Ask anyone who’s been to Papantla what most impressed them, and they’ll probably say, “The Voladores.” Many people who’ve never been to the Gulf Coast — or even to Mexico – will light up in recognition at the mention of the Voladores. They perform regularly throughout Mexico, Central and South America. They’ve performed in several cities in the United States, and even in Paris and Madrid. So, who are the Voladores, and why are they famous? And what do they have to do with vanilla?
Volador means flyer – he who flies. It is breathtaking to watch the spectacle of four men gracefully “flying” upside down from a 75 foot pole secured only by a rope tied around their waists.
Even more amazing is the musician, called the caporal. Balanced on a narrow wooden platform without a rope or safety net, the caporal plays a drum and flute and invokes an ancient spiritual offering in the form of a spectacular dance.
As he turns to face the four cardinal directions, he will bend his head back to his feet, balance on one foot then lean precariously forward, and perform intricate footwork, all the time playing the flute and drum! No matter how many times you see this beautiful performance, it will continue to astonish you, and the plaintive tune of the flute and drum will remain with you long after you have returned home.
The early history of the ceremonial flight of the Voladores is shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Information about the original ritual was partially lost when the invading conquerors from Spain destroyed so many of the documents and codices of the indigenous cultures. Fortunately, enough survived through legend and oral history and in materials written by early visitors to New Spain, that anthropologists and historians have been able to document at least part of the story of this ancient religious practice and how it has evolved through time.
A Totonaca myth tells of a time when there was a great drought, and food and water grew scarce throughout the land. Five young men decided that they must send a message to Xipe Totec, God of fertility so that the rains would return and nurture the soil, and their crops would again flourish. So they went into the forest and searched for the tallest, straightest tree they could find.
When they came upon the perfect tree, they stayed with it overnight, fasting and praying for the tree’s spirit to help them in their quest. The next day they blessed the tree, then felled it and carried it back to their village, never allowing it to touch the ground. Only when they decided upon the perfect location for their ritual, did they set the tree down.
The men stripped the tree of its leaves and branches, dug a hole to stand it upright, then blessed the site with ritual offerings. The men adorned their bodies with feathers so that they would appear like birds to Xipe Totec, in hope of attracting the god’s attention to their important request. With vines wrapped around their waists, they secured themselves to the pole and made their plea through their flight and the haunting sound of the flute and drum.
In Mesoamerican times the ritual of the Volador was performed throughout much of Mexico and extended as far south as Nicaragua. It was performed once every 52 years at the change of the century, and the brotherhood of the Voladores was passed from father to son.
At the time of the Conquest, the church fought strongly against what it considered heathen practices, and indigenous worship and rituals were silenced or held in secret. Later, the Catholic Church combined native beliefs with religious dogma, creating a syncretization of faith. The flight of the Volador was considered an interesting game by Colonial New Spain, and special plazas were constructed where the Voladores performed for a curious public. Over time the ritual slowly died out, until finally the Totonaca and a few Otomi were the only groups performing this ancient practice.
Today, the Totonaca people perform the flight of the Voladores for several reasons. First, it keeps a part of their traditional culture alive for everyone to see. Second, it provides additional income for the Voladores and their families. Non-Totonacas are asked to make a donation after each flight is completed, as well as for traditional dances which are frequently performed on weekends and evenings in the town plazas or in front of cafes. And last, it provides a sense of group pride. Like other folkloric dances and music from around the world, it’s a way to celebrate heritage and diversity.
The Voladores were among the first cultivators of vanilla, and many of them continue to grow it today. Not all of the early growers were Voladores, though the Voladores comprised an elite segment of the Totonaca society. Vanilla continues to have a sacred place in the lives of the Totonaca in the same way as the flight of the Volador, and the two have remained integrally connected.
The Voladores are a source of great pride to everyone in Totonocapan – the region of the Totonaca. In Papantla, the hub of the vanilla industry, there is even a large stone Volador that looks down on the city from one of the highest points in town. Created by world class artist, Teodoro Cano – who is part Totonaca — the Volador is a moving testimony to the Totonaca ancestors who founded Papantla in the 1200s, as well as to those who continue to maintain the rich cultural legacy in this region of tropical Mexico.
Last photo by Joaquin Morales