Dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt.
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.
—William W. Purkey, 1929–
Arriving on the outskirts of Chiapa de Corzo, we were surprised at the unexpected quiet, hearing only our own footsteps and the gentle flapping of the jewel-colored flags that were strung across the road as they danced in the breeze. We spied a masked duo a block away and began to follow them, certain they would lead us to what we had come to witness.
Under the heat of the high noon sun, I knew the pair must be sweltering in their black clothing, heavy serapes and ceremonial headgear. As we made our way down the near-empty street, past casitas painted in pastel shades, others in similar costumes emerged from doorways and side streets and fell into step. Greetings were called and the low buzz of excited chatter and laughter began to hum, punctuated by a percussive rat-a-tat-tat as members of the growing crowd began to shake silver tasseled rattles they held in their gloved hands.
According to legend, in 1711, during Mexico’s Spanish Colonial era, Dona Maria de Angula was a rich Spanish woman who traveled to Chiapa de Corzo in search of a cure for a mysterious paralytic illness afflicting her son, which no doctor could cure. When she arrived, she was directed to a curandero, a local healer, who examined the boy, and instructed his mother to bathe him in the waters of a small lake. To amuse the boy, a local group disguised themselves as Spaniards with masks and began to dance, explaining “para el chico,” which means “for the boy.” The child was cured and the tradition now known as Parachicos endures today.
The Parachicos’ masks are made with cedar or Guanacaste, an endemic tree, and carved to resemble the European features of a Spaniard, and then lacquered with oil obtained from an insect called aje. Their wigs, adorned with flowers and ribbons, are made with ixtle, a rough fiber derived from agave plants.
We were swept along with the current of smiling strangers, anonymous behind their painted masks, eventually spilling into the town’s plaza. Clusters of raven-haired women congregated, showing off their full-length, off-the-shoulder dresses emblazoned with vivid floral designs. As they vamped and vogued, teenage couples stole kisses in the shadows of La Pila Fountain, a Moorish structure with eight immense arches constructed in 1562. A father and son were beginning to dress in their Parachico attire, with the older man crossing a red sash around his mid-section and the boy wrapping a bandana around his head before donning the heavy headpiece.
Flowing with the widening stream of revelers, we found ourselves in an arcade — also dressed for the occasion, its timbered white ceilings festooned with brightly-painted bowls hung by ribbons. A grandmother held a chubby-cheeked girl with a lavender ribbon in her hair almost as big in diameter as her head. Old men in pork pie hats greeted each other with a warm embrace. A middle-aged woman cinched the waist of her 20-something daughter’s dress, and they squabbled affectionately as the mother tightly tied the bow.
The tide of revelers then moved us through an archway, down stairs and into a park pulsating with wildly dancing Parachicos, cavorting to the pounding beat of a ten-piece mariachi band. In the shadow of the towering Santo Domingo church, serapes swirled, rattles waved high in the air, and dust rose around the writhing bodies. On the stage, a trio of full-figured matrons held their flouncy skirts high and twirled while three marimba players displayed artful choreography on the xylophone-like instrument with Mayan roots. The brass section soared and swayed in time, all in matching pale yellow shirts, their hair slicked up and gleaming.