Meet the Chinelos, raucous ambassadors to a Mexican protest tradition that’s brash, colorful — and very loud. Now jump!
The burst of trumpets and trombones punctuated by a haughty tuba and a big bass drum bursts through the flimsy screen of a subwoofer and flirts with cacophony. Suddenly I am jumping: two steps on my right foot, one hop on my left, and then leaning forward with my shoulder, moving in childlike delight. My shamanic companions the Chinelos are enormous — not necessarily in size, but in pageantry complete with feathered hats, bearded masks and Technicolor dresses sewn with fur and sparkle. One stands at least 8 feet tall to the tip of his tangerine feather headdress, and the front of his orange, red and yellow dress is aflame with a depiction of Aztec warriors. His hands are covered in white gloves. His face is covered with a mask that features a sculpted beard. Even a jumper only 4 feet tall and twirling in pink wears the mask. Her beard is crimson.
As I weave my way through their Crayola box of a celebration — in the heat of a relentless Fremont Street Experience night, no less — they hand me a flag to pump. I laugh and smile and have one of those moments when you feel you’ve experienced a better truth.
These costumed performers are the Chinelos, colorful celebrants and interpreters of a Mexican protest tradition that goes back hundreds of years. They’re more than just a local cultural performing group. Tight like family, nearly religious in their zeal to perform, they’ll don their dress for a full-blown heritage festival, a backyard party or a swap meet parking lot gig. It doesn’t matter to the Chinelos. The Chinelos just want to jump.
Rebels with a cause — and outfits
Perhaps their zeal can be traced back to the original Chinelos. In the late 1800s a group of young Aztecs, tired of being excluded from the Spanish Carnival celebration, donned ill-fitted clothing, covered their faces with handkerchiefs and took to the streets mocking the Spaniards’ snobbery by prancing about, whistling and conversing in highfalutin tones. It was an act of defiance, and what started as one is now 33 Chinelos groups in Morelos, one for each municipality, plus the troupes in America.
Although they’ve gone by different names, Vegas’ Comparsa Fiesta Morelense was founded in 2002 by a man from Morelos. It was the first group in Vegas. Eleven years later, the troupe has grown to more than 25. You’ll most likely see them at local Mexican celebrations, international festivals or in parades. They have a Facebook page to chronicle their appearances from Broadacres to the “Celebración de 70 años de St. Peter the Apostle.” It’s not uncommon for them to perform three times in a day.
When I visit a low-slung neighborhood near Rancho and 95 for an interview, I assume I will meet one member, but in the front yard, I’m greeted by Alma Gomez, Juan Bautista, Giovani Reza, Alfredo Calderon, Teresa Calderon and Adan Zamor. They usher me inside where a table is adorned with gleaming trophies: “Best In Walking Group” at the Helldorado Parade, First Place for “Group Dance” at the Las Vegas Carnaval International and Second Place in the Henderson Heritage Parade. They thank me again and again for being there. They ask me to thank imagined future readers.
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Any language barrier is no match for their enthusiasm as they share about themselves. Alfredo is 14 and wants to be a police officer. His mother is Teresa, and his father started the very first Chinelos, which is “grandfather” to the current Comparsa, in 2002. Gomez and Bautista are painters who are married, and their son is Giovani, who is also 14. Zamor, a maintenance supervisor, joined the group after spying the signature robe at Bautista’s house. He tells me how he immediately lit up with childhood memories of Morelos and half-announced, half-questioned, “This is Chinelos?!” They did not know each other in Morelos (nobody is even from the same municipality), but sitting around the table, completing each other’s sentences and sharing stories about birthday celebrations, it’s clear that these Chinelos are family. After every performance, they meet at somebody’s house for an after-party where the food and laughter are abundant.
A family of flair
Their bond is strengthened by a “this is how things are done in this family” approach to details, including the designs of their outfits, the type of music and the execution of the all-important jump. There are actually three crews of Chinelos in Las Vegas. “The difference is that Comparsa Fiesta Morelense focuses on the original jumping and wears more elaborate and more traditional dresses,” says Zamor. He emphasizes that the action is a jump, not a dance, and that the attire of Chinelos should not be called a costume, with a certitude that conveys without a doubt Fiesta Morelense’s commitment to the way things were in Morelos.
