THE BLOG
11/11/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Behind the Totonac Mask: Trek to Carnytown Mexicano

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Last weekend in Tlapacoyan, Mexico, Salvador Garcia Alvarez talks about his town emptying out of men each year as they go north to work in American carnivals. This time of year, they come home to families and a different world.

"The witch grabs me, she takes me to her home, she sits me on her lap, she gives me kisses (she says) 'I only wish to eat you.'" -- Classic Son Jarocho song, La Bruja, "The Witch"

Clouds tipped the foothills shrouding the small town cutout from the thick semitropical forest.

Drizzle just began as I got off the regional bus in Tlapacoyan and walked up to the official at the gate, handed him pictures of locals and said, "Hable English?"

Such was the extent of my Spanish. Without Spanish. Without an address. Without the last names of the people I was seeking. I began showing the same pictures to the local barber, pedestrians and, finally, a person walking out of a the nearest church.

"Butler?" he said as he continued walking, and I followed.

The people in the pictures were all wearing Butler Amusements shirts and standing in California carnivals.

Along a short street of faded and chipped cement buildings, he led me to the only new, bright tropical pink building.

I didn't know it, but as I suspected, I stumbled upon the headquarters of Victor Apolinar, the man behind the remarkable transformation of Tlacaloyan into the center for Mexican migrants to U.S. traveling carnivals.

A cell phone call later, I was seeing my former carnival boss Salvador Garcia Alvarez, his brother Rodolfo, and their extended family at their childhood home.

Salvador was so surprised, he dramatically faked he was fainting, and then fell to the floor.

They acted as if I had found them in a lost city in the Amazon.

I was there to reunite with "Jarocho" carnies and dip my toes into the mysteries of Tlapacoyan.

Carnytown Mexicano

I quit Butler Amusements in April, after two months of working rides in open lots, malls and churches in the San Francisco Bay area. More than two-thirds of our traveling carnival unit came from the foothills of this mountainous region of the Sierra Madre Oriente.

People often wonder who carnies are, in what kind of subculture they exist. Mexican migrants are a subculture within that subculture.

Yet in many parts of the South and West in the United States, they are the majority of workers and the no-so-new face of American carnivals.

Last weekend, I was at the source of Mexican carnival ride workers for U.S. carnivals and they recognized me.

It was a 33-hour bus ride from my last job at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas to Veracruz. It took another six hours via bus along the Costa Esmerelda and back into the hills to Tlapacoyan.

I found a town newly alive after being nearly dead during carnival season, from February to October.

A fraternity of carnies was back, kissing their families, spending their dollars and at the same time wary of being watched by those who stay behind, "the bad men."

Salvador invited me in to meet his parents, children and his father's mad parrot - Toby, who bites.

We went on an all-carny tour of the town, as Salvador brought me to see more family, friends and neighbors who worked in carnivals. Some I knew and some I was meeting for the first time, asking where they worked, which ride they ran.

I walked the wet, busy Saturday market (called tianguis) with its carts of fruit, hanging meat, cantinas and games. Got schooled in local Tocanoc culture. I wanted to go out at night for local Son Jarocho music but was told, in the streets of Tlapacoyan, nights are not for gringos.

The weekend ended with a born-again Christian revival. Alongside carnies in the congregation, I listened to their preacher portray their town as a biblical drama come to life.

People spoke in tongues and fainted as the preacher jumped and yelled into the microphone about Exodus, Moses, the "Promised Land" and violence in town, "that is like a plague."

Past alive in people's faces

The town I found nestles near the end of the trans-Mexican volcanic belt, steeped in a history of being a corridor between the plains and the gulf coast.

Rivers, gorges and waterfalls nearby draw tourists every year but fewer due to security concerns.

The most significant cultural draw is El Cuajilote, a nearby Totonac archaeological site where ancient Totonac people played their violent ball games and made human sacrifices to the gods.

In a town with roots so ancient, one looks for connections to an earlier time.

Tlapacoyan is still a geographic corridor for fruits, coffee, vanilla and other agricultural trade between the plains and the coast. Now it also is a corridor for people headed to traveling carnivals.

I found it interesting that the Totonacs believed that the soul comes from the mother, much of their art is of a mother goddess. The two main churches in Tlapacoyan are dedicated to the ascension of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and feature her prominently behind the altar. As far I could tell, that is their main public aesthetic.

Totonac ceramic masks differ from Aztec and Mayan art in that many of their faces feature broad smiles. The centuries of mixed cultures means nobody knows who is Totonac or Aztec. In Tlapacoyan, they call themselves Jarochos, a moniker for people from the state of Veracruz.

