When a Spanish colonist comes along, you must whip him.
That was the message of the Carnival of Tlaxcala (pronounced t-la-SCAH-lah) celebration, an import from the Central Mexican state, that filled a corner of Sunset Park with mask-and-feather-wearing revelers whacking each other in the behind with bullwhips on Sunday. The pomp and hurt-in-the-pants takes place before Lent in Mexico, but folks turned out from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Queens to catch a glimpse of their traditions brought to life in Brooklyn.
In the Dance of the Snakes, the party’s most attention-grabbing event, men called huehues (pronounced way-ways) wear natty outfits, wooden masks, hand-painted to represent Spanish landowners, and hats decked out with ostrich feathers to simulate indigenous headdresses, and exchange floggings between dance moves. Participants often come out the worse for wear, but it is all worth it to keep the custom alive, an organizer said.
“It’s really painful — sometimes there is bleeding and marks on the legs,” said Oscar Perez Morales, who hails from the Tlaxcala village of Panzacola. “Some guys use protection, but some guys wear only pants. It’s the tradition.”
The loud cracks of the whip are meant to evoke thunder and bring rain in the spring.
In Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state, the costumed dancers process through the streets with floats after crowning a Carnival queen. During the celebrations there the streets fill up with craft sellers, food vendors, and fireworks. The proceedings close with the heads of groups of costumed dandies bearing crosses to the altar of a church and saying prayers, then heading to the village square for a final dance.
Morales, who lives in Queens, organizes the festivals throughout New York City and in New Jersey with two other Mexican expats, who lay their heads in Ditmas Park.