In Teloloapan, Guerrero, there is a unique tradition that consists of a contest in which the participants wear wooden masks that can measure up to one meter high, while at the same time, to the rhythm of music, they dance and expose their grace, physical skills, and ability in the handling of the chicote to demonstrate that they are the best "devil".
Despite their name, the Devils of Teloloapan (Diablos de Teloloapan) do not represent the devil or evil, but rather the rebellious spirit of a group of residents of Teloloapan who participated in a revolt during the last stage of the struggle for Mexican independence. This local uprising has endured in the collective memory of the villagers and forms part of their patriotic imagination.
According to oral tradition, the Devils of Teloloapan were peasant men and slaves who, commanded by General Pedro Ascencio de Alquisiras, considered the right arm of Vicente Guerrero, bravely chose to fight in the War of Independence to liberate their people from the colony, since shortages and inhumane living conditions were the common denominator in New Spain, whose inhabitants lived in conditions of inequality and oppression, mainly indigenous, Afro-descendants and mestizos.
For this reason, Pedro Ascencio de Alquisiras decided to take the town of Teloloapan for the insurgent army; however, he was ambushed and his troops were besieged by the royalists. This siege prevented the rebels and the indigenous population from leaving.
Faced with this challenge, Ascencio de Alquisiras devised a war strategy inspired by the ancestral tradition of his grandparents: he elaborated deer chamois hides, masks, and chicotes woven with ixtle with a straw at the tip so that when they were wielded they thundered like a bullet in the wind. Ascencio trained his troop in the handling of the chicote and prepared them for an assault strategy, which would be carried out during the night to give a gloomy touch and thus look like "infernal entities sent by evil".
The women, free from the suspicion of the realists, were in charge of providing the colorín wood to carve the masks; in addition, they spread the rumor that the demon prowled Teloloapan and would sprout from the earth. Many realists believed this story.
The Devils of Teloloapan armed themselves with a mask, a leather dress, and a chicote de ixtle on a night in which, lighting otates, producing sounds that imitated the snorting of animals and thundering their chicotes, they suddenly appeared and distributed themselves throughout the town. Their unexpected irruption surprised and frightened the enemy guards, who fell under the "bullets" of the Devils of Teloloapan. In this way, the insurgents managed to break the siege to free the indigenous people and slaves.
This first victory occurred on September 18, 1818; therefore, every year this heroic deed is commemorated in Teloloapan, Guerrero, with the traditional contest of the Devils of Teloloapan, in which young people wear elaborate masks, whose meanings, manufacture, and decoration have been transformed over time.
Anthropologist Anne Johnson points out that some masqueraders, to capture history in their pieces, began to decorate their masks with characters such as Miguel Hidalgo and Pedro Ascencio. Likewise, she points out that at the end of the 20th century, they began to paint some images that by then were already part of the imaginary and national identity, such as the eagle on the cactus, the jaguar warrior, and the embrace of Acatempan. This incorporation made the visual representations more diverse and the dimensions of the masks increased.
According to Johnson, this tradition is a sample of the local vision of the past based on memory, where theatrical and performative practices -such as the mask contest- give their version of events by referring to academic history.
"This is a very interesting patriotism, because there is the idea, not only in the region but at the state level, that in Guerrero the homeland was forged, but that victory has not yet come for them. That ambivalence that combines pride in the local contribution to the nation with a critique of the state and institutions is present in these acts," explains Anne Johnson, Ph.D. in social anthropology and author of the book Diablos, insurgentes e indios. Poética y política de la historia en el norte de Guerrero ("Devils, insurgents and indigenous people. Poetics and Politics of History in Northern Guerrero").