David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Story of a Deer Dancer
Interview with Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna
Rancho Camargo, Sonora, April 1, 2002
by David Bacon

For four days at the end of March, the entire village of Rancho Camargo celebrates Easter.

The first day, men dressed in the surreal horned masks of the fariseos (the Pharisees), look for the viejito, an old man chosen to symbolize Christ in a syncretist combination of Catholic and indigenous symbolism. Children scream and chase them as they rush back and forth, from house to house, pretending to look everywhere for him. Finally, they bring the viejito from his hiding place, wrap ropes around him, and walk him down a road through sagebrush and desert scrub to town. There he's interned and the Easter ritual begins.

Rancho Camargo is a tiny place, so small that no priest ever comes to the church at the side of the open field that marks its central plaza. The people themselves erected the adobe structure -- a small tower, a white-washed empty hall with an altar and a couple of pews, and a vestry off to the side. It's not quite all finished -- who knows if it ever will be.

In the succeeding days, the church is one pole of a community drama in which the whole town takes part. For the first two successive evenings, the Veronicas (young girls dressed in white, called the tres Marias in some villages) lead everyone on a perigrination through the twelve stages of the cross, as they accompany the viejito bound in ropes. They walk and run down Rancho Camargo's dirt streets -- a crowd on foot, bicycles and horses -- past the adobe homes of the residents, their yards filled with flowering bougainvillea and fruit trees, as the sun sets and dusk and dust obscure the light.

Then they file back into the main square, and uncovered electric bulbs go on over the dancing ground, a dirt-floored area fifty feet on each side, enclosed by a roof overhead, across the plaza from the church. Behind low brick walls on each side, children and adults squeeze against each other to find a space to see the dancers. For the first three nights, musicians play flutes, drums, violins and a harp, while the pascolas, men dressed in white with ribboned masks behind their heads, their ankles wrapped in small rattles (or sonajas), stamp out the first dances.

Finally, the day before Easter, the deer dancer comes. In the room at the side of the church, he puts on a white shirt with an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, wraps his legs in the rattles and his waist with bells, and finally, on his head, ties the head of a deer. He is the main event, the one at the center of the town fiesta. He and the other dancers leave the church as villagers throw leaves and break eggs with confetti inside over each others' heads. They make a procession to the two crosses erected in the dirt of the plaza, and then the dance begins.

A new set of musicians line the floor next to the space where the deer dancer performs, pounding out rhythm on the gourd drums. Throughout the evening, that night, and into the next morning, the deer dancer sweats out his hoof-stamping, head-bucking imitation of the horned animal.

The musicos are all old men, who fuel themselves with aguardiente, the bottle with the white horse label passing from hand to hand until it's empty and another takes its place. In the crowd, quart bottles of Tecate beer are upended and exhausted at an even more rapid rate. Easter in Rancho Camargo is the time when otherwise sober-minded people not only can drink to their heart's content, but are expected to consume as much alcohol as possible. It creates an atmosphere that is almost trancelike for musicos and dancers, and a wild party for everyone else.

And on Sunday it ends. The fariseos are forgiven their imaginary crimes and burn their masks. The muscios and dancers lead the town around the plaza, and back into the church. The Veronicas get the blessing from the old men who, in the absence of a priest, lead the prayers and perform the rituals.

Rancho Camargo is one of five villages in the heart of lands of the indigenous Mayo, who live near the mouth of the river that bears their name, and which flows into the sea of Cortez as it joins the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern Sonora. The Mayo have some land of their own, still held collectively in ejidos, but most work as farm workers on the lands of the big landlords.

Most Mayo don't travel far, and few cross the border to the US. Since there's not enough work for everyone for the whole year, many Mayo travel to other parts of Sonora, or to Sinaloa or Baja California, making the circuit as crops ripen and are ready to harvest. But the cultural life of Mayo communities is so strong that most people want to be able to return for the fiestas and the other occasions which mark the holidays, the changing of the seasons, and their own connection to a collective past.

Nothing stays the same, however. And traditions, to live, must be continually reinvented by each succeeding generation.

