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Celebrating Mexico's 'Chinelo' tradition in Charlotte

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Kayla Young
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WFAE/La Noticia
Chinelo performers walk through downtown Charlotte during Hola Fest in October.

A 200-year-old Mexican tradition is coming to Charlotte. Starting Friday, Chinelos from across the United States and Mexico will converge at the VAPA Center for three days of performances.

Chinelos have a distinct style, rooted in Indigenous resistance to their colonizers. They dress in long robes and feathered hats. But they stand out most for their masks.
Typically with blue eyes and pointed beards, the masks depict Spanish colonizers, explained Guadalupe Jimenez, who performs in the Charlotte area with a local Chinelo group. He grew up in Morelos, Mexico, where the Chinelo tradition originated.

In the early 1800s, when the Spanish still controlled Mexico, these masks were a way for Indigenous people to safely express themselves and poke fun at the ruling class.

During Holy Week, Indigenous people were given a day off, while the Spanish had their own celebration, Jimenez said. Since the Indigenous workers weren’t invited to the colonizers’ party, they created their own. They created costumes out of old clothes, Jimenez explained, and the masks added anonymity.

Over time, the celebrations developed their own style, explained Chinelo Raúl Velázquez. These days, there are even competitions. The costumes have also evolved from a plainer style to feature intricate, personalized designs.

Velazquez’s costume, depicting Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, was commissioned by an artisan in Morelos and took more than eight months to create.

Jimenez said there are Chinelo performances almost every day in Morelos. One reason Chinelo performances have spread beyond Morelos, he said, is because the beat is infectious. But he clarifies, the movement isn’t exactly a dance. It’s more like bouncing or jumping.

Velazquez said it’s all in the hip and shoulder movement.

Chinelos from across the U.S. and Mexico will meet up and perform over three days, Friday, Nov. 25, through Sunday, Nov. 27, at the VAPA Center, 700 N Tryon St. Activities start each day at noon.

Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.