The Huasteca's Teenek Indians celebrate the agricultural cycle with three festivals -- at the spring planting when Dhipaak, the god of life and corn, is reborn and returns to the soil; another when he reappears with the first green shoots; and at harvest when the mature cobs are gathered and Dhipaak rests for the winter.
The harvest celebration, known as Xantolo, takes place in late November. Although the event's roots are ancient, its name dates to the Conquest. The word Xantolo stems from the Latin sanctorum, honoring some of November's Holy Days: All Saints Day; November 30, the feast day of Saint Andrew, patron of performers; and November 22, feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron of musicians. Saint Cecilia also echoes a figure who appears in traditional Teenek lore.
For the Teenek, the harvest celebration also closes a cycle which begins on the Day of the Dead, when the Teenek's ancestral spirits rise; on Xantolo, they return to the earth, and the Teenek honor them by visiting their gravesides. Many Huastec Teenek now mark Xantolo with a festival and procession through the Tamtoc archaeological site where local Teenek once buried their dead.
On Xantolo, November 28, 2009, celebrants began to gather in midmorning on the broad lawn before Tamtoc's entrance gate: wiry farmers, elderly women, young girls, kids, and a few men and women in city clothes who had returned home for the occasion.
The state government supplied plastic chairs, microphones, nylon tents and Portosans, but the Teenek furnished its heart and soul -- an age old ritual of communal remembrance, thanksgiving and feasting. Some lit wood fires to prepare a tub of steaming hot coffee and to cook enough zacahuiles-- huge chicken tamales -- to serve a hundred. Others arranged the shrine: on the ground they laid neat rows of palm leaves, oranges, and bouquets of cempasúchiles, bright orange marigolds that draw the spirits like flames. Beside them stood a table offering water, candles, a conch shell trumpet and a portrait of Santa Cecilia playing an organ. Above was an arch of palm leaves and flowers, and from the arms of a tall cross under the arch hung the banner of the Huastec Elders. It bore the symbol of the Teenek universe, a colorful four-pointed star with orange to the east, green to the west, red to the north, pink to the south and, in the center, an ear of life-giving corn.
The government's published timetable called for the ceremony to start late in the day, but by noon the dancing had already begun. At first it looked like a rehearsal as some dancers began circling at the edge of the parking lot, but custom and centuries of faith soon burst the official bounds, and more dancers started stepping to the music of the guitars, violins, a harp, and a jarapa, a small four-stringed guitar.
Every Teenek village has its dancers and each festival its own specific dances. Some dances can last as long as twenty-four hours. The melodies are simple and hypnotic -- short phrases repeated scores of times, an almost endless thread of sound that leads dancers deep into the night.
The men and women dance separately, the women in circles, the men in snaking lines or in a wider circle around the women. The women wear garments vivid with modern dyes and symbols that date to antiquity. On their heads are woven yarn petobs, whose size and color are distinct to each village, and over their blouses are quexquemétles, diamond-shaped cloaks embroidered with the Teenek universe's four-pointed star and symbols of corn, Mother Earth, the sun, flowers, animals, and the Tree of Life.
Most of the men are more simply dressed, elegant in white cotton pants and shirts and straw hats, and as they dance they hold upright beribboned staffs and hot-pink feathered maracas.
Some men, however, wore costumes. Two elders, chief actors in the dance known as El Rey Colorado (the Red King), sported foil crowns, red shirts and sky-blue sashes. They were dancing in the role of the Aztec kings who forced the Teenek to pay tribute in corn, a tax that showed corn's power: even in defeat it tamed cruel conquerors.
Another dance featured La Malinche, the Indian woman who became Cortez's translator and later his wife, who, it is said, looked out for the Teenek people. Here she was portrayed by a man in a red dress, a headscarf, and a mirrored feather topped-crown. In another dance a masked man in a dress sparred with and confused two men with wooden toy rifles.
They danced in the role of Aztec conquerers who made the Teenek pay tribute in corn, a tax which only confirmed its power: even in defeat, corn tames the cruelest kings.