By Leticia Roa Nixon (Ahdanah)
San Mateo Ozolco is a small town on the outskirts of the city of Cholula, in the state of Puebla, Mexico. Immigrants from this community have been settling in South Philadelphia for the past decade. Today over 12,000 people live here—more than one third of San Mateo’s population. Like many other immigrants, people maintain active connections to both current and former homes, working and living here while investing in housing, schools, roads and community life back in San Mateo, where family members remain. Money and goods frequently travel between these two sites: food, music, legal documents, and gifts are transported weekly.
Since 2007 bearded masks, beaded capes, goatskin headdresses, and other costume accessories are among the goods that have traveled from San Mateo Ozolco and Huejotzingo (a larger town near San Mateo Ozolco). These objects are used in an annual celebration called Carnaval commemorating the 1862 Battle of Puebla (more widely known as Cinco de Mayo), during which Mexican soldiers defeated occupying French forces. A festive celebration of the battle has been held since 1869 in many towns in Puebla, most notably Huejotzingo.1 It goes on for a month— an important part of community life. This April (2011) will be the fifth year that people from San Mateo have recreated the event here in Philadelphia. Carnaval participants dress as historic characters from the famous battle, reenacting folk dramas from Puebla. Several battalions, each with its own costumes, dance steps, and general character, parade down South Philly streets to live music performed by musicians from Mexico. While much of the costuming comes to South Philadelphia annually from family closets and artisan workshops in small hometowns in Huejotzingo, other costumes are works of innovation. People use materials at hand to honor traditions in new living situations. Oversized dresses, Mardi Gras masks, and sneakers decorated with confetti bows adorn Philadelphia participants. Masks, hats, capes, and detailed accessories ornament caricatures of French, Turkish and Mexican soldiers and disguise the identities of participants.
The San Mateo Carnavaleros is a group of men from the state of Puebla and other states who are dedicated to bringing this centuries-old tradition Huejotzingo- style to the streets of South Philadelphia. PFP organized a Community Folklife Documentation Workshop last year, training local people to document the folklife in their own communities, with a particular focus on how folk arts are used to address displacement. Participant Leticia Roa Nixon (Ahdanah) interviewed the carnavaleros to learn more about how this community festival helps participants create a home for themselves here in Philadelphia. What follows are some of her own thoughts about her fieldwork with this community and then excerpts from her interviews with the carnavaleros. — Selina Morales
At the beginning, my Community Folklife Documentation Workshop [CFDW] project was about the Carnaval of Puebla, but it was from an outsider’s perspective. At first, I saw my countrymen like they were displaced—the topic we were all exploring. But working on this project and talking with people made me look at my own displacement too.
There are many things that are unsaid. This project doesn’t really reflect peoples’ daily struggles; that’s undocumented. They have the cultural barrier and the legal barrier. Also employment is something they kept quiet. There is so much they have to overcome for just one day. I didn’t get a lot on the record about how people crossed the border—which is horrible. Or about how San Mateo Ozolco is a ghost town populated by elders and very young people because most of the population is here. And without reform they cannot go back and there is a big crush in their hearts. And some people want to go back to see their parents alive, but without reform they cannot move freely through the border. When the tape recorder was off, that’s when some people could say some of these things.
Why do people from San Mateo Ozolco come here? That has to do with NAFTA and globalization and all the interests of the big heads of these countries. And then when you get here, how are you going to survive? And how do you survive? We are in the midst of a conflict. It is polarizing. Immigration reform is needed. But it is at the bottom of the list. What is Obama going to do?
So it is very important to put this first documentary effort in a context. Why do I record the stories? There is racial discrimination against Mexicans in South Philadelphia. They are beaten up. They are robbed. They are maimed. Women are raped. And nobody says anything, because of course, they are afraid. As other [CFDW] participants saw, when we went to take pictures at the Carnaval people were hiding. People were moving out of the focus. Arizona had just passed their law. There is also a lot of fear and phobia about immigrants; all this fear is permeating everybody.
The borderline of being visible and invisible at the same time is a struggle. You want to be invisible, to minimize when you feel a stare or somebody looking at you for more than thirty seconds. And then you have this urge of the Carnaval of saying, “Here we are. This is who we are. We want to visible even for one day.” And the San Mateo Carnavalero organizers started the Carnaval in spite of all adversities. That’s the Battle of Puebla that was won again.
In what follows, I have chosen (and translated) just some samples of people’s own words about what the Carnaval means. These are excerpts that I included in the multi-media piece created during the Community Folklife Documentation Workshop from field recordings and photographs. –Leticia Roa Nixon (Ahdanah).
