While I was in Oaxaca recently, around the time of the Gueleguetza, I noticed all of these figures around town that I hadn’t seen before on previous visits. They looked like scarecrows in big hats with rolled up, rectangular rims. The faces were usually made up of natural fibers, hanging long like a beard. But sometimes it was a just a burlap sack with two holes cut in it for the black eyes. Most had long carrot noses. And the bodies were coats of cloth strips, in a rainbow of colors. There were life-sized ones in shop windows, tiny ones hanging behind the bar at mezcalerias, illustrations in street art, massive ones constructed on walls, and humans dressed up in the costume, swirling through the calendas (parades) during the Gueleguetza festival. So I started asking around to learn what this was all about. They’re called tiliches. Let’s explore a bit…
Walking around Oaxaca in July and August, you’ll see many life-sized tiliche figures on the sidewalks, like the colorful example above. That one has an animal hide mask, which is more unique amongst the ones you’ll see in Oaxaca, but is perhaps truer to the traditional origin of the tiliches. The other photo is of a small tiliche doll hanging by the shelves in artesanal mezcal shop, El Ultimo Trago.
Tiliches come from Putla Villa de Guerrero
The tiliches are very much an iconic symbol of the Guelaguetza, but they are not from Oaxaca City. However, that’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the Guelaguetza festival because the whole point of the festival is that the different communities from all over the Oaxaca region bring their traditional dances, crafts, culinary arts, and clothing to Oaxaca for a week to celebrate them and share. The Guelaguetza is a celebration of art and mutual aid amongst communities.
Putla Villa de Guerrero is north of Puerto Escondido, in the mountains, closer to the border with Guerrero state. It’s in a fertile valley where there were many haciendas. And the workers would dress up in similar costumes to the tiliches during the festivities around Lent. The mask gave them anonymity while they celebrated. From what I’ve gathered, the spooky masks that are just a bag or made from animal skins, are the original style. So the tiliche decorations you see around Oaxaca, that are a bit more reminiscent of a straw Santa Claus with a snowman nose, might be a more modern invention that’s cuter and appealing for tourists.
Say hi to the tiliches if you stop by Oaxaca in the summer!