Flyers, priest and the community at the ceremony to choose a new pole. Flyers, priest and the community at the ceremony to choose a new pole.

Flyers of Cuetzalan stick to traditions

The flyers recently chose a new pole with which they'll carry on their ancestral rite

Four flyers in colorful costumes glide to the ground upside down, hanging by their feet, descending from a tall pole in a popular spectacle that forms a religious and traditional ceremony for the Flyers of Cuetzalan.

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But the pole itself is more than just any old tree.

According to tradition, this key part of the ceremony must be replaced every year. In modern times, the renewal of the pole is linked to the celebrations of the patron saint of Cuetzalan, St. Francis of Assisi, but in pre-Hispanic times it was closely tied to the yearly farming cycle.

It took the Flyers of Cuetzalan, a town in the hills in the north of Puebla, several days to find the right tree this year, and they finally settled on a tall and straight ocote, or Pinus montezumae. The ceremony in which it is cut down includes not only the flyers but local religious and political authorities.

The flyers begin by dancing around the tree, offering their apologies for cutting it down, followed by prayers that are led by the town’s priest before the mayor steps in to pay his own respects to the tree.

Then comes the axe. First the priest, then the mayor and his staff, and finally the flyers take a swing at the wood in a process that is largely symbolic: a chainsaw is brought in to finish the job and the 90-year-old tree falls.

But then the hard work begins.

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It takes 150 men to drag the tree trunk some 200 meters to the side of the road where heavy machinery loads it on to the bed of a truck.

The day-long ceremony had to be postponed this year because of heavy rain, but come morning the people of Cuetzalan had gathered once again, this time in the atrium of the town’s Catholic church.

The priest blessed a hole in the ground in which the pole would be placed in readiness for the coming year, following which the flyers, the mayor and the priest attended a private ceremony in the church.

Once that rite was over, the flyers filed out of the church and began dancing around the site of the pole to make several offerings, such as homemade moonshine, an incense burner and candles, all the necessary ingredients to prepare mole sauce, and a live turkey that is sacrificed to protect the lives of the dancers.

Once again, modern machinery is employed, this time to raise the pole and set it in place where it will become the central focus of an ancestral rite.

Cuetzalan

“The main element in the dance of the flyers is the tree, as it creates a connection between the world above, our world and the world below. It is the only living creature that exists in those three places at the same time,” said Arturo Díaz, who participated this year in his first tree-choosing ceremony.

The tree must be 33 meters tall to allow each of the the flyers to have made exactly 13 turns around it once they descend to the ground. In total they go around the pole 52 times, a symbolic number in the Mexica tradition, whose calendar cycled every 52 years.

The dance of the flyers and all its related ceremonies, rites and traditions “is our own cultural practice,” said the mayor. “It is a way we have to . . . give thanks for everything given to us human beings.”

Chief flyer Moisés Echeverría Hernández added that preserving the pre-Hispanic ritual is a matter of pride for the indigenous people of Cuetzalan.

Source: El Sol de Puebla (sp)

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