Century by century, the custom evolved and grew. At some point, a mask, papier mâché in appearance, was added to the attire. It has specific requirements, as detailed on Comparsa Fiesta Morelense’s Facebook page (facebook.com/comparsafiestamorelense): “Painted as necessary to simulate a face, also has large eyes, heavy eyebrows, beard (pointed, straight ahead and slightly upwards) and mustache (long and extended sideways),” or in short, downright Guy Fawkesian, a more pointed taunt at Europeans.
Today’s gowns, meanwhile, are far from the old, oversized outfits of the original pranksters. Instead, their dresses are 30 pounds of vibrant colors, feathers, fur and beads. While some municipalities in Morelos wear more modest ensembles, Comparsa Fiesta Morelense does Vegas proud with appearances that easily compete with our neon-lit skyline. The other Vegas troupes may permit variations from authentic embellishments and construction, but all of Fiesta Morelense’s gowns pay homage to their culture and are still 100 percent hand-constructed in Morelos by families of artisans who pass the craft down generation after generation. Fiesta Morelense works with a Morelos couple start to finish on a garment that can cost between $1,000-$5,000 and take three to seven months to complete. The most commonly featured motif is Aztec figures, described to me as the warriors in Apocalypto, but 14-year-old Giovani chose tigers.
“I saw it on the Internet,” he says, which seems to be a common method for finalizing the imagery that will grace a vestment.
I ask, “What if someone wants something non-traditional, like a zebra?”
Zamora answers: “I have seen some with, like, Mickey Mouse, but not in our group.” He fist-bumps Bautista, and they laugh.
So, perhaps there is a bit of competition with the other local jumpers, but it’s like a treasured school rivalry — rarely understood by outsiders, never to be settled, but healthy in that it brings those who participate even closer. Regardless of which group you see, the important thing for them is that you encounter the spirit of Morelos.
A little crazy, a lot happy
Unlike their 19th century ancestors, the modern performance is not a form of protest. They are compelled by their native music. To hear the music without dancing is impossible for them, and, as evidenced by young Giovani and Alfredo, both sons of Chinelos, participation is a way to transmit respect for heritage. “Maybe they can’t go to Mexico, but we can teach them to respect the tradition,” says Gomez.
But also, it is a practice shared in hopes that, as Bautista says, “People will appreciate that Mexico is full of different traditions and cultures” and a deeper desire that Morelos will be “recognized here in Vegas and throughout the world.” They are on a mission, which is represented by their nonprofit status and their insatiable devotion to performing.
When I ask how often they perform, Zamor quickly replies, “Every time somebody calls!” Bautista clarifies that they perform almost every weekend. Their record for most performances in one day is five. The day was December 12, the celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Because it was a celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary, they felt it would have been especially disrespectful to turn down an invitation, and at 2 o’clock in the morning, they were still jumping.
“We always want to perform,” Zamor says, and they do whatever it takes to make it happen. Even though there’s not a group of musicians in Vegas from Morelos, they’ve recruited players to learn the traditional songs of the Chinelos from a CD. So, at events — whether it is a religious celebration or a private birthday party (which they gladly do) — they can bring their own band, their own sound system, even their own generator if power is not available. When Calderon’s boss invited them to perform at a private party, they did, and whenever it’s a member’s birthday, they just have to jump.
That night on Fremont, 27 of them from 4 feet to 8 feet tall arrived at a sweltering concrete corner with their resplendent dresses on giant hangers and waited for their 15 minutes, and when the first boastful trumpet announced their moment, passersby stopped and heads turned to watch them march through a small opening in a side gate. I couldn’t help but jump, so when I asked them, “Why do you do it?” the question seems irrelevant, even inappropriate.
“It is hard to explain,” says Zamor. “It is just a feeling.”
Bautista continues: “My mom likes it and used to take me to see the Chinelos as a child. The music just started growing in all of us. We hear the music, and our feet just start going.”
Alma says, “It is in our soul.”
To listen to a traditional Chinelos song, go to bit.ly/12hBD2Z
Mayra Padilla assisted in translations for this story.