In Search of Xandú: Journey to Tenango

Tenango de Doria is an evergreen valley where indigenous languages such as Otomi and Nahuatl are still spoken.

By Avelardo “Lalo” Valdez

We arrive by car to Tulancingo, about one-and-half-hours from Mexico City. It’s a hectic drive. We’ve contended with hundreds of cars escaping the city for the weekend. We’d departed from Roma Sur and driven north on Avenida Insurgentes and through the hard-scrabble, working-class suburban municipality of Ecatepec, Estado de Mexico.

In stark contrast to the casual bohemian opulence of Colonia Roma where we’d begun our journey, Ecatepec is impoverished and bleak. From where I’m sitting, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the favelas of Brazil. On the road, we also pass near the Tenochtitlán pyramids, every tourist’s favorite spot, before arriving at our destination.  

Tulancingo, Hidalgo  (pop. 151,582) is a city serving the eastern rural area part of the state whose economy is largely based on agriculture with a mixture of subsistence farming, large agri-businesses and producers of wool textiles.

From Tulancingo we take a 34-mile taxi ride that takes another hour-and-a-half, given the winding road that leads us straight up the mountain and down into a valley. This region is situated in the Western Sierra Madre Oriental only a few hours from the Gulf of Mexico. During the ride we experience a short but fierce rainstorm with thick fog.

When the weather clears, we find ourselves at the peak of the mountain, above the clouds overlooking an evergreen forest. In the valley below lies Tenango de Doria, our destination and site of the Festival Xandú.

Tenango is a small city that is known for its hand-embroidered textiles. The design and manufacture of these textiles is associated with the indigenous Otomí and Nahual people who populate this region. This population has been isolated from larger social changes and maintains many prehispanic customs and rituals, including their native language.

We’ve come specifically to attend the Festival Xandú that appeared to be a counterculture take on the region’s more traditional values and beliefs. The festival seems targeted for younger audiences struggling to make sense of this new world culture.  

The festival consists of the presentation of short films, workshops on meditation, magic, story- telling, folktales and short story writing and highlighting the importance of public art. The festival also gathers musicians, mostly rappers,  from across Mexico.

We are hosted by a couple who were acquaintances of my friend’s (and co-researcher) wife, who works among the Otomí as an investigator for the National Museum of Anthropology. She was working on a project in San Francisco and asked her husband to cover the event for her. I decided to tag along. 

The couple lives in Tenango. The husband is employed by a federal governmental institute that works with indigenous groups in the region. He provides legal consultation and advice to this population. His wife works as an administrator in the state prison located in this small town. In fact, the prison sits directly across the street from where they live. In a brief conversation, the wife mentioned that over 80 percent of the prisoners are indigenous.

After briefly visiting with them at their home, we all walk over to a small hotel where my friend and I check in. Our $20 rooms are blessed with great views of the mountains surrounding this small city.

We eventually hike over to the school grounds where, as part of the festival, young spray paint artists are collectively painting murals on two school buildings using  indigenous traditional symbols.  Most of these artists are high school students being supervised by more established artists.

Across a  large soccer field, artists and musicians have assembled under a metal slate roof  covering a giant concrete slab the size of two basketball courts.  Mexican artists, Mexican American artists, friends and family all mill around a couple of tables, where festival participants sell CDs and other items.

On another table, some folks apply temporary tattoos while festival goers snack on complimentary vegetarian tamales and agua de mango. The scent of cannabis wafts through the air. Later, I learn that psilocybin mushrooms were being consumed by selected participants.

We approach the area as the rapper segment of the entertainment gets underway. The male and female rappers addressed the sacredness and  importance of preserving the land and  indigenous culture.
The most impressive were two females rappers; Mare Advertencia Lirika, a Oaxacan, and Chhot MAA. Their lyrics, in particular, focus on feminism issues and sexism. The former reminds me of a contemporary Mercedes Sosa, the late and legendary vocalist from Argentina who personified the Canto Nuevo or New Song movement which accompanied Latin American liberation struggles of the 1960s and ’70s.

The messages conveyed by these artists resonate profoundly with me and make me realize that we can’t really understand the youth of today without listening to rap, hip hop and spoken word artists.
Since it was the last day of the festival, everyone was ready for an after-party that was going to be held in some cottages right outside the city. We didn’t go the party, but later that evening we met our hosts Rodrigo and his wife at a local bar.

We learned, to our surprise, that the owner of this small cantina lived in New York City for 15 years. He said he got tired of the stress and recently returned to Tenango. Another customer was a professor at a local public university.

He looked like an aging Mexican hippie with silver filled teeth, multiple ear rings and a persistent smile on his face.  When he discovered we were university researchers, this strange guy ended up sitting at our table and going on and on about the pedagogy of the oppressed. 

At the end of the night, the ex-New York bartender made us all cucumber margaritas, a cocktail he said he learned to prepare in Manhattan. This underscored for me that we now live in a highly globalized and interconnected world. 

In the morning we were invited to have barbecued borrego  (lamb) at Rodrigo and his wife’s home. This is a true delicacy. The borrego was cooked over coals buried in the ground with condiments like onions and sauces. “Takes hours for the meat to cook in this style” Rodrigo said.  “Better than what they serve in  Mexico  City or anywhere.” was his last comment to us before we began heading back to Mexico City.

The walk to where vans and taxis gathered to take people back to their homes took us through the city’s street market. One last bit of wisdom was imparted to us on our way out. “Don’t buy textiles from the vendors in the market, they’ll rob you. Go to the cooperative which has better prices and better quality.” He was right.

We wound up hiring an ex-cop to give us a ride to Tulancingo. The “collective” vans and taxis were sparse. Those inexpensive vehicles filled up immediately with people returning to Tulancingo. The ex-cop was referred to us by a tránsito (traffic cop) who appeared to be his friend.  He was a friendly guy, retired after 20 years as a local policeman and now playing in a dance band. The ex-cop charged us $500 pesos (about $20) for the private ride.

On the drive back we stopped at a mirador for one last look at the scenic Tenango de Doria and the surrounding Valley below. The ex-cop knew the three policemen who were parked at the mirador. They were very friendly and didn’t seem to mind that we stepped out of the car with opened cans of beer. On the road, we encountered about 100 horsemen who collectively took up one side of the highway. In Texas, we call these trail riders. After that I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we’d reached Tulancingo.

Our ride (who was  a close friend ) was waiting for us at the bus station ready to take us back home. He lives in Mexico City but, coincidentally, was attending a family reunion nearby and couldn’t make the trip to Tenango. He mentioned all went well at his party until his family started a heated argument about López Obrador, Mexico’s relatively new president , who is implementing policies that not everyone is happy about.

The rest of the trip was uneventful except for all the traffic heading back to “CDMX,” as Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of over 20 million, is now called. This obvious re-brand—with each letter spoken aloud like radio station call letters—seems to be an embrace of the future and a way to leave the old “D.F.”  with all its loaded, last-generation, or, at the very least,  less hopeful associations behind.


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