The state of Michoacán, located in central Mexico, is home to the Tarascan people or Purépecha, as they call themselves, and their unique language is unrelated to any other in the world. Centuries ago, the Aztecs were unsuccessful in their attempts to conquer the Tarascan empire.
The following is excerpted from the essay by © Janet Brody Esser, “Those Who Are Not From Here : Blackman Dances of Michoacán”, in Behind the Mask in Mexico, editor Janet Brody Esser; Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1988; p.107, pp.122-123 & 116-117
For her kind permission to use excerpts from her essay, the Castañeda Museum thanks Dr. Esser, Emeritus Professor of Latin American Art History and Emeritus Associate Director, Center for Latin American Studies, San Diego State University, and Chair, Latin American Arts Committee, San Diego Museum of Art. The photos and their descriptions have been provided by Gayle Castañeda of the Castañeda Museum.
Blackmen are known in the Tarascan language as turía or turíacha, which is said by some Tarascans also to mean principal beings who control the air. While the Tarascan word turí means “black”, it also has the implication of catrín (elegant, urbane). Acha means “man” or “lord” and acha turí , although literally “black lord”, is translated into Spanish as hombre que no es indígena, that is to say, a non-Indian. When speaking Spanish, the Blackman characters are referred to as negros or negritos by Tarascans and non-Tarascans alike. The diminutive form (negrito) connotes the affection or familiarity felt toward Blackmen, rather than referring to their physical size; in fact, Blackmen are usually danced by grown men whose headdresses contribute additional height.
THE ROLE OF BLACK AFRICANS IN COLONIAL MEXICO
Tarascan villagers and barrio dwellers clearly invest a good deal of wealth and talent in producing dances of Blackmen. What can the motivation be for so much effort in a region where there are few, if any, persons identifiable as black? Surprisingly, research indicates that there were sizeable populations of blacks residing on the fringes of the Tarascan area all during the viceregal epoch. Blacks labored in numerous occupations, many of these requiring skill and even exercise of authority over the Indians. Tarascans worked with blacks and served under black command. They experienced blacks during the Colonial period as stewards, builders, traders, tailors, artisans, cowboys, and soldiers, because those indeed were some of the capacities in which black Africans served the New World. It is my contention that these experiences fused with Tarascan pre-Columbian religious imagery to produce the mythic Blackman of contemporary Tarascan dances.
During the three centuries of the Spanish viceroyalty, at least 250,000 African slaves were introduced into Mexico (Aguirre Beltrán 1952: 162). As the indigenous population sickened and died from the twin scourges of harsh treatment and Old World viral diseases, Africans were imported in greater numbers. In addition to the manual skills Africans brought with them from their homeland, they also brought a talent for political organization, which they employed in the many palenques (settlements) they founded as cimarrones (insurgent slaves). They also brought with them a love of pageantry drawn from their own rich ceremonial past. Black brotherhoods dedicated to the Virgin Mary flourished throughout Mexico and were famous for their use of elegant and exotic costumes.
In towns and cities occupied by Spaniards, of which a number were located in Michoacán, blacks worked as artisans, tradesmen, and especially as servants of the wealthy, who dressed them in extravagant livery. The imagery that emerges from contemporary Tarascan dances of Blackmen – footmen to the image of the Holy Child, custodians of richly dressed children, overseers of Chichimecas, smartly attired devotees of the Virgin, exotic foreigners – all derive from actual events experienced by Tarascans in the Colonial epoch.
THE BLACKMAN/NEGRITO CHARACTER OF URUAPAN, MICHOACÁN
Blackmen dance on the day of the patron saint of the participating barrios, at present including San Juan Quemada, San Miguel, and La Magdalena, and in the barrio of La Magdalena, Blackmen also accompany the Dance of the Children. Blackman/Negrito masks of Uruapan are distinctive with their high cheekbones, large aquiline noses, and carved, twisted, and forked beards. Masks are painted with black lacquer, an indigenous technique for which Uruapan is justly famous. Attached to the masks are headdresses made of black, curly lambskins hanging almost to the waist. At the juncture of fur and mask, long, broad ribbons of several colors are stretched with strands of silver and gold tinsel along the sides. Mirrors set into gilded cardboard stars, cloth flowers, ribbon rosettes, and strands of paste beads cover the top of the head. The Blackmen wear red cummerbunds, with long sashes and scarves of a diaphanous fabric across the chest. Trousers are of white homespun cotton with wide bands of embroidery at the lower edges. The black overtrousers are trimmed with ribbon rosettes, mirrors, and braid. Shirts are long sleeved and white.