TWENTY-FIVE years ago the Huave Indians of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec were still a traditionally hermetic society at odds with the world and the supernatural cosmic universe. Commissioned by the Oaxaca state government, I visited them to record ``native dances'' in an effort to preserve them as a part of our universal legacy. I found San Mateo del Mar, the highly conservative ceremonial center, on a narrow strip of windblown sand dunes between isthmian lagoons and the raging Pacific Ocean. The place had an air of barbaric antiquity: Its empty streets were seared by sun and enclosed by high walls of matted cane. Dry winds drove stinging sands before them.
Cold air masses sweep down from the Gulf of Mexico and clash with warm, moisture-laden air in the tropical Bay of Tehuantepec, precisely at San Mateo. These clashes cause seasonal disturbances, water spouts, and violent tropical storms. The Huaves were said to be powerful nature witches. Given their weather, I could see why.
After I presented my papers to the village authorities, a must in these circumstances, the mayor gave me space to sleep in and stow my gear in the deserted schoolhouse.
In contrast to the surrounding silence of the village, the garrulous market, where I could buy meals of fish and tortillas, teemed with enterprising Zapotecs from the nearby town of Juchit'an. Here thatched huts crowded around a large open plaza dominated by a squat church built in the 17th century. Devoid of bell towers and corroded by sea winds, this structure irradiated an aura of pagan mystery.
``What kinds of dances are performed here?'' I asked the village mayor.
He named several, then mentioned: ``Omalndiuk, the Serpent's Head.''
The next performance of this ancient ritual, still performed devotedly by the Huaves, was scheduled for the Corpus Christi celebrations the following year. I was determined to be there.
For a modest sum, the authorities permitted me to draw and measure the masks and costumes and arranged a partial rehearsal. I watched dancers in short embroidered and fringed capes, carrying small wooden ``lances'' in one hand, simulate the wiggling movements of a great serpent.
Two dancers stood out. One was Neajeng, the Archer, Father Lightning. Dressed in an incongruous black serge suit and matching homburg, he wore a crude, ruddy mask. On it a black mustache surrounded the mouth, a feature seen on pre-Columbian Tlaloc sculptures.
The other dancer wore a white mask, a tan felt hat, and a wig woven from the hair of a white horse's mane. His legs were smeared with white clay. Tied to his left wrist was a small wooden disk. He endlessly rubbed a wooden machete across the disk while emitting an ominous bleating sound from his throat. Strapped to the small of his back was a good-size serpent's head, hacked from wood; hence the dance's name. This dancer represented Ndiuk, the mythical water serpent.
Next year when I returned for the Corpus Christi celebrations, I found the performance much more exciting than the rehearsal.
This time the village authorities insisted I pay a fee to film the dance. In return I received an impressive permit stamped, signed, and thumbmarked by the 13 judges of San Mateo.
As I got ready to start filming, I congratulated myself on being here alone where I could blend in with the crowds and so accomplish my research without calling attention to myself. Just then, an expedition from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology unexpectedly appeared. Headed by the venerable ``papa'' of Mexican anthropology, Roberto Weitlander, it included several notables. Apparently assuming that all outsiders were connected, the local constable demanded that I pay an additional sum for these newcomers. But my funds were exhausted and I refused.
All of a sudden two masked comics appeared toting ancient chests intricately inlaid with fine woods. From these they extracted pots of embers and threw onto them red chilis. These produced clouds of cough-provoking smoke. The comics purposely pursued anthropologist Weitlander, blowing caustic smoke into his face, making the poor man run. Those of us who knew him were appalled.
Now the Huaves poured into the village square bearing fishnets with flowers stuck in them, saw fish snouts, and paper flags, and wearing minute animals of baked corn dough twined about their bodies. Making a tremendous din, they ran, jumped, mounted horses, or led mules. Prolonged noise rent the air: cries, whistles, firecrackers, the clanging of bells, the shrilling of flutes, the pounding of deer antlers on tortoise shells, the rolling of drums.
As I continued filming - the matter of the additional fee had not yet been settled - a Huave clubbed me on the neck. He sent tripod, camera, and brand-new Pan Cinor lens crashing to the ground. A brawl ensued. A sawfish impersonator with forbidding, toothy snout set upon me.
The ruckus ended with me in the local jailhouse. Juchitecos from the market guarded my photo equipment while two staunch friends, the old prayer master and the village mayor, quickly rescued me from jail.
Because of the presence of so many visiting anthropologists with their cameras held high, the Serpent's Head dance did not take place. Later, having made peace with the Huaves, I did see the dance. It depicts the death struggle between the Archer and the Serpent, culminating in the symbolic beheading of the Serpent. The Archer circles the kneeling Serpent, both protagonists reciting in archaic Spanish. Then the Serpent arises and pursues the Archer as dancers disappear in formation.
Life has been taken and restored. Nature has been renewed and the coming rains promised.
The performance was more than I had anticipated. It was not simply ``native dances,'' devised to entertain. What I saw had the essentials of true theater. I had witnessed a vital heritage that delved into the pre-Columbian magico-religious past. I saw that the old gods of Meso-America still exist in remote places in a vigorous theatrical tradition that fights fiercely for its survival.