Oil and Sin: The Mexican Town Where the Devil Escapes Before Lent


“A Mexican does not want to have fun; he wants to outdo himself” Octavio Paz

The silence was broken by the jingle of bells that started to get closer and closer. The nearer the sound got, the more it mingled will guttural grunts and shouts. The devils were upon us and the anticipation was intense. Turning to look, we saw a group of men appearing in the distance. Covered in black oil, some wore carved wooden masks with horns jutting from them. Many carried sticks, staffs or devil forks and as they ran, jumped and danced along the street bashing the bells that were strung around their waists. The sight was eerie, haunting and exciting all at once, both enticing and repelling.

The intensely raging sun did nothing to deter the diablos who seemed to get rowdier the nearer they got. Still they remained relatevely timid, not coming too close to onlookers and just dancing together, bells jangling and grunts filling the air. Soon they were joined by a group of men and boys covered in a bright blood-red paint and others covered head to toe in a metallic-looking silver. Then it was the turn of the men dressed as women, young and old, before finally a bride and groom (who were both men) arrived to the fiesta in this small town of San Martin Tilcajete just outside of Oaxaca City.

As if on signal, the brass band, that had been taking a break to enjoy breakfast along with the local police at the municipal president’s house struck into action, their bouncing brassy beat guiding this raucous wedding party out on to the street. The crowd had swelled by this point and off we bounced under the white heat, following the happy couple. We all streamed into the patio of a house in the town and the wedding party jumped, swang and bopped to the beat, while more and more partygoers, dressed as anything from clowns to crones kept pouring in.

Next stop, the main square for the wedding, officiated by a ‘judge’ in comedy glasses who interviewed the bride and groom as if they were on a 90s dating show. Soon they were ‘married’ to everyone’s delight and the music struck up again and firecrackers boomed and shook all around. It was 11am on a Tuesday and the main square was full of revelers.

This carnival, that has been going for as long as anyone I spoke to could remember, is about two things, letting your inner dark side free before the pious time of Lent and mocking the Spanish conquistadors. The wedding plays the role of mocking the Spanish and what were seen as their unusual marriage ceremonies.

Now the Spanish had been mocked, it was time to really let the devil run wild. As we moved towards the afternoon, the drinks had been flowing for a good few hours. Diablos downed coronitas (small Corona beers) to refresh themselves in the heat serving also to make them less and less timid. The aceitados, as the men covered in oil are called began to run around staining people with oil that supposedly represents sins that are not easy to remove. They started to creep up behind and shock onlookers and the younger devils were using the oiling of local girls as a seemingly successful flirting technique.

The party, which takes place every year on Shrove Tuesday in this small Oaxaca town full of artisans, goes into the night aided by the municipal president who feeds the whole town at 3pm to give them the energy to keep going until way after dark. By 2pm bands of diablos were seeking out shade and beers, getting themselves ready to really let their inner devil run wild when the sun sank away. The next morning they will wake up on the first day of Lent and the town will wash away the black oil and begin the pious forty days preparation for Easter, until next year when that inner devil can be let free once again.

Photo Credit: Nikhol Esteras Photography

Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in BBC Travel, CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR and The Independent among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Instagram and Twitter.

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