The deer dancer is a central figure in the celebration of the Mayo fiestas, and the dance an important cultural symbol. Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna has become the best-known and respected deer dancer in the Mayo towns because of his skill and inventiveness in reinterpreting their traditions. If those communities continue to survive and their culture to live, it will be in large part because Pamfilo Lopez himself has found a kind of personal survival. In an important way, the culture lives in him.

As he took a break on the night of the Easter deer dance, he reflected on his life while journalist and photographer David Bacon recorded his thoughts.

I am Pamfilo Lopez Ozuna, and I'm a deer dancer. I've been dancing for almost seven years, since I was 15, at the fiestas our Mayo people celebrate in our communities at different times of the year.

When I'm dancing I think about everything. I imagine things. I think about the saint I'm dancing to, whether it's Christ, San Juan, Santa Maria, or San Jose. When the fiesta starts, I focus on the saint and give thanks for being able to learn, for knowing what I know. I don't want to worry about what people will expect. You'll never make people happy, but the saint you're dancing to will be happy. I think about him and focus on him. I pray that nothing bad will happen to me or that nothing will fail.

We are the new people, the people of my generation. But we are trying to learn what our ancestors gave us, trying to follow the culture that the ancient ones left behind. They did lovely things. The culture is beautiful, and we don't want it to end.

My father was a deer dancer for 27 years.

When I started I didn't know how to dance. I'd never even been to a fiesta to see it. But without knowing why or how, I wanted to do it. Like they say, wanting to dance was born within me.

One day suddenly I told my dad, "You know what, I want to dance." He said, "Well get the sonajas. [Sonajas are the ankle and wrist bands made of nuts, that make the sound when a dancer is dancing.] Put the deer on your head and start dancing, so I can see you how you do it and send you." I told him, "I'm not going to dance for you. If you want to send me, then send me. If you don't, then I'll never dance."

Finally my father said, "Fine, I'll send you. You're going to go dance at Santa Maria Baraje. That's when you'll figure out how to do it." And he did, on December 12th, 1995. Nobody told me anything beforehand. And afterwards, nobody said, "You did this or that wrong." My father didn't go with me, either. According to him he sent a friend to let me know what I was going to have to do. But he never said anything to me and it turned out that I didn't need him. I did everything that I was supposed to.

I never saw my father dress in his deer clothes. But before I started dancing, I saw in my dreams a large field in my hometown, and a fawn jumping there. Then a large snake attacked me, and the fawn told me what to do. At first the little animal was in shock, and then with his little head he told me to follow him to where his parents were -- a female deer and a male deer.

I had no idea at the time that I was going to dance, but I kept dreaming this and he called out to me again and again. When I got to the place in my dream, I would touch all the animals. My father says that's where I picked everything up without him telling me. Then I started to dream about the fiesta and what it would be like. That's how I learned to dress myself.

When I started to dance, my father stopped dancing to be with me. He helps me with the anhueja [a drum made from a gourd that sits in a tub of water while it's played] and with the group of musicians that I lead. At the same time, he watches me -- we take care of each other. Before I went to the fiestas, I didn't know about the jealously among the dancers and musicians. But you have to know how to take care of yourself. When someone is harming him, or knows more than he does, then I help him, and if he knows that someone's harming me, he helps me.

He's old, and I'm new and young. What he couldn't learn, I have been able to, and we feel comfortable sharing what we know or see at the fiestas.

After I began to dance, I started to see different things. At first, you don't know the elements in it. But then the dance becomes like a habit you're used to. Now I see many different possibilities, and at the same time I have fun. When I dance, I sometimes get lost. I don't even know what I'm doing. Other people tell me, "You know what you did this, and that other thing." But at the time I'm lost. Because when I dance, I dance.

A lot of other dancers don't get a crowd, but when I dance, I fill the place. Many people tell me that I do it differently. I don't even dance like my dad. They ask me who taught me, and I tell them that I taught myself. I learn by imitating the things I see in the world. You have to look for different things to distinguish yourself from other dancers. They can be new things, or thing from the ancestors that people are now learning again. I look forward and backwards.

