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Fighting with Jaguars, Bleeding for Rain Volume 61 Number 6, November/December 2008
by Zach Zorich

Has a 3,000-year-old ritual survived in the highlands of central Mexico?

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Fighting is part of the rituals that mark the beginning of the rainy season in Mexico's Guerrero Highlands. The masks resemble the heads of jaguars, animals with ancient connections to rain and sacrifice. (Jorge Perez de Lara)

Tigre masks are made from thick layers of rawhide. The mouth slot allows fighters to see and breathe, but just barely. (Zach Zorich)

Children take part in the Tigre ritual under the supervision of an amarradoré, in straw hat, who helps them tie their masks and referees the fights. (Zach Zorich)
Ritual Boxing on ArchaeologyTV

Associate editor Zach Zorich comments on his experience watching and filming ritual boxing in Mexico:

In early May I went to the Guerrero highlands to see the celebrations that take place during the Catholic Holy week, which coincides with the beginning of the spring planting season. The people in several mountain towns practice a type of Catholicism that incorporates religious beliefs and rituals that pre-date the arrival of Europeans. The most spectacular of these rituals are the Tigre fights. Men in the village of Acatlan dress in jaguar costumes and box each other as a kind of sacrifice to the rain god, Tlaloc. (The goggle-like eyes on their headgear match ancient depictions of both Tlaloc and his Maya counterpart Chaak.) A similar ritual takes place in the town of Zitlala a couple days later where men from rival barrios fight each other with clubs made of rope. The hope is that Tlaloc will be pleased by the rituals and provide enough rain for their crops. Some archaeologists believe that combat rituals like the Tigre fights date back roughly 3,000 years to the earliest days of the Olmec civilization and were also practiced by the Maya, Zapotecs, and Aztecs.

In both Acatlan and Zitlala I filmed the ritual fighting--something that proved to be challenging. I had to hold the camera above the heads of other spectators in the dense and milling crowd. In addition to all of the jostling and pushing, fights erupted unexpectedly throughout the mass of people. So while the videos are on the rough side, they are a fair representation of the experience.

Jaguar-masked fighters at Acatlan. It might look like a big party in a field, but the fights are really an act of religious devotion as shown by the Christian symbols many of them use in their costumes. The fighters, however, aren't the only thing to watch. A man called a Huesklisklis plays a role that is part clown, part crowd control, dancing around the fighters and whipping the spectators with a rope when they get too close to the fighters.

Acatlan youngsters continue the tradition. Young Tigres start boxing under the supervision of an Amarradore, an older Tigre who helps the fighters tie their masks and acts as a referee during the fight. The Tigre masks not only protect the fighters but also give them the strength and courage of a jaguar.

Ritual rope fights at Zitlala. There are very few rules in Tigre combat, and most are enforced by a personal sense of honor. In some of the early fights at Zitlala, where opponents square off with rope clubs, there was confusion about whether striking the legs, which is seen as a cheap shot by some, was permitted. It didn't take long before all of the fighters were clubbing each other's knees and thighs.

Jaguar masks and goggle eyes. In Zitlala, Tigres from rival barrios enter the town square from opposite sides and square off with each other. The fights start up suddenly and almost randomly within the crowd. People push in close to see the fighters and jump back to avoid being hit with a club, which creates a violent ebb and flow among the spectators. Although intended to represent jaguars, many of the costumes seem inspired by tigers. The goggle eyes of the headgear match those on ancient representations of the god Tlaloc.

Alfreda Gasparillo Pineda sees me stagger on the trail that leads up to a sacred well on the side of Mount Pacho. I'm carrying a wicker basket full of tamales that is rubbing my shoulder raw and pulling me off balance. "If you are tired, one of the women can carry it for you," she suggests in Spanish. Sergio Garza, an ethnoarchaeologist from University of California, Riverside, translates. A coy grin spreads across Alfreda's broad face as she waits to see how much machismo I'm willing to sacrifice to participate in this religious procession. Everything here is about machismo and sacrifice.


Ethnoarchaeologist Sergio Garza and children from the town of Zitlala make offerings to the rain god Tlaloc at the bottom of a sacred well. (Zach Zorich)

Some 60 people from the town of Zitlala are going to the well as part of celebrations that mark Catholic Holy Week and the end of the dry season in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Alfreda is the daughter of a community leader in Zitlala, a town of almost 20,000 people. She is also a mother of two, a teacher, and the owner of a farming supply business. Her white blouse and traditional dress with alternating bands of dark floral prints and black cloth seem like awkward hiking apparel, but it doesn't slow her down.