Asunción Sandoval: This history begins in Huejotzingo, Puebla and on behalf of the San Mateo Carnavalero group we want wholeheartedly to convey our respect. They [the Huejotzingo people] are the ones that know more about this history. They are the creators of it. We learned it from them, and if any moment or in any way we offended them, I just want them to know that we represent them. We have never said that “this is our history” or “that is our creation” nor of that of San Mateo. San Mateo learned from Huejotzingo. And we are always going to respect them because the original Carnaval, the Carnaval that everybody wants to do—it is done in Huejotzingo. Therefore, we represent them. We are proud of them and we apologize if we have offended them and if we have misinformed anyone about the costume, the clothing, about the event—again we apologize.2 We have focused on what we know, but there are more things that we don’t know and we would like to know. We welcome anyone who can teach us more. But this Carnaval is represented by San Mateo, obviously having learned from Huejotzingo, Puebla. I convey my respects and thank you to everyone who has made these traditions possible. Thank you.
David Piña: Our fathers as well as our parent’s friends started the Carnaval there in the hometown [San Mateo Ozolco]. And since our early years we were dancing behind our fathers. Unfortunately, before we didn’t have enough money to buy a costume, right? Even though, our parents will buy us a little mask and said, “Come on, put it on and dance”. If we didn’t dance during the Carnaval, to tell you the truth we would start crying and it was such a great sorrow. It’s something very difficult to describe, but you carry it in your heart and in the blood.
Gerardo Chico: My Dad was also part of this that we call the San Mateo Carnaval, right? Back in the town I also participated in the Carnaval so therefore it’s almost an essential part of my life, right? But when I came here [Philadelphia], well almost all of my cousins had the Sapper costume. So therefore I considered the Sapper costume as representative of youth, of something new, and since it was a new country for me, then I opted also to start wearing the Sapper.
Francisco Piña: I represent the Battalion of Zacapoaxtlas. The original ones who were the soldiers that fought in defense of Puebla on what we called over there the Cinco de Mayo. When we arrived here we tried to make kind of an imitation more or less, because there are things we can’t do here. That is to bring and blast gunpowder and that’s the prettiest thing [of the Carnaval].
Claudio: For me it means a lot because we leave roots and history. For instance, I have a son. Everybody has a child. And I feel that we’re leaving them a legacy, a history that they also can keep so it never gets lost: the history of the Battle of Puebla.
Gabino Mateo: I’m also part of the Carnaval organizing group and it’s something we like since we were in the town [of San Mateo] and we carry it with us. We arrive here without knowing if we could do it here. We have been organizing it for four years , and we are doing our best possible to improve our Carnaval.
Asunción Sandoval: We have knocked at many doors. Many people have closed the door, but many others have opened doors for us and that mean a triumph that we always have planned to have. It means a piece of the heart of San Mateo that we bring here to South Philadelphia. It means everything. It’s something that can’t be described in a few words. I would need here the whole day to tell you what the Carnaval means to me. We have always said that without them [the small business owners] we might not be able to have this Carnaval. Their monetary donation is something that comes from them naturally. And I have to mention also our parents and our siblings who are in Puebla or in Mexico because they provide us with the products we need such as the costumes, and even with food. They also give us the moral support to have the strength to continue in Philadelphia.
Francisco: Here [in South Philadelphia] I participated three years ago when the Carnaval began. We were few of us whom participated, about fifty people. It was at Mifflin and 5th. The Carnaval started there. Some of [the people of] San Mateo Ozolco did it. The majority of us who participated [in Mexico] are relatives, cousins, nephews, uncles, all of us, yes. So here it’s the same. When I participate in the Carnaval, I feel free. I’m there dancing. I really feel free most of all.
Asunción Sandoval: I’ve always said from the beginning, this is the one day we don’t feel illegal or persecuted or frightened. This is the only day we feel at home with our family and with our friends. The truth is that day it doesn’t matter where we are. The only thing that’s important is to feel alive, to feel Mexican and to feel our culture, and above all, to show it off everywhere. Because to us, we have a beautiful culture.
Maximino Sandoval: We’re going to continue walking. If we could come from Mexico and cross [the border] to get here to make a dream come true, likewise we’re going to make the Carnaval happen. That’s everybody’s goal.
1 For more on the carnival traditions of Huejotzingo see Olga Lazcano and Gustavo Barrientos, 1999. “Ritual and Community Networks among Laborer Groups in Mexico,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 565:207-217 and Elsie Clews Parsons 1932. “Folklore from Santa Ana Xalmimilulco, Puebla, Mexico” Journal of American Folklore 45(177): 318-362.
2Asunción Sandoval adds: We have an internet web page (http:// www.sanmateocarnavalero.com). We welcome corrections and new information. We are here to learn and we continue learning. Our fifth Carnaval takes place on April 24, 2011 and we welcome you!