The Dance of the Devils is performed on the occasion of Mexico’s most traditional festivities known as the ‘Day of the Dead’.
The ‘Day of the Dead’ festivities are celebrated on the last days of October and the first days of November in Mexico. During these celebrations, young men dress up as cowboys or as dead people, in which case they wear dusty clothes covered with terrain, to represent the passage of time and the fact of being buried underground.
The face of the men performing the dance is covered with a leather deer mask with horns and a black beard to represent a young devil or a white beard to represent an old one. An elder devil, called Tenango, whips the other devils during this performance. Groups of 24 dancers – the devils – stomp and twirl in rows or circles along the streets. Eventually, they stop at the houses where the owner gives them money or food for dancing.
The Minga, which is a man dressed as a woman, representing a female devil who carries a baby doll, tries to interrupt the concentration of the devil dancers. One way that the Minga attempts to disrupt the other dancers is by seduction, the Minga also tries to give her doll, which is a symbol of her productive power, to the dancers or to anyone in the audience, seeking a father to her ‘baby’.
The Dance of the Devils is part of the ceremonial commemoration of the dead. It is a celebration of colonial origin, which was introduced by the black people of the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca, who were brought there as slaves by the Spanish colonizers to work in mines, cotton plantations and cattle ranches.
From Río Grande, in the town of Tututepec, on the Oaxacan coast, to Tenango, in the municipality of Azoyú, to the north, this dance recalls the past times when ranchers or cowboys used the whip as well as trumpet to groups of wild cattle in order to force them to cross the Sierra Madre del Sur, to reach the plateau and sell the animals. The Devils in the Mexican dance also use the whip, and behave according to the cowboy stereotype, that is, as brave and strong man.
This performance, however, is also a historical memory, which becomes a ritual memory to the black population which was an intermediate caste, between the indigenous and the white land owners.
The black population who arrived in Mexico from very different lands such as Africa and the Antilles, bringing different languages and cultures, could not recreate a black culture of African traits, as could happen instead, to various degrees, in other Afro-American regions.
These people therefore in their segregation from festivities and public celebrations organised by the masters of the haciendas, used to perform their own festivities secretly, by performing rituals to their African gods, playing drums and dancing. At the same time, however, they borrowed elements of some indigenous and Catholic traditions and readapted them – with imagination and joy – to overcome the pain of domination and the humiliation of banishment.
It is no coincidence that the celebration of their ancestors is performed through the cowboy/devil figure. In this dance, the ritual action harmonises gestures and words. Devils are the dead who revive to do mischief, to steal, to sow fear and laughter. The dance could also be called the ‘Devil’s Game’, a game designed to laugh at the forbidden.