The Voladores of Papantla
Ask anyone who's been to Papantla what most
impressed them, and they'll probably say, "The Voladores." Many
people who've never been to the Gulf Coast -- or even to Mexico -
will light up in recognition at the mention of the Voladores. They
perform regularly throughout Mexico, Central and South America.
They've performed in several cities in the United States, and even
in Paris and Madrid. So, who are the Voladores, and why are they
Volador means flyer - he who flies.
It is breathtaking to watch the spectacle of four men gracefully "flying"
upside down from a 75 foot pole secured only by a rope tied around
Even more amazing is the musician,
called the caporal. Balanced on a narrow wooden platform without a
rope or safety net, the caporal plays a drum and flute and invokes
an ancient spiritual offering in the form of a spectacular dance.
As he turns to face the four cardinal directions, he will bend his
head back to his feet, balance on one foot then lean precariously
forward, and perform intricate footwork, all the time playing the
flute and drum! No matter how many times you see this beautiful
performance, it will continue to astonish you, and the plaintive
tune of the flute and drum will remain with you long after you have
The early history of the ceremonial
flight of the Voladores is shrouded in the mists of antiquity.
Information about the original ritual was partially lost when the
invading conquerors from Spain destroyed so many of the documents
and codices of the indigenous cultures. Fortunately, enough survived
through legend and oral history and in materials written by early
visitors to New Spain, that anthropologists and historians have been
able to document at least part of the story of this ancient
religious practice and how it has evolved through time.
A Totonaca myth tells of a time when
there was a great drought, and food and water grew scarce throughout
the land. Five young men decided that they must send a message to
Xipe Totec, God of fertility so that the rains would return and
nurture the soil, and their crops would again flourish. So they went
into the forest and searched for the tallest, straightest tree they
When they came upon the perfect tree,
they stayed with it overnight, fasting and praying for the tree's
spirit to help them in their quest. The next day they blessed the
tree, then felled it and carried it back to their village, never
allowing it to touch the ground. Only when they decided upon the
perfect location for their ritual, did they set the tree down.
The men stripped the tree of its leaves and
branches, dug a hole to stand it upright, then blessed the site with
ritual offerings. The men adorned their bodies with feathers so that
they would appear like birds to Xipe Totec, in hope of attracting
the god's attention to their important request. With vines wrapped
around their waists, they secured themselves to the pole and made
their plea through their flight and the haunting sound of the flute
In Mesoamerican times the ritual of
the Volador was performed throughout much of Mexico and extended as
far south as Nicaragua. It was performed once every 52 years at the
change of the century, and the brotherhood of the Voladores was
passed from father to son.
At the time of the Conquest, the
church fought strongly against what it considered heathen practices,
and indigenous worship and rituals were silenced or held in secret.
Later, the Catholic Church combined native beliefs with religious
dogma, creating a syncretization of faith. The flight of the Volador
was considered an interesting game by Colonial New Spain, and
special plazas were constructed where the Voladores performed for a
curious public. Over time the ritual slowly died out, until finally
the Totonaca and a few Otomi were the only groups performing this
the Totonaca people perform the flight of the Voladores for several
reasons. First, it keeps a part of their traditional culture alive
for everyone to see. Second, it provides additional income for the
Voladores and their families. Non-Totonacas are asked to make a
donation after each flight is completed, as well as for traditional
dances which are frequently performed on weekends and evenings in
the town plazas or in front of cafes. And last, it provides a sense
of group pride. Like other folkloric dances and music from around
the world, it's a way to celebrate heritage and diversity.
The Voladores are a source of great
pride to everyone in Totonocapan - the region of the Totonaca. In
Papantla, the hub of the vanilla industry, there is even a large
stone Volador that looks down on the city from one of the highest
points in town. The Volador is a moving testimony to the Totonaca
ancestors who founded Papantla in the 1200s, as well as to those who
continue to maintain the rich cultural legacy in this region of