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They fly through the air, with the greatest of ease

1 October 2009

The traditional Totonac Voladores ritual has been recognized by the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The Totanaca were the first people in Mexico to fall under Spanish rule… and the last to stage a mass uprising against foreigners in north America.

Veracriz was the first European city on the mainland, and — given the Totonac propensity for both good living and resistance — has had a dual reputation as THE party town of the Americas and as the “Thrice Heroic” city for withstanding attacks by the French in 1828, the United States in 1846 and the United States (again) in 1914. Not to mention various pirates and adventurers like the comically inept Austrian admiral, Maximilan von Hapsburg, misdirected his landing craft and came ashore in a cemetery in the French occupied city on 28 May 1864. Locals hid behind closed doors and snickered.

The City of Veracruz, of course, has long subsumed the Totanac culture, but it has survived, mostly in rural parts of the state and in the State of Mexico. In what was, until the 20th century, the relatively isolated community of Papantla, the last major “Indian massacre” in North America was 1920, late in the Mexican Revolution, when what was basically an indigenous protest against exploitation of natural resources by foreign multinationals (oil, in this case) turned to ethnic cleansing, with the “whites” being run out of town, or killed.

This was unusual, the Totonacs being noted for their tolerance, and Papantla certainly welcomes outsiders today (just don’t rip them off). It’s a small city, best known for vanilla production and Voladores. Given a Christian overlay — as so many survivors of indigenous ritual were — the better known ceremony is said to honor the Virgin Mary, and, in Papantla, the Volodores use a permanent platform located in the church yard. The near-by El Tajín ruins — which predate the Totanac culture — also have a permanent platform and are probably the best place to see the amazing “flying men” of Mexico.

But, as in this video distributed by UNESCO, there is more to the ritual, and more than an extra-large prayer wheel involved.

In rural areas (both in Veracruz, and over the state line in the State of Mexico),

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