those who carry out the hard work of the Easter Ceremonies. Flowers and confetti, a symbol of flowers, are the weapon against evil and are thrown at the wicked Fariseos when they attack the church during the enactment. The blood of Christ is said to have turned into flowers and the power of these flowers ultimately triumphs and enables the defenders of the church to triumph over the Fariseos.

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The Enactment

A Yaqui church is wide open in the front, everyone can see the processions as they come and go over the weeks of the ceremony. There is a cross in front of the church and another at the other end of the plaza in front of the fiesta dance ramada. A kitchen feeds the ceremony's participants. Sometimes on the outskirts of the plaza there are booths that sell food to the spectators and other items such as cascarones, the confetti-filled, brightly decorated eggshells set into long paper cones which are broken over people's heads.

All the events are organized by societies within the church. Each society member is under a vow (manda) as a result of receiving aid from Jesus or Mary. All are in the service of Jesus, even the members who represent the forces of evil for the purpose of the ceremony.

[Chapayeka wearing dark fur hide mask: 24k]

Figure 3: This Chapayeka wears strings of cocoon rattles wrapped around his legs. During the ceremonies they try to distract and disrupt the services. They often clown and perform actions left-handed and backward.

Beginning with a service on Ash Wednesday and then on the following six Fridays, the church groups led by the Maestros began the drama, the Passion of Christ or Cuaresma. The Men's group representing Jesus and his friends travel along the stations on the Way of the Cross. At the same time, the Women's group with the three Marys searches for Jesus along the Way. The evil armies of the Fariseos (which includes the Chapayekas as foot soldiers with Judas as their saint) and the Caballero societies began to appear and menace the church groups.

On the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday there is an all-night fiesta. Both the Matachin dance society and the Deer Dancer (maso) with his singers and the Pascolas (pahkolam who are connected with the yo ania, the enchanted world) with their musicians appear. The Matachinis dance in front of the church. The men and boys dress in white clothing with pointed headdresses like crowns decorated with colorful crepe paper flowers, streamers and ribbons.

The Deer Dancer and the Pascolas dance in the fiesta ramada. The Pascolas are the "old men of the fiesta". The dance originally was to persuade the deer to sacrifice himself to the hunters for the welfare of the people. They wear carved oval wooden masks with long tufts of hair. The Deer Dancer wears the head of a deer and carries a gourd rattle in each hand. They all wear strings of cocoon rattles wrapped around their legs. In Tucson, the dancers are bare to the waist. They dance off and on all night to the music of the harp and the violin, to the flute, water drum and rasps. The Pascolas joke and give cigarettes and water to the crowd. At first the Deer is shy and skittish. He eludes the efforts of the Pascolas to capture him, but they finally succeed. As the evening proceeds he dances with them and becomes more playful, yet still aloof. A great Deer Dancer is alert, unmoved by the crowd; he is the deer.

[Stylized black, white and red Mayo mask: 13k]

Figure 4: Mayo Indian Pascola dance mask carved by Anacleto Garcia.

During the following week, on the drama of Holy Thursday, the Fariseo army of the Chapayekas capture the figure of Jesus in the cottonwood bower representing the Garden of Gethsemane and also take control of the church itself. The Caballeros begin to change sides during this time and will finally join the church group.

On Good Friday, the crucifixion is re-enacted on The Way of the Cross and later, the Resurrection, which is unseen by the Fariseo who believe they still possess the body of Jesus. Late in the night, the Chapayekas hold a fiesta to celebrate their victory.

[Chapayeka carrying blond haired doll's head on staff: 21k]

Figure 5: The black hide mask may be a newer style and is worn with contemporary items such as this doll's head on the staff. In Tucson, these dancers frequently wear dark coats rather than blankets, and masks made from material other than hide, including Halloween masks and masks depicting modern characters like policemen. The wooden dagger is traditional.

The morning of Holy Saturday, both groups prepare for the final confrontation. In Tucson, this part of the drama draws crowds of visitors. The Chapayekas parade the figure of their straw Judas and ready themselves in front of their barracks. The church Groups, the Matachin, the Deer Dancer and the Pascolas, as well as the Caballeros arrive decorated with real and crepe paper flowers, greens and ribbons to help defend the church.

Around noon, the Fariseos and Chapayekas march towards the church, advancing towards the ash line which marks off the holy ground. Three times they charge and three times they are repulsed by the Maestros singing the Gloria, the ringing of the bells, waving of flags, the dancing of the Matachinis, the Pascolas and the Deer Dancer and the throwing of flowers by all the allies of the church.

At the end of the third charge, the Fariseos give in to their fate; they have been defeated, killed by the flowers and faith of the church people. They throw their masks into the huge bonfire which also consumes their straw Judas. They are now ritually cleansed of evil.

The Pascolas, Deer Dancer and the Matachinis dance again all night in celebration. At sunset, the Matachinis wind a colorful maypole which is unwound at dawn.

Early on Easter Sunday morning, more rituals and dancing take place and later the news of Jesus's resurrection is received. Then a joyful "Alleluia" is sung. There is a final procession and everyone masses in a large circle near the church cross for a sermon by the head Maestro in which he explains the meaning of the Easter Ceremony and speaks gratefully of the parts all the participants have played. As the altar is dismantled, announcements of vows are made and the final thanks, accountings and farewells are given among the assembled congregation. The Yoeme have fulfilled their mandas until the next Easter cycle begins anew.

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[Night fiesta: 19k]

Figure 6: The Deer Dancer and the Pascolas may also be asked to dance during other times of the year. This fiesta was put on in Alamos, Sonora by a man who prayed and received a miracle. In return he vowed to sponsor a fiesta in his barrio neighborhood for four years. Jim Wilson made a series of paintings of Alamos fiestas. This detail from a larger work shows the Deer Dancer, two Pascolas and their musicians during a night dance.

[Yellow rooster mask: 15k]

Figure 7: Yaqui Indian Pascola "rooster" dance mask carved by Camilo Alvarez Buitimea.

Unlike the Chapayeka masks which must be destroyed at the end of the ceremonies, the Yaqui and Mayo carvers sometimes make Pascola masks not only for the dancers, but for sale. Some of the small shops in Alamos, Sonora around the Alameda sell these masks.

See also:

Back to Arizona y Sonora or browse bed and breakfasts | wildflower guide | Yaqui Easter | desert books | bird books | in Sonora: Alamos travel guide | San Ignacio | Sonora coastal bird list

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