After 20 minutes under the pounding sun and grinding weight of the tamales, I arrive at the well with the last of the group. Flowers have been placed on a sky-blue painted cross next to the concrete wall that surrounds the well. Sergio and I unload our baskets while children gather next to a staircase that leads down roughly 20 feet to the well's floor, where a trickle of water seeps into a shallow square pit. Alfreda playfully gives Sergio one of the flower wreaths that the children are wearing on their heads and suggests that he join the kids as they walk down the steps, symbolically offering themselves to Tlaloc, the god of rain.

The religious tenets of the community are a mixture of Roman Catholicism and spiritual beliefs that date to the earliest days of the Maya, Aztecs, and Zapotecs. The scene at the well recalls rituals that took place as many as 3,000 years ago, when children had their throats cut and were thrown into water-filled sinkholes as sacrifices to the rain god. Their bones have been found at cenotés across the Yucatán Peninsula, including Chichén Itzá's aptly named Cenoté of Sacrifice (see "Watery Tombs," July/August 2005). As the children climb out of the well and join their parents for a picnic lunch, the idea of sacrifice seems fairly remote. Today, the only blood offering comes from ritually slaughtered turkeys.

Tomorrow, the rain god will receive a different kind of sacrifice five miles away in the community of Acatlan. It is one of three places in the highlands of Guerrero where men dress in jaguar costumes and fight one another. These Tigre combats are part entertainment and part religious ritual. Many in the community believe that a fighter's spilled blood will help bring rain for the coming year's harvest. The fights in Acatlan consist of boxing matches--two days from now there will be fights with clubs made of rope in Zitlala, and later in the month, wrestling matches in Tixtla.

Art historian Heather Orr of Western State College of Colorado is one of a group of scholars who believes these fighting rituals have their roots in ancient gladiatorial combats in which the loser would become a sacrifice to the rain god. "All rain-lightning deities share features throughout Mesoamerica, but they are identified differently depending on the region and the language," says Orr. "It is Chaak to the Maya for instance, Tlaloc in Central Mexico, Cociyo to the Zapotec." In artwork, these deities are typically shown having down-turned mouths with large fangs. Cociyo and Tlaloc also have goggled eyes.

Orr believes there is evidence of gladiatorial combat in stone carvings from Dainzú, a Zapotec site in southern Mexico. One of the carvings shows a fighter wearing a large helmet, thick belt, and protective mitt on his right hand. In the mitt he holds a palm-sized object that she interprets as a stone ball. The ball was either thrown or held in the mitt and used as a weapon. In his other hand, the fighter holds a knife pointed at an opponent who is lying on his back as if he has been defeated. Orr thinks the combatants were probably high-status members of the community, and the dead fighter was an offering to the rain god Cociyo.


This Maya vase painting dating to A.D. 600-800 may show fighters about to engage in a combat ritual using conch shell "knuckle-dusters" as weapons. (© Justin Kerr)

Karl Taube of University of California, Riverside, and Marc Zender of Harvard University believe gladiatorial rituals extended far beyond Dainzú. They are reinterpreting images on monuments and in artwork from across Mesoamerica that show gladiatorial combat in connection with rain rituals. The Tigre combat might be the last surviving remnant of the ancient custom.

In Acatlan, a 10-year-old boy places a rawhide mask against his face while an old man wearing a brown leather cowboy hat cinches its laces tight. I stand across from him on the edge of a small oval space that has opened among the crowd of about 3,000 people. His mask is painted bright orange and decorated with black spots and stripes to resemble the face of a jaguar, or Tigre, as the animal is called here. We stand at the foot of a mountain just outside town. I fiddle with my video camera while a brass band plays, the trumpet and trombone trading improvised riffs. A few pyromaniacs send the biggest bottle rockets I've ever seen streaking into the sky, and exploding overhead. The bottle rockets are a kind of sympathetic magic--the explosion resembles thunder so Tlaloc will send a thunderstorm.

The crowd seems bored and restless waiting for the fight to start. I notice how soft and pudgy are the hands of the boy with the orange mask. They seem almost too soft for a fight. His mask has big, goggle-like eyes inset with mirrors. My guide, Albino Lopez Carrillo, a former high-school teacher from the nearby community of Tixtla, tells me the mirrors are there so you can see yourself in the mask. They create a metaphorical connection between you and the person inside, showing that your fates are linked, and that all of this--the music, the prayers, and the fights--are about the survival of a community. The mask is a sacred object. It holds the spirit of the Tigre and putting it on gives the fighter the animal's strength and courage.

