Erwin has turned into a devil. Wearing a frightening mask and a colorful costume, he dances on the streets of Chuao in the steaming sun, following a long line of equally-attired devils beating drums and playing cuatros and maracas. Although he’s only eleven years old, and this is his first Feast of Corpus Christi celebration, he dances with the aplomb of a veteran devil. His mother, Maria, proudly watches her son enter a neighbor’s house, doing a strange stutter-step at the door resembling a cross before lunging inside.
It’s difficult to imagine Erwin as a devil. But he is. Maria herself sewed his costume and painted his clay mask crimson, white and black.
“The White Devil,” Maria murmurs. It’s the name given her blond son by the male members of the predominantly dark-skinned community. Sounds foreign to her. But then, she and Erwin are foreigners, after all. Maria is a single mother from Caracas who abandoned the crime-prone capital a year ago and moved to this sleepy fishing village accessed only by sea, seeking a better life for her son.
Tears fill her eyes. Being a devil in Chuao means being accepted, a member of a strict and tightly-knitted brotherhood. They are foreigners no more.
Erwin jumps back out on the dirt street and moves on to the next house. When the men stop dancing, they will be hungry. Maria rushes back to the group of women cooking the traditional sancocho de gallina by the river. Erwin will be hungry soon….
The Dancing Devils ritual of Chuao marks the beginning of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a Catholic celebration established in medieval times by Pope Urban IV. One of the oldest festivities in Venezuela, the first celebration took place in the city of Coro in 1582.
Preparations for the feast start in Chuao months before Corpus Christi. Masks and costumes must be made and fitted, rehearsals carried out under the direction of corporals and older members. The feast starts with church bells ringing. The religious service and the anticipated arrival of the devil dancers arouses great expectations that build to a fever pitch with the blaring sounds of trumpets and the loud rattling of maracas. The village streets are crammed with visitors from nearby towns as well as tourists from home and abroad.
Then los diablos caen del cielo – literally, the devils fall from heaven – to attend the ceremonial mass and be saved. After mass, where the devils perform various rituals, among them prostrating on the floor in sign of submission during the consecration of the body of Christ, the two-day festivities begin with a procession. Along the way, the procession stops for a blessing ceremony at each of the shrines raised along the route, where the devils pray and dance.
Once the route is completed, the procession returns to the temple and the devil dancers offer a new and freewheeling choreography in the plaza square. From there, they bound on the streets again to visit the home of each of the members of the brotherhood for the ritual of exorcising the “real” devils hidden inside. In Chuao, part of the ritual includes sitting under the ancient “Mango Tree” afterward, where the devils remove their masks and tell each other las verdades — their innermost feelings.
The festivities in Chuao end with a feast prepared by the women of the village. Shared by the community and visitors alike, this banquet is generally sponsored by a private devotee in payment of a promise.
After two days of frenetic dancing, the devils are hungry. Masks tucked under their arms, costumes in disarray, they begin to straggle in for lunch. Erwin is worn out. Maria can see the telltale signs in his sunken eyes and matted hair.
Eusebio, the perrero — who controls the devils during the ceremony and is a fisherman the rest of the year — leads him by the hand to his mother. He’s Erwin’s padrino, his godfather, the person who sponsored his initiation.
“He did well, Maria,” Eusebio says in a tired voice, his gray mustache beaded with perspiration. He slaps Erwin on the back with a calloused hand. “Like a man.”
Erwin’s face is suffused with pride. Maria hugs her son. He seems so much smaller now than when he was dancing on the streets.
Erwin devours three portions of sancocho as tourists and locals snap photographs. From time to time, one of the other devils drops by to pay respects to Maria and say a kind word about Erwin’s participation in the ritual. The sun sets over the river and the crowds thin out. A round, orange moon rises beyond the trees on the horizon.
“I’m tired, Mama,” Erwin says, a kid again.
Maria ruffles his curly hair and smiles. “Let’s go home, my little white devil.”