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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


Power Needs Names: Hegemony, Folklorization, and the Viejitos Dance of Michoacán, Mexico

Ruth Hellier-Tinoco

Chapter Excerpt

A line of masked “old men” treads falteringly across the stage, accompanied by the rhythmic strumming of a vihuela and the melodic strains of a violin. All the performers are costumed in white cotton shirts and trousers, covered with bright ponchos, heads topped with wide-brimmed straw hats. Rainbow-colored ribbons hang from the dancers’ hats tumbling over the white ixtle hair of the carved, wooden masks. The striking image is unmistakable: This is La Danza de los Viejitos—the Dance of the Old Men, of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. It is performed by local musicians and dancers from Jarácuaro, not as part of local village celebrations, but at state-organized “folkloric” events and in hotels and restaurants for regional, national, and international tourists. State governmental and tourist literature refers to it as “folklore” and places it in unambiguous contexts that label it as P’urhépecha1 and “indigenous” and “from Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.” In the Lake Pátzcuaro region postcards, mugs, t-shirts and other tourist items display the iconic image of the masked old-man dancers and musicians, confirming and perpetuating the notion that the Viejitos Dance is an essential element of “Mexican folklore.”Meanwhile in the heart of Mexico City, inside the ornate, art deco concert hall of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Viejitos Dance is also performed, by highly trained professional dancers and musicians of the Ballet Folklórico Nacional de México, the National Folklore Ballet of Mexico. As an accepted part of the repertoire of dance and music items carefully chosen to represent key peoples and regions of Mexico, the Viejitos Dance fulfils its role as a signifier of P’urhépecha and, by indexation, “indigenous” identity.

Perhaps all this appears to be innocuous enough; after all, it is simply entertainment, a common feature of governmental and tourist strategies in many regions of the world. I suggest, however, that there is a problem with this situation and with the way in which a demarcated and objecti- fied set of practices, often music and dance, are classified as “folklore” and “folkloric” and used in performance contexts specifically linked with promoting regional and national identity—and tourism. Practices are intrinsically and often inextricably connected to people, particularly in dance and music contexts where notions of embodiment are clearly essential to notions of signification. It is in this realm that “folklore” may be considered to be a power technique or “power in action” (Foucault 1982: 219). In Mexico there is an indexical correlation between “folklore” and “indigenous peoples.”2 Such classification and classificatory processes are part of a complex web of power relations in which there is a romantic valorization of artistic practice of the diverse peoples labelled as “indigenous,”3 while the people themselves continue to live in marginalized and repressed situations. The predominance of a romantic, idealistic, “folkloric” image of such peoples is diffused and perpetuated through the use of music and dance as tools of control.

As this problem is complex and multifaceted , this chapter can only examine one tiny part of this dense web. Recognizing that an understanding of contemporary contexts can only come from an examination of the past, the aim of this chapter is to plot and analyze the emergence and establishment of the Viejitos Dance of Lake Pátzcuaro as “folklore,” and to interrogate practices and actions of the past.

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]


  • Image: “Michoacán, Mexico,” postcard. Top L. – Morelia cathedral; top C. – pottery from Lake Pátzcuaro village of Chupicuaro; top R. – plaza and church of San Francisco ; bottom R. – fishermen from Janitzio demonstrating a technique with butterfly nets (but no longer practiced); bottom R. – a group posing as Viejitos dancers.

  • Image: “Greetings from Pátzcuaro,” postcard. Photo, taken in early 1980s, shows a group of Viejitos Dance from Jarácuaro. Gervasio López is playing violin, Felix Francisco the guitarrón and Pedro Lopez the vihuela.

  • Image: The Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Palace of Fine Arts, in the heart of the Mexico City. In 1937 and 1939 the Viejitos Dance was performed in this concert hall as part of a series performances of dance and music from various regions of Mexico, entitled Danzas Auténticas Mexicanas. The performers of the Viejitos Dance were P'urhépecha villagers from the Lake Pátzcuaro region. From the 1960s onwards the Viejitos Dance has been performed by the National Folklore Ballet of Mexico, as part of their repertoire. They perform in the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the performers are all highly trained professional dancers.

  • Image: A newspaper advertisement in El Nacional, 1937, promoting performances that took place in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which included the Viejitos Dance from Michoacán. “Authentic Mexican Dances with their authenticity intact, without additions or fusions, and with all the joy of the village during fiesta-time.”

  • Image: A member of the Gabriel family from the Lake Pátzcuaro island of Urandén dancing the Viejitos Dance. This family lives in Mexico City and makes its living as a mariachi ensemble. They also perform the Viejitos Dance when contracted to do so.

  • Image: An ensemble of musicians and dancers performing by the ticket office for the boat trips to the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro. This ensemble is from the Lake Pátzcuaro village of Jarácuaro, and is led by Nicolás Constantino. National and international tourists take the boat trips to the island of Janitzio and this ensemble perform on the dock-side regularly throughout peak seasons, passing a hat around to collect money.

  • Image: A group of viejitos dancers from the Lake Pátzcuaro village of Jarácuaro. The dancers are led by Juan González and the musicians are led by Juan Francisco Calixto. This performance took place in the Peña Colibrí, Morelia, Michoacán. The Peña Colibrí is a café-bar-restaurant, with live music. This Viejitos ensemble perform in the Peña Colibrí each Friday and Saturday night. The clientele is a mixture of local people, and national and international tourists.

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