Yet I saw many smiles around town I thought doppelgangers for the smiling ceramic Totonac masks.

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The only connection I saw to carnivals was the ancient ceremony of the Danza de los Voladores, "dance of the fliers."

On special occasions and for tourists in nearby towns, four traditionally dressed 'voladores' swing around a tall pole while a fifth dances at the top with a drum attached to a whistle.

Without the dancer at the top, it resembles a carnival swing ride. A pal of mine at Butler, Marco, also from Tlapacoyan, ran the YoYo in California, Oregon and Washington this year.

Now that I think of it, Marco too can smile like a Toconac mask, with a mix of mirth and menace.

Family thoughts at a family meal

Salvador and I caught up with each other in his kitchen, in the two-room former attic in his parents' home.

Salvador's wife, Guadalupe, wore a bright red KP Concessions apron with pictures of cotton candy and a corn dog on the front as she made chicken picante with avocados, cactus and tortas.

She travels north with Salvador, working in concessions and living in an even smaller space in the mobile bunkhouses.

I sat at the dinner table and joked that I wanted cotton candy, funnel cakes and corn dogs for dinner.

Hands still in the sink, she laughed.

"Then I quit," she said.

It was over dinner Salvador said how sorry he is for American families he sees up north.

"We do not have a big house. We don't have new clothes or a new car. We have happy families," he said.

"I live in the same house I was born in. I am 47. My children, live with us (when not at college) ... People tell me American children leave at 18."

Salvador is a happy family man, no mistake. His home is filled with laughter, college dreams and a mad parrot. He says his happiness is his wealth. Here is where Cortez would have found his Totonac gold.

His son, Ricardo, 20, is studying to be a civil engineer and daughter Rosario, 29, is studying to be a radiologist. All Salvador and Guadalupe's carnival money goes to their education.

I ask Ricardo if he would consider going north to earn extra money in traveling carnivals.

More laughter.

"I hear," he said, "the work is too hard."

Future weaves with past

The future hangs over the town like the dramatic low clouds I saw getting off the bus.

Butler bosses told Salvador that "Republicans" will be trying to restrict H-2b work visa laws so they may work fewer months next year.

The town needs the money, he says, it is already a poor and tough place.

Ricardo says the town is so dangerous, he only comes home periodically and rarely goes out at night.

Salvador, a positive guy in general, adds that he doesn't go out at night but why would he, after being away all year he's happy to be home.

Yet it is worse than he says.

Rodolfo later tells me returning carnies wear a "blanco," on their backs, a target. Local crime bosses know they have dollars. When they are gone for the season, carnies pay protection money to the criminals to leave their families alone.

"It is awful," Rodolfo said. "This was a safe town when we grew up."

Behind the mask

After a couple of hours at the born-again Christian revival on Saturday night, Rodolfo walked me back to my $15-a-night Hotel Valencia.

I'd been invited into homes, businesses and churches. I saw where these carnies were born, went to school and got married.

I knew them by their carnivals rides up north but the reality of these people took shape walking their streets.

These were profound experiences and at the door of my hotel I thanked Rodolfo with my hand over my heart.

The weekend rain let up once again but left Calle Ferrer looking like an en pleine air painting, simmering in the wet night and under dim street lamps.

Perhaps still overwhelmed by the revivalist fever, Rodolfo looked at me and said I should come back next year when carnies return home again.

"Because people love you here."

That adds another layer to things, I thought, closing the door.

On Sunday, looking out the window as bus rolled out of Tlapacyan, I wondered what I just saw.

I never met Apolinar, who recently was elected mayor. I never saw the violence. A weekend isn't long enough.

All that came to me were impressions, of a Mesoamerican people living between worlds. More urgent for them is feeding their families and safety.

I thought of American traveling carnivals so dependent on these tough men, who come back to the states year after year with the knowledge of how to safely set up a Giant Wheel or a rollercoaster and seemingly in a snap.

Tough men, I'd say, but having seen their hometown I'll forever think of them as if dancing on a high loose pole with a whistle and a tiny carnival drum.

Maybe because it was the superstitious week leading up to Mexico's Day of the Dead. Maybe the undeniable power of Rodolfo's revival got to me too.

I wondered, will these men eat the witch or will the witch eat them.

Then I relaxed and watched the surf as the bus hobbled along the bumpy coastal road of Costa Esmeralda, because there are no witches, only traveling carnivals.

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This is the tenth month of my year in traveling carnivals and the end of the traditional carnival season. I've hitchhiked more than 12,000 miles and worked in traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. I've written about carny life from Alaska to Mesoamerica. I'm writing from Veracruz and may make one more carnival before writing a book on this remarkable year.