At 5:30 a.m. we grabbed our overnight bags and walked to the zócalo in Oaxaca City to meet up with the maestro of Rad’s Mixtec class. I was excited about the opportunity to tag along on the trip, meet some new people and take a few photos. Our final destination was San Juan Mixtepec for its yearly three-day San Juan Bautista festival. We walked in the rain toward the colectivo station and boarded a camioneta bound for Tlaxiaco.
It continued to rain as we made our way through the mountains. A crucifix mounted to the windshield by a suction cup kept an eye on us as we weaved through the mountains. As we passed vehicles and sped around blind corners, I noticed that Jesus listed about 45 degrees. So did we. The camoineta stopped at the town of San Martin Huamelulpan. We grabbed our bags and walked down the road into town. After indulging in some five-peso coffee, we climbed a hill to see ancient Mixtec ruins.
A few centuries ago, the Spanish really liked to steal the stones from indigenous religious structures to erect their cathedrals, and this was no exception. They were even thoughtful enough to embed a Mixtec statue in the side of the cathedral. After a visit to the town museum, we arranged for two Nissan Tsurus to take us on into Tlaxiaco.
After lunch, we waited in the rain for other Nissan Tsurus to take us the rest of the way in San Juan Mixtepec while local people stared at us with puzzled expressions. A good portion of the road leaving Tlaxiaco is unpaved and littered with boulders from the surrounding mountains. Large sections have been washed away, but our taxi driver navigated the route without incident. Shoddy wiper blades screeched across the windshield with each pass. The taxista swiped at the inside of the glass with the back of his hand to combat the fogged glass. It must have been enough visibility to keep us from careening off the side of the mountain, because we rolled into the clogged streets of San Juan Mixtepec 45 minutes later.
After dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked around the flooded streets, watched a basketball tournament, played rigged carnival games and crashed into each other in bumper cars. Later, three teenage girls in elaborate white dresses stood on a stage while other festivities took place below. One of the girls in white was crowned the reina (queen) and the other two were crowned first and second princesas (princesses).
We soon realized that about half the town had been drinking for several hours by this point in the evening. We met several people that used to reside in Florida and were pleased to hear that we both grew up near Tampa. One man was persistent with his offer of Modelo Especial from the back of his truck and invited us to his home several times. Two youths that were leaning up against said pickup truck beckoned Rad over and began criticizing the deportation practices of the United States. A local girl yelled over the noise of the crowd and advised us not to talk to these folks on account of their high level of intoxication.
The next morning, we left the hotel at daybreak and walked around town to grab a few photos before the festival was in full swing. Later, our group cruised by the cathedral in town that was bedecked with elaborate flower displays inside and out. We then trudged uphill to a celebration under a circus tent next to another church. We waded through the mud to where the festivities were being held, and we were ushered into a small wooden structure with an altar of San Juan Bautista inside. We stated where we were from and why we wanted to learn about their pueblo’s Mixtec culture. I was really hoping I would not be singled out from the group and questioned because I knew I was incapable of articulating very much in Spanish. The mayordomo, a sort of master of ceremonies, welcomed us to sit down under the tent.
I had only a rudimentary understanding of the festival. Fireworks that were all bang and no show continually exploded above us, bands played, people drank and ate and I heard that some roosters were going to be relieved of their heads later in the day. I also understood that we were going to eat some food prepared by dozens of local women who rushed back and forth between rows of tables and a temporary kitchen area. They set plates of rice, beans and the best chicken I’ve ever eaten before us. I sat next to a vegetarian, so I quickly offered to eat his piece of chicken as well as mine. Men poured Tepache, a fermented pineapple drink, from large clay pitchers into Styrofoam cups and handed them to us. My initial thought was that the jugs contained coffee, but instead, it was this sweet, thick alcoholic drink to start the day.
After breakfast, we were asked to join the procession as it meandered through town to the pueblo’s oldest cathedral. Locals piled in until the building was at maximum capacity and people clustered outside around the doorway. We opted to stay outside because we are not religious and I didn’t want to prevent local people from getting a glimpse inside on this special day.
It was not long before the rain returned and we took a vote on whether to return to the mayordomo’s place and eat again or return to the hotel and rest before the mass beheading of roosters. Naturally, Rad and I opted to return to the site of the morning feast to eat beef stew and drink mezcal, tepache and soda. Not long after we ate, the mayordomo, the reina, the two princesas, the band and several other people in indigenous traje started back down the hill with festooned roosters and fireworks in tow. The procession made stops by the cathedral and to the presidente municipal’s office to present the birds to the pueblo’s highest ranking politician.
The maestro suggested that we beat the throng of onlookers down to the rooster gallows so we could stake our claim to a good vantage point. As we stood frying in the sun, we could hear the procession approaching. Hundreds of people, men on horseback and masked men playing harmonicas and dancing accompanied the convoy.
A few of the birds let out one last cock-a-doodle-doo before they were strung up by the feet to a rope between two telephone poles. A man stood on one side and yanked the clusters of birds up and down like piñatas while men on horseback grasped for the heads. The necks of the chickens stretched like a tube out of a bicycle tire before the men on horseback ripped the heads off and flung them into the crowd. Lively music played, feathers flew and fireworks burst in the air above the flapping and squawking birds. When all the birds in the first group had been decapitated, more were strung up and the ritual was repeated. Midway through the massacre, it began to rain. We scurried for cover as the killing continued and emerged after the rain to join the other people in our party at the edge of the river. It was then that I learned one of the reasons that the roosters are sacrificed is to ensure a bountiful crop the next year. It lasted about an hour and we watched people from our hotel balcony return from the edge of the river carrying headless birds. Santa Claus showed up near the end of the event and I snapped a photo of him and a guy in a Miguel Hidalgo mask before climbing into a taxi and bouncing back down the road toward Tlaxiaco. I have seen a few roosters around since the festival. Even though they don’t understand, I warn them to stay far away from San Juan Mixtepec on June 24.