Dance of the Devils, an Afro-descendant tradition in the coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca

A unique tradition, Danza de los Diablos (Dance of the Devils), is performed during the Fiestas de Todos Santos (All Saints' Day). The origin of this tradition has been identified in the viceroyalty since this dance was a ritual dedicated to the African god Ruja.

Dance of the Devils, an Afro-descendant tradition in the coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca
Dance of the Devils in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero. Image and text: Cultura

According to the Viceroyalty, the origin of this tradition, the Dance of the Devils, has been identified in the Viceroyalty, since this dance was a ritual dedicated to the African god Ruja, to whom the slaves asked to be freed from the Spanish yoke. Afro-descendant populations, which represent 1.16% of the Mexican population, have had an important role and influence in the past and present of Mexico, these contributions are reflected in the struggles against slavery in very early times during the viceroyalty, in the inheritance of traditions of African origin and the development of a political conscience based on identity.

The cultural identity of Mexico does not form a unit but is as divergent and varied as its peoples, their worldviews, and histories, the same happens with the Afro-descendant peoples in Mexico, we cannot speak of a single people or a homogeneous set of cultural expressions, but each one of them varies according to the region in which these communities are settled.

In Mexico, there is not only an Afro-Mexican population on the small coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca (the area with the largest number of these communities), but it is scattered throughout the territory, both in the center and north of the country, and in each of these territories Afro-descendants express themselves in a particular way.

For this reason, the dissemination of the cultural expressions of Afro-Mexican peoples is an important action that contributes to making these populations visible and recognizing their ethnic identity, while at the same time helping to eliminate the stereotypes and prejudices that revolve around these populations and are based on racism.

The Dance of the Devils

In Guerrero, there is a tradition whose origin is found in the cultural and social exchanges of the African populations that arrived in the country as a result of the slave trade from Africa to America and as part of the Spanish armies.

The origin of this tradition has been identified by specialists and scholars in the viceroyalty or colonial era since this dance was a ritual dedicated to the African god Ruja, to whom the slaves asked to be freed from the Spanish yoke.

Through cultural exchange, the ceremony was transformed and acquired Catholic influences, but also became part of one of the most important indigenous traditions of the Costa Chica region of Guerrero and Oaxaca, mainly in the municipality of Cuajinicuilapa, which was declared a Site of Memory of the Slavery of Afro-descendant Populations.

This dance, which is also known as Juego de los Diablos, is mainly performed on November 1 and 2 as part of the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, although it is also performed on the days of San Nicolás and the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

During the dance, participants wear masks with beards and bangs made from horsehair and tails and wear ragged clothes. The group, made up of about 12 people, is preceded by the "Diablo Mayor" or "Tenango", who represents the role of foreman or patron, and the "Minga" or "Bruja", who is personified by a man who wears clothes considered to be those of a woman while carrying a doll.

These two characters lead the comparsa and mark the rhythm of the dance with a cowbell and a chicote.

It is believed that the devils may represent the spirits of the dead who return to visit their families and the altars that were placed for them; while other beliefs point out that the devils have an important role as intermediaries between life and death, as they are in charge of protecting the living by preventing the dead from visiting the world on days other than the Day of the Dead.

The group of dancers is accompanied by three musicians who play the charrasca (a donkey or horse jawbone used as a güiro), the bote (an instrument with a leather drumhead that emulates the roar of a tiger), the violin, and the harmonica.

This type of music is known as "la chilena", a genre that resulted from the mixture of the music brought by Chilean sailors in the 19th century and the traditions of Afro-descendants. It is currently nourished by influences of rhythms, harmonies, and styles from other regions of Mexico and indigenous communities.

Another representative cultural expression of the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca, which is the result of cultural exchanges with African populations, is the son or fandango de artesa, a dance that is practiced on a piece of wood that is carved in the shape of an animal and is reminiscent of horses or cows.

The musical ensemble that gives rhythm to this dance, which until the mid-20th century played an important role in local festivities, includes the violin, jarana, guitar, and cajón. The origin of this tradition likely comes from Senegambia, a region in Africa from which some Africans were brought to Mexico during the first years of the conquest.

Not only do these spectacular traditions recall and evidence the social participation, influence, and cultural exchange of Africans in the Costa Chica region, but also diverse cultural expressions show the importance of Afro-descendants in Mexico, such as gastronomy, traditional medicine, vocabulary, and diverse knowledge and ways of understanding the world.