25 YEARS AGO ON AMBERGRIS CAYE BY ANGEL NUÑEZ
the book, The Little World of Danny Vasquez, narrated by a Sanpedrano, Danny recollects on the Grand Fiesta in San Pedro. June 29 is the Feast Day of St. Peter and it has been the occasion of the biggest island fiesta ever since the Yucatecan refugees settled in San Pedro in 1848. The preparations for the fiesta took a week, the celebration itself lasted a week, and a third week was required to clean up the village.
“In those days we had little money but had the luxury of time. We could spend three weeks on the fiesta and be happy. Today everybody has money but no time,” says Danny as he takes us back to 1916 to a San Pedro of two short streets, 400 people, no electricity, no radios, no motor boats.
The fiesta was organized by a committee of four Batabs, two chics and representatives of the three rich families. In the Maya system a Batab was a powerful man like a mayor of a village. In this fiesta they were to collect donations and fees and keep order at the dances. Chic is a Mayan word for comedian. The committee also chose El Amo de Hacienda (owner of the farm) who had to be a rich man because he had to offer gifts during the fiesta. The committee also decided which young ladies would be invited to be the featured dancers during the fiesta.
A month before the fiesta, the Batabs went around the village collecting money for the fiesta or materials. Everybody contributed, if not money, it was posts, nails, sail cloth or something useful. The money was used to purchase lumber from Harley’s Store in the city to use for the dance floor. Papa Blake was usually in charge of the building but all men helped in the construction. All work was done for free.
First we built the enramada. This was the dance hall. We put up posts all around the park and covered the roof with canvas sail cloth. Then we laid the dance floor. Next we built the tamazucas, the food stalls. There were about a dozen of them and large enough so that a number of people could sit down at tables.
Then it was time for the first night of fiesta. The dance was called “Alborada”. At six in the evening Juan Guerrero and the band would march up and down the streets playing the San Pedro anthem, “Los Aires”. At eight o’clock the Batabs dressed in white cotton shirts and pants and wearing cowhide sandals appeared at the enramada and ready to begin. Two Batabs stayed at the entrance and two were inside to preside over the dance and keep order. No drinking was allowed and anyone who came to the door intoxicated was turned away. People brought their own chairs from home and the Batabs borrowed more for 25 or 30 young ladies to sit on. Two young men ushered the ladies to their seats.
The band then played a couple of two-steps to announce that the festivities were about to begin. Then the chief Batab chose 12 young men and brought them to the center of the dance hall. They had to be dressed in white long sleeved shirts with cuff links. They also wore straw hats.
Then the Batab took out his handkerchief and walked to where the girls were sitting. At random he touched a dozen girls with his handkerchief. These young ladies got up and walked to the center of the dance hall and lined up in front of the men. The Batab nodded solemnly to Juan Guerrero and the band played Los Aires. It was the first piece played at every dance during the Fiesta de San Pedro.
All the preparations were done by village volunteers and now it was time to enjoy. For the fist song the Batab had selected 12 young men and 12 young ladies to dance and open the festival.
The men bowed to the girls and took off their hats. The girls curtsied and the men put their hats on again. There was a custom that if a man liked a girl, he could put his hat on her head. Some girls got several hats and some got none.
When this piece was finished the girls sat down and the Batab touched another 12 girls and this process continued until all the girls had danced. The girls sat down with the hats she had collected on her lap. The owners had to go to them and buy back their hats. Whatever money the girls collected was theirs to keep.
For the next hour, the two Chics made everyone laugh with jokes or imitations of different people. Usually they dressed up as husband a wife and put on their show mimicking women and men in the village. Then the band played Angaripola, a zapateado. The third set was a faster zapateado and then the fourth was el Torito, in which the men pretended to be bulls and the girls bullfighters. The fifth set was El Toro Grande in which the girls tried to trip the men, and if the men fell down, he was the big joke of the night.
Between sets the girls were served sweet biscuits and Chavannes red lemonade. Just before midnight The Batab announced that the normal dancing was over and that everyone who wished to dance may do so by paying a fee. The band struck up a waltz and the danced hall was soon crowded. No man was allowed to touch his lady even if it was his wife. They placed a handkerchief on each hand so that they would not make contact with her hands or her shoulders. This was the style of the days of Queen Victoria and the English influence of proper manners that swept Europe, America and even San Pedro. The dancers politely clapped their hands and often shouted ‘enco, enco’, the San Pedro version of ‘encore, encore’.
The Panama hats were very pupular with the young men of San Pedro. No man was allowed to touch his lady even if it was his wife. They placed a handkerchief on each hand so that they would not make contact with her hands or her shoulders.
“At midnight we broke for food,” commented Danny Vasquez, “and then the dance went on until almost daylight.” The second day of festival started at nine in the morning. You had to have stamina in those days to survive. However at noon the Batab led a parade to the home of the Amo de hacienda and in Maya invited him and his wife to join the party. He graciously accepted the honor and the parade returned to the ‘enramada’ at the park while the bland played “Los Aires”. The Amo and his wife sat on rocking chairs. He placed his Panama hat (expensive hat) and placed it on his wife’s lap. He signaled to one of his servants who brought a box and he poured out its contents, 50 or more gold coins in U.S. $5.00 denomination, into the hat. Then the band struck another piece and each pair of dancers went in front of the Amo. He showed his receipt as proof that he had paid, and the Amo’s wife gave the lady a gold coin.
The band then played a waltz and only the Amo and his wife danced this piece. Then the dance continued all day long until six in the evening when all were ready to rest. The next four dances were similar to the first one. The seventh and last day, however, was called “Xtol”. Only men danced- half of them dressed as women. It was fun and all the villagers came out to watch this foolishness. Throughout this dance everyone was eating rice lab. Each woman had to bring a cup and a spoon and she would feed it to her partner to eat some too. The rice lab was never finished. One of the Chics who acted as comedian would go to men and ladies and wipe their mouths with a piece of cloth and then he would announce that the cloth was an old man’s underpants. Most people laughed, but once in a while someone would become very angry, especially if the person was not a Sanpedrano. This was the end of the Gran Fiesta, Dia de San Pedro and all villagers took it very seriously because they all venerated Saint Peter and wanted to honor him as best they could.
Very interesting and traditional! This was the beginning of a one-week long fiesta in San Pedro twenty five years ago…actually in the 1910’s and 1920’s.