For the third time in nine years I am in Oaxaca, Mexico for the Carnival Workshop taught by my friend Mari Seder and her colleague Humberto Batista. We are here to explore painting and photography and to enjoy the unique Carnival celebrations in this part of Mexico.
Last Tuesday, Feb. 28, we traveled to the village of San Martine de Tilcajete where the carnival celebrations include a parade led by a mock bride and groom (both men) who lead a noisy and ribald crowd through the village followed by “Devils” and costumed celebrants and a brass band.
Usually the man who is dressed as the bride—a great honor—is in his 30’s and plays the role comically. I’m told it began as an annual parody by the peasants of the richer classes and their behavior. The parade stops at the Mayor’s house and involves lots of drinking and sharing of local gossip in rhymed couplets. But this year the role of the bride was taken by a young boy of 13, Zutiel Jimenez Ortega, who had caught the bouquet thrown by last year’s bride.
For the first time I was at the home in the primitive cluster of stucco huts that make up his family compound, along with about 20 other photographers, early enough to see the boy prepared by his family members for the transformation into this all-important Carnival role.
Clearly he was nervous, scared, and reluctant to put on the garb of the bride. I can’t remember ever before crying while photographing a story, but seeing him/her sitting on a bed surrounded by dolls and toys, all alone in this new persona, brought me to tears.
His mother (in the turquoise top) came into the room to advise him and she proudly showed the photographers outside a photograph of the boy, four years before, (on the left) when he was only 8 and was one of the grease-covered "devils" who tagged along in the parade.
But as the morning progressed, after encouragement from family and friends, the Carnival bride rose to the occasion and took her part at the head of the parade with great élan.
The "mock wedding" is a tradition in many countries at Carnival, when roles are reversed and cross-dressing is encouraged. (Witness the two six-foot-tall cross-dressers below, with friends.) The bride role played by the boy here is not about homosexuality, but it is more poignant than usual, it seemed to me, because the person playing the starring role was at a threshold, considering with mixed feelings, the life that lay ahead of him as an adult.