WHO ARE THE FLYERS OF PAPANTLA?
Historical and ethnographic evidence ties the Flyers of Papantla to the highlands of the present-day state of Veracruz -the general area where the city of Papantla, where they get their name from, is located- as well as to the early moments of Spanish-Amerindian contact in those regions of Mexico. In the present-day iteration of their performance, five Flyers are tied by their feet to a pole that is about 120 feet tall and is firmly planted on the ground. Four of the flyers descend to the ground, swirling around the pole as they make their way down and the fifth Flyer, perched atop the pole, plays a melody on a flute. Eventually, the fifth Flyer also descends, “flying” like the others. While we think that this contemporary performance retains much of its distant precedents, the Flyers we know today are less heirs to that very remote past than to the more recent renaissance they experienced during the 1960s. At this point they were rediscovered, and they became popular attractions at the Mexican pavilions showcased at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65 and Hemisfair ‘68, celebrated in San Antonio. After this point, they became a fixture of tourist sites like the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (inaugurated in 1964), where they now perform six days a week, among many other sites. At the World’s Fairs of the ’60s, the Flyers performed in front of the Mexican pavilions in a way that emulated their performances at the ancient site of El Tajín, where they performed in front of the Pyramid of the Niches, a significant pre-Columbian ceremonial structure. These ephemeral performances created an illusion akin to time travel, as if this modern, folkloric dance, which was totally attuned to the modern mass-media world of the fairs, could take its viewers back in time and space to the very distant origins of the performance. This is only one of many similar encounters between modern, ancient, and folkloric performances and objects that defined Mexican official culture in the 1960s. The legacies of these encounters are still a defining factor of how the world understands the culture and history of Mexico today.
Images, from top to bottom: Poster for Hemisfair ‘68, showing the Flyers of Papantla; Postcard from the 1960s that shows the Flyers performing in front of the Pyramid of the Niches, El Tajín, Veracruz, Model for the performance of the Flyers at Hemisfair ‘68; the Flyers at the NY World’s Fair of 1964-65