Photo from Alejandro Linares Garcia.
Balancing a reed flute in one hand and beating out an ancient rhythmic prayer on a small drum with the other, El Caporal stands 150 feet above the ground atop an erect pole, overseeing the flight of four young dancers gliding counterclockwise around him, like a human pinwheel. The acrobats, known as “bird men” among the Totonac of Veracruz, Mexico, are connected to the pole by a cord of rope wrapped around their waists, and slowly uncoiled from the top, the acrobats descending upside down, with arms outstretched, to the High Priest’s unrelenting tune.
The Ritual of the Bird Men began over 1,500 years ago as a prayer to the Spring (Xipe Totec), sun (Chi’chini) and rain (Tlaloc) gods during the Spring equinox. Each flyer represents a bird, an element and a cardinal direction circling a total of 13 times during their descent (52 altogether, keeping with the pre-colonial calendar), while El Caporal represents the center of the universe; his music, the voice of the sun. But when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries arrived and began silencing local rituals, the voladores were forced to pretend their dance was a game, and eventually assimilated it into the Roman Catholic Corpus Christi celebration, held the first week of June.
The custom has spread throughout Central America, varying with each place, bending to religious modifications. Some flyers now include women amongst them, which has many communities divided. These days, Los Voladores de Papantla perform for tips from tourists visiting the Xcaret Theme Park in the Mayan Riviera, outside the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City or on Puerto Vallarta’s waterfront, on the opposite end of the country. But there are still indigenous flyers fighting to keep the ritual alive in its spiritual context, outside of its entertainment value.