PUEBLA, Mexico – Chocolate, onions, tomatoes, dried chilies, seeds and a live turkey are offered to Mother Earth by the voladores (“flying men”) of Cuetzalan, a municipality in the state of Puebla in central Mexico.
People gather early in the main square to observe the preparation of the space around a hole where they will later place a pole about 27 meters (88.5 feet) high that was chosen and cut in a ritual performed by various voladores dancing groups.
Later, four young men will climb the pole while a fifth will sit on a platform at the top and play songs. The four voladores, tied to the pole by ropes, will fling themselves off the platform and “fly” as it spins before they gradually lower themselves to the ground.
In 2009, the Danza de los Voladores (“Dance of the Flyers”) was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
It all starts with defining the ideal measurement of the pole to insert it into the hole. They give it shape using machetes and an electric saw, removing rough edges that may be dangerous, as well as making the base suitable for it to wobble every time it is used.
A ritual is then held in which prayers are said and incense and copal (tree resin) are burned before the pole with the intention of purifying and cleansing it so that when the voladores start their flight it poses no danger.
When they are ready, the voladores come to the church to offer to God their dance, which evinces the syncretic incorporation of the pre-Hispanic tradition into the Catholic faith.
During their dance at the foot of the altar, they offer a live turkey, a symbol of protection, given their belief that the wings of the bird at death will help and protect them in each of the trips they make.
On leaving the church, they are greeted by the municipal authorities who give them permission to approach the hole where the pole is to be placed.
Around the hole, flutes and drums signal the dancers to begin and they ask heaven and earth for protection. Each of them holds the turkey to bless themselves and the four cardinal directions.
Later, the turkey’s wings are broken and it’s put into the hole where observers, dancers and authorities cover the live bird with flowers, candles and the ingredients of the traditional “mole poblano” dish as part of their gratitude for letting them fly in the municipality’s main square.
With the live offering in the hole, they dance and then the church’s priest says a prayer and sprinkles holy water upon the offering.
Four groups of men take up position in the directions of the four cardinal points and begin to raise the pole. One end of it falls into the hole onto the offering, killing the turkey in one stroke.
Cuetzalan resident Don Jesus said he had taken part in this ritual for over 60 years, and it was important for his municipality and for residents to keep their traditions alive.
“It’s our ancestors’ customs so that nothing happens to those who will fly. Sometimes the rope breaks, sometimes an accident happens, they fall or they get hit. They perform the ritual so that none of that happens, that’s why the turkey is put underneath the pole right before they raise it,” he said.
As part of the customs and traditions, women are prevented from sitting on the pole because it can be a bad omen and lead to serious accidents. Only men can stand, touch or sit on it before it is raised.