Why Clowns Are Everywhere in This Mexican City

In their colourful costumes and painted masks, Mexico's dancing clowns are a fusion of Catholicism and indigenous culture.

When photographer Luján Agusti first moved to Mexico from her native Argentina, she was immediately struck by the myriad religious festivals taking place throughout the year. “Religion is everywhere,” she says.

Agusti, who describes herself as agnostic, became fascinated by the characters and reenactments she would come across during celebrations marking Holy Week, local church anniversaries, and the Day of the Dead. Documenting this colourful blending of Catholicism with indigenous culture, a fusion defined as syncretism, became the crux of her work.

While visiting the town of Coatepec in the southeastern state of Veracruz, she came across one such procession. There, among the parishioners and a group of school band, danced a group of colourful masked clowns led by a character resembling a Spanish conquistador. Agusti was intrigued. Under the masks were everyday people—men, women, and children. She learned they were taking part in a tradition dating back to the days of Spanish colonisation that had newly been revived after several decades. Many of the people were dancing as an offering to the Virgin of Guadalupe, an apparition of the Virgin Mary who appeared on the site of a former Aztec temple, in exchange for good fortune.

Agusti reached out to different cuadrillas, or teams, of performers and arranged to take their portraits against colourful backdrops of the same fabric they use to make their costumes. The result is visually pleasing, she says, but also strange because there is a deeper meaning to be gleaned. “All of these fabrics are very colourful and beautiful but when you see the costumes of the clowns [they are] tattered and old.” Agusti views this juxtaposition as a representation of the current realities of life in Mexico and Latin America, where deep-seeded poverty and social dysfunction lie beneath a festive exterior.

In years past, Agusti learned, the clowns were primarily played by older men. Now, many of the performers are young people, or children with their fathers. “Veracruz is one of the most dangerous states in Mexico,” she says, referring to the drug-related violence that has plagued the region. Being in a cuadrilla provides kids with a positive alternative while also keeping a unique tradition alive.

Luján Agusti was recently awarded a grant from Women Photograph to continue exploring syncretism in Mexico. You can see more of her work on her website.


RELATED: For clown philosophers like Slava Polunin, happiness is both an art form and a mission statement. See why in this piece from the National Geographic Short Film Showcase.PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN RODRIGUEZ

Header Image: Luján Agusti making a clown portrait. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN RODRIGUEZ

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