The boy--the Tigre--looks through the mask's gaping mouth. A blood-red tongue lolls out of the opening as if the jaguar is panting, and blue cloth hangs from the back of the mask like a tail. The old man helps the boy put on a pair of padded leather mitts. Then the little Tigre turns to face a slightly taller boy wearing a white T-shirt and a yellow mask. They bump gloves and begin.

The boy in the orange mask reaches out tentatively with a left, as if he is unsure how hard he is supposed to hit his opponent. He gets his answer when two uppercuts land on his chin. He comes back with a strong jab-cross-jab combination, steps back, and straightens his mask. Looking like he has now found the spirit that lives in his mask, he steps in with a barrage of punches. In return, he gets batted around by a series of palm strikes. Friends of the two boys stand in the crowd, teasing and egging them on. The boy in the orange mask gathers his courage and throws a series of hooks that push his opponent against the crowd. By aggressively pressing the attack he seems to be winning. But the winner isn't the fighter who lands the most punches, it's the one who doesn't quit. The effort of throwing so many punches wears down the boy in the orange mask. He waves his hands signaling "no more." Removing the mask and joining the spectators, he is a little boy once again. Then two more boys step into the circle to take their turns.

As the children fight, some of the adult Tigres make their way to and from a spring on the other side of the mountain, where they go through ritual preparations that outsiders are not allowed to observe. The adult Tigres are the main attraction. Fights seem to start up randomly throughout the crowd. A Tigre in a white mask with a cross painted on its cheek wears a shirt with the words "Jesus is the road to truth and life" hand-painted in Spanish across the back. The combats may seem like a giant party, but religion is everywhere. On the nearby mountainside, small fires burn in front of portraits of Catholic saints. Albino has explained to me that there is one almighty God, but there are other gods like Tlaloc who act as intermediaries. If the rituals are performed correctly, people here believe, Tlaloc will take the community's petition for rain to God, rain will fall, stars will keep turning in the night sky, and the order of the cosmos will be preserved.

Eventually, I make my way over to Sergio, who is watching a fight between two teenage boys who aren't wearing masks and gloves. A small crowd gathers but no one intervenes. One of them lands a punch squarely on his friend's nose and blood starts to trickle from his nostril. The fight stops briefly and the boy leans forward to let his blood fall to the ground. It is another example of sympathetic magic--falling blood will bring falling rain. In regular Tigre combat, fighters aim their blows at the rawhide masks so there is little if any blood. "We are more Tigres than the Tigres," the kid boasts. "We don't wear masks."

The origins of Tigre combat are murky, but artwork from archaeological sites across Mesoamerica displays scenes of combatants adorned with symbols relating to jaguars and rain gods. The Tigre fights were forbidden by Mexico's colonial government and only started up again, publicly at least, around the time of the Mexican revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920. The centuries of suppression make it hard to be sure that indigenous rituals like the Tigre combat are the continuation of an ancient tradition.

One connection between the ancient and modern rituals is the similarity between the Tigre masks and the helmets depicted in the carvings at Dainzú. "What caught my attention was the fact that the Tigre players were wearing these big, hefty masks," says Orr. "At the same time as they are protecting themselves, the desired outcome is that blood will be let." The Dainzú masks have feline ears like the Tigre masks, and several headdresses in the carving are decorated with "lazy-s" scrollwork, an early hieroglyph associated with rain. "Often what you find among different indigenous peoples is they equate the roar of the jaguar with the roar of thunder," she says.

"The jaguar is closely identified with rain gods going way back to the formative period Olmec [3,000 years ago]. The jaguar probably is related to powers of lightning and thunder," says Taube. "Its ability to smash things with its heavy paws could be related to a lightning strike." He adds that being a predator at the top of the food chain makes the jaguar an obvious symbol of strength and bloodshed.

"Blood is considered an essential life force," says Taube, "blood falling on the ground is a way of ritually seeding the earth." In a forthcoming paper, he and Zender note that some of the stone weapons were carved with symbols for lightning and thunder. "They were fighting with some pretty scary handheld weapons. The ancient combats were a lot bloodier and probably often resulted in death," adds Taube. "Today, nobody is expected to die."