Logically, to look for stuff in the past, you have to ask the older people, like my father or others who know how they did things before. They used to just dance to the drums, play the harp, and the anhueja. Now I get on top of the bule [the big maraca] or on top of the anhueja [the drum played in the water]. This is something that was done by my ancestors, but then people stopped for a long time until I began again. It's not easy, and I'm still the only one doing it. It's not only that you have to balance, but it's very easy to break the gourd.

Then there are new things -- ones I don't look for.

While I was dancing in one fiesta, a man approached me. He said, "You're from my home town, and I want you to show my friend here that in my town we know how to do things." I never imagined that he was going to put a bottle out there where I was dancing, but he did -- a beer bottle. It took me two hours of dancing without knowing what to do with it. My head was spinning, thinking of what to do, until I had it. I said to myself, "I'm going to open it with my mouth." I focused and I opened it. It felt good to accomplish something that others have never been able to do.

I was born in a clinic in Navojoa on the 14th of October, 1980. My parents and I still live in Los Nachuquis [one of a cluster of five Mayo villages outside Navojoa}.

I finished high school, but I didn't go to college or SEBETIS [one of the three teaching colleges in Navojoa, where the schools maintain student dance troupes doing indigenous Mayo dances]. I went to take the exams and I did well, but my father said, "I have no money to give you." I told him, "I'm going to work this year and start the following year."

I started working even before I started high school. During that time people in my family got sick and my parents went to help them and left me alone. In order to finish high school, I polished shoes, earning money to buy my uniform, books, notebooks, and pens. After high school, I couldn't find any good jobs, so I started working in the fields. Then I started to dance. One week, I'd work in the fields. Then the next there wasn't any work, so I danced. That's how it went.

I never really liked working in the fields. But I got married, and now we have a 7-month baby. I got married here in Rancho Camargo [another of the five villages] but not through the church. We say I got married by the Law of the Mountain. That's what they say when one steals a girl and marries her without her family's permission. I had a civil marriage later, when the baby was going to be born.

With dancing there's no Social Security [Mexico's national health care program] the way there is with other kinds of work. Teachers, give thanks to God, have Social Security, and can go and get treated if they're sick. With dancing, there is none. If you get sick, you learn how to treat yourself. You don't forget these things. If you want to heal then you will heal.

We don't put a price on the dance we do at the fiesta. An offering is not something that you charge for. An offering is when you dance to the saints and not the people. If the people want to give us something, they do it out of their good will. But usually it's between 200 and 1000 pesos. We don't put a price on it. When we dance, we never know how much we're going to earn.

When I'm not dancing, I have to work in the fields. We harvest zucchini, chiles and tomatoes, and we weed for them. I can get permission to go dancing, and the days that I don't dance, I go to work. I think the people we work for are Arabic. They treat us well and we have work there all year around.

But a week's work doesn't even come up to two fiestas. In one fiesta, a simple one, we earn what we would in 3 days of work in the fields. In the fields it's only 60 pesos per day. In three days you don't earn 200 pesos. Sometimes you can earn 200 pesos in one fiesta. We dance day and night, but I'm young and my body's used to it. I've danced for 8 days straight at different places.

That's how I support my family and buy the groceries. From the fiestas and from the fields, we have enough to eat and I can clothe everyone. Thank God it's possible.

Now sometimes my wife takes my son to the fiestas when I'm dancing. when he hears the sound, he looks alert, and starts moving and dances. But who knows if he'll like it in the future? Only he can decide what he wants to do.

At this fiesta there's another young boy dancing the deer. I think he's around 6 or 7 years old. I don't know for sure, but I do know that he dances very well. He has the desire to learn. But I don't know if he will dedicate his time to dance or to studying in school. He could do both, but no one can obligate him. No one can tell him, "you have to dance" or "you have to study." Only he can judge how far he's going to take either one.

For my own future, I pray to God that work never ends, so that I'll continue to be able to support my wife and my child. I ask God for work and the fiestas. People come to my house, asking me to teach their son or nephew how to dance, so that later they will have someone to leave in my place when I no longer dance. That idea makes me happy -- to teach so someone can continue doing what I did, and do more than what I could.

When I dance I thank God I'm here today. I hope He will help me do a good job and that I can travel far and see other places. Maybe I won't be here tomorrow, but if I'm not, that's just too bad.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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