The Fishing of the Blind Sardines in Tapijulapa, Tabasco, is an ancient pre-Hispanic ceremony that has survived all cultural colonization. Witness how a Catholic celebration turns into a pagan ritual as you experience this magical tradition in southern Mexico.
A heathen ceremony in disguise
Like in most parts of the Old World, Catholic traditions had to merge with the beliefs and rituals of the indigenous peoples of Mexico in order to fully penetrate the culture. In some cases, these rituals prevailed almost unhindered by the foreign doctrines.
Such is the case of the Fishing of the Blind Sardine, a ceremony that barely resembles any other Catholic tradition, but is rather heavily influenced by the so-called heathen traditions of the native cultures in the American continent.
It all starts with a mass at the local church, where the fishing of the day is blessed and people come together to pray for the upcoming season. After the mass is over and everyone is dismissed, the journey to the sacred cave begins.
The path to the cave is half of the experience. As you walk across the lush jungle, the creatures that inhabit it can be heard along the way: monkeys, birds, toads, the whole place is teeming with life. Entire armies of red ants carry green leaves along what seem like endless trails, all among the presence of massive, ancient trees.
Once there, it is usually a bit crowded, but everyone keeps silence when the time comes and the music from the flutes and drums of the dancers is heard. As the audience watches in awe, the official entourage walk towards a wooden platform, all dressed in the their all-white, typical clothing. Each one of them is carrying a basket with wild flowers and candles. At the forefront, you can see the patriarch, the eldest of them all, carrying an urn with copal, a kind of sacred incense that was used by the civilizations of the Americas.
When they arrive at the stage, they perform the Dance of the Sardines, an entirely pagan ritual whose sole Catholic input are the candles that are held by the dancers as they make their repetitive, circular moves. After the dance is finished, the patriarch says a prayer in Tzoque, the near-extinct, ancient language of his forefathers. In the prayer, he greets their abuelo (grandfather) and asks for him to provide the fish for their families. He then asks for permission to enter the cave and thanks him in advance.
Fishing inside a sulfurous cave
Once in the cave, the dancers, led by the patriarch, release the cueza (ground mullein mixed with lime) into the sulfurous water, this mixture has a narcotic effect on the fish, who become dizzy and clumsy. Then, the fishing begins. First the dancers, and then the rest of the people, use their baskets, cloth bags and other unorthodox utensils to capture the fish. The whole place turns into a celebration, happy and grateful faces everywhere.
This propitiatory ritual isn’t too different from so many others that are practiced by indigenous peoples around the world, but it definitely has the special flavor of the region. It is, however, facing some difficulties that challenge its survival. Authorities have restricted the use of mullein, concerned by the preservation of the blind sardine, whose population has been dropping in recent years. While many tourists still turn up for the event, the Tzoque have been losing interest because of the lack or scarcity of fish.
How to get to Tapijulapa
Tapijulapa is a charming little town up on the hills of the southern tip of Tabasco, at the heart of tropical Mexico. The nearest city is Villahermosa, the state capital. From there, you can take the 195 federal highway heading south until Teapa, and then the 173 highway all the way to the town. Alternatively, you could catch a bus directly from the terminal at Villahermosa. If you’re staying at the capital, know that you can always book a room at City Express and get a full night’s rest with everything that matters to you.
Like so many other ancient traditions, the Fishing of the Blind Sardines faces an uncertain future. If you are traveling to this part of Mexico on Easter, you can’t miss on the chance of assisting to this magical ceremony.