[image] [image] A stone carving, left, from the ancient Zapotec city of Dainzú shows a figure wearing a helmet and holding a small stone ball in his upraised hand. Some scholars think the ball was a weapon used in gladiatorial combat. (Courtesy Javier Urcid)

A monument, right, from the Maya city of El Baúl in Guatemala is believed to show the end of a gladiatorial ritual. The victorious fighter is wearing a jaguar mask with blood or vomit spewing from his mouth. (Suzanna Miles)

Roy is a dishwasher at a restaurant in New York City's Chinatown, but in Zitlala he is a warrior. As an illegal immigrant to the United States, Roy has risked a border crossing to come home and fight this afternoon. "We try to continue the tradition," he says. "My grandfather did it, my father does it, and I like to do it too." His father Placido is a well-respected Tigre who helps the other fighters from his barrio prepare, and will lead them into the town square when the fights are about to begin.

The Tigre combats in Zitlala are different from those in Acatlan, though the purpose is the same. In Zitlala the fights involve a weapon made of half-inch diameter rope, called a cuarta. The rope is twisted and tightly bound to make it into a club about three feet long. A Tigre holds the club in one hand while Placido wraps the rope once down the length of the Tigre's arm, across his back, and around his waist a dozen or more times until it looks like a thick belt, offering some protection to his abdomen. For weapons made of rope, the cuartas are surprisingly solid. Some of the Tigres wrap cloth around their hands and forearms, but other than a heavy coat and some long pants they don't wear any protection. "If you fight with only one person you don't get hurt." Roy adds, "If you fight three, four, five people you get a lot of injuries."

Injuries were more of a problem in the days when Tigres inserted pieces of metal into the cuartas to make them heavier and to draw blood. The practice has been officially stopped but I am told it still goes on. The cuarta itself is a toned-down version of the weapon the Tigres used in the days after the Mexican Revolution, a rawhide club divided into two sections with a stone ball in the center.

I ask Roy if the Tigre combats are a way to sacrifice yourself for the community. "No, no, no, nothing like that. It's just tradition," he says. "Maybe it has some special meaning but I don't really know what it is. You have to ask some old people."

A well-aimed strike with a cuarta might break a rib, but it is nothing compared to the damage that the weapons used in the ancient combats could inflict. Large round stones with handles carved into them have been found at archaeological sites from Teotihuacán, near Mexico City, to the Maya areas in Guatemala. These stones, called manoplas, would have covered a fighter's hands like giant fists. Paintings on two Maya pots dating between a.d. 600 and 800 show Chaak wielding an ax in one hand and a manopla in the other. Chaak's ax is associated with lightning, and Taube believes the same is true for the stone manopla. Some manoplas are decorated with carvings depicting skulls with broken teeth or a face with eyeballs dangling from their sockets, injuries that might have been common among fighters struck by such a weapon.

Other ancient combats involved stone clubs, conch shells, stone spheres attached to ropes, or palm-sized round stones. "This kind of ritual was pretty hard core," says Taube. "The fighters were probably slaves or captives, or people who are committed to it full time, like ballplayers." Taube and Zender believe the combats took place on the ball courts of the ancient cities. "We've always talked about Maya sport and recreation in terms of ball games," says Zender, "but we should probably be thinking of ball courts as more general arenas for public entertainment."


Tigre fighters parade through the streets of Zitlala on their way to the town square where they will fight with clubs made from stiff rope. (Zach Zorich)

Fighters from rival barrios face each other in Zitlala's town square. The combat goes on until one opponent quits or can't continue. (Jorge Perez de Lara)

Zender believes he has deciphered a Maya glyph for the verb "to strike." If his reading is correct, it may reveal how gladiatorial combat was used in the ancient city of Yaxchilán, near the border between Mexico and Guatemala. There, images engraved on the steps of a hieroglyphic staircase depict a king in a ball court wearing ornaments associated with Waterlily Serpent, a deity connected to boxing. A captive is shown tumbling through the air. The inscription states that the captive "was struck," indicating the king defeated him in gladiatorial combat, although the outcome of the match was probably never in doubt.

Both Albino and Alfreda tell me a story about the origins of the Tigre combats that conflicts with the scholars' interpretation. According to them, the Tigre combats go back to fights that used to break out between rival groups of peasant farmers called tlacololeros. Part of their job was to guard crops from animals, and they used stone and rawhide clubs to chase them off. They also mistakenly believed that jaguars would dig up the seeds they had planted. Groups of tlacololeros used to hunt for jaguars and when rival groups met, fights often broke out. Over time these fights were modified into the boxing matches at Acatlan, the rope fights in Zitlala, and the wrestling matches in Tixtla.

Roy and the Tigres from his barrio make their way to the zocalo, or town square, dancing to the sound of a brass band playing over a pounding bass drum. Some of them pose for pictures with young women. They hold their cuartas high like they are about to strike. Even the gray-haired Tigres strut like young men, sticking out their chests and, unintentionally, their pot bellies. Some VIPs watch from plastic lawn chairs on the veranda of the municipal building overlooking the square. About 2,000 people have gathered, sitting on rooftops surrounding the zocalo or standing among the fighters.


This 3,000-year-old painting in a cave in west central Mexico shows a warrior wearing jaguar skin and preparing a human sacrifice. (Jorge Perez de Lara)

A few combatants wear yellow or green costumes with black spots, a throwback to the days when Tigres from each barrio wore a uniform color. Most of the fighters wear their everyday clothes, many of them plastered with American brands. I notice Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Rangers logos.

Two groups of Tigres come forward, and Placido steps between them, holding them apart, and talking to them about who will fight first. The crowd is pushing in, cameras held high, and some of the Tigres have to push them back. There are no age groups or weight classes. The fighter has to go up against whomever has stepped forward. Roy moves into the improvised ring, and a large Tigre dressed in an olive drab costume painted with white teardrops rushes in. The two begin swinging their cuartas frantically, chopping at each other's backs and ribs. They settle into a rhythm, trading blow for blow when a strike lands on Roy's leg, sending him to the ground. Tigres from both sides rush in to prevent any cheap shots and the fight is over. The Tigres from Roy's barrio have to help him out of the circle and the green Tigre declares himself the winner. The next fight starts almost immediately and within minutes there are two more going on.

Soon, things get more heated. Rival factions of Tigres shout insults and accusations of cheating. Bare-knuckled fights break out among drunken spectators. After a couple of hours some people begin to wander off to find relief from the heat, but the Tigres never seem to tire. The fights go on for nearly four hours. Eventually, someone steps on my foot as the crowd surges, twisting my ankle. It's hardly a significant injury compared to what the Tigres are doing to each other, but it's enough for me to call it a day.

I limp around the edge of the crowd until I find Sergio who is recording his own anthropological observations. We make our way to Alfreda's house. Over mescal and dinner, we talk about how the Tigre rituals have changed through the years. She tells us that before she was born the custom used to be that the Tigres from each barrio couldn't see each other for 15 days before the fights. But the rivalry between barrios became intense. People were being threatened and attacked for walking in the wrong barrio.

The location of the fights has also changed. Tigre combats used to take place near the river at the foot of the sacred mountain, Cruzco, but in 1980 people became so angry with each other during a fight that they started throwing rocks and one person was killed. Since then the fights have been held in the zocalo where an ambulance is on hand. But what worries Alfreda most is a difference between generations. "The kids don't appreciate the fact that all these rituals are for a good harvest, for rain," she says. "For them it is just about machismo."

On our last day in Guerrero, two guides lead Sergio, Alfreda, and me into the cave complex of Juxtlahuaca, 25 miles from Zitlala, where some of the oldest paintings in the Americas adorn the cave walls. On our way we pass small shrines tucked into nooks in the rock formations. Juxtlahuaca is a National Heritage site but it is also an active place of worship.

About a mile into the cave the air is warm and thick from the decaying bat guano that coats the floor. A painting of a warrior dressed in jaguar skin wearing a feathered headdress decorates one cave wall. He holds something that looks like a rope in his left hand, and a three-pronged object--possibly a weapon or an elaborately worked piece of flint--in his right. The warrior towers over a smaller, unarmed person sitting on the ground, who appears to be wearing a black mask. Mesoamerica expert Michael Coe believes the painting is Olmec in style and more than 2,500 years old. The scene apparently shows a ruler about to behead a sacrificial victim.

The painting is a long way from the Olmec homeland on the Gulf Coast, an indication of how widespread jaguar symbolism had become. Seeing the jaguar associated with power and the rope in the ruler's hand reminds us of the Tigres in Zitlala. The rope doesn't exactly look like a cuarta, and the ideas about what a sacrifice should be have changed drastically. But, if we had any doubts about the antiquity of jaguar warriors and human sacrifice in Guerrero, the Juxtlahuaca painting puts an end to them. "This is no coincidence," Sergio says, "these people didn't pick up this custom from somewhere else."

Zach Zorich is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.