Mexico is a land bursting with culture and traditions, some dating back thousands of years. Despite a constant bombardment of external influences, from Spanish invaders to its present-day neighbors to the north, the country’s customs remain a part of everyday life for many people, especially outside of the modern-day clamor of the city. Holidays such as Day of the Dead are nationally observed, but after six years of living in Mexico what I have found most interesting are the hundreds of local, mostly unknown traditions you’ll find in different towns across the country.

Among the thousands of pueblos in Mexico, it seems that each has at least one unique custom to call its own. Most people outside of Ajijic, Jalisco, have never heard of the town’s tradition of the zayacos, not even those who live in one of the nearby villages.

The zayacos appear each Carnival in Ajijic to the delight and horror of the kids living there. During six days of parades, they put on masks and dress in women’s clothing, which they stuff with shapely balloons. Then they chase kids through the streets, tackling them on the hard cobblestones and rubbing their faces with flour. It’s a recent tradition which the town started in the 1960s, and it helps people let off steam before the 40 days of Lent.

It also serves as an opportunity to cross the established boundaries of both age and sex. Young kids will chase down older ones or be daring enough to throw flour on an adult. Teenagers will use the opportunity to flirt with the opposite sex or shove a fistful of flour into the face of their longtime crush.

The zayaco activities are still dominated by boys and young men, who naturally enjoy and augment the inherent roughhousing aspects of the events. Originally, girls were not permitted to participate either as a zayaco or as one of the kids who gets chased through the streets. But this has changed and girls and women can now do as they please. Fathers accompany their very young daughters in the many parades and older girls show up by themselves or with groups of amigas to take part in all the fun.

Though traditions from different parts of Mexico might be unknown to each other, each one can still be recognized as being distinctly Mexican. Collectively they remind us that as a single country is able to unify itself through its diversity, in spite of the world’s many cultural differences we are all built from the same human stuff.

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Masked zayacos prepare to enter the bullring in Ajijic, Mexico, during the Carnival festivities.
A group of masked zayacos prepare to enter the bullring in Ajijic, Mexico. The bullring is a place for community events beyond the rodeo, such as concerts, mother’s day celebrations, and other fiesta days, such as the six or seven days of Carnaval. (Most bullrings in Mexico, like this one, are used for bullriding, not bullfighting. Though bullfighting is done in some cities in Mexico, its continued practice is controversial.)
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Kids getting dressed as zayacos in Ajijic, Mexico

Portrait of two zayacos looking for their next victims.during Carnival in Ajijic.
Two zayacos look around for their next victims during the Carnival celebrations in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
A zayaco with a bag of flour looking for someone to attack during Carnival celebrations in Ajijic.
A zayaco prowls the street with a bag of flour, which he’ll throw at kids during the many days of pre-Carnival parades in Ajijic, Mexico.
A boy taunts a group of zayacas during the Carnival fiestas in Ajijic, Mexico.
A boy, with flour in his face, taunts a group of zayacas during one of the Carnival parades.
The Masked Zayacas of Ajijic, Mexico
A zayaca scans the streets for the next kid to attack. Often, the kids who hurl the boldest insults at the zayacas are the ones who get chased and then tackled. But the pre-Lenten activities are sometimes a way to rectify an old grudge or rough house with a friend.
Zayaca grapples with a boy, Sergio Martinez during Carnival in Mexico.
A zayaca grapples with Sergio Martínez during a Carnival parade in Ajijic. Usually, a boy is detained first by a single zayaca, who then yells to his zayaca friends for assistance in the final takedown.
Zayacas tackle a man in Ajijic, Mexico, during Carnaval celebrations.
A group of zayacas tackle a man and shower him with flour in the town bullring.
Zayaca flour attack in the town bullring.
A zayaca stands victorious over a young man while kids look on in the bullring.
A man dressed as a Hitler zayaca dancing in the street.
A zayaca in a Hitler mask with a Marc Jacobs purse dances with another zayaca during Carnival in Ajijic, Mexico.
A zayaca zips confetti-filled eggs into a handbag before the Carnaval day parade in Ajijic.
A zayaca shows off some confetti-filled eggs before zipping them in a handbag before the Carnaval day parade.
Zayacos in the house where everyone gets ready before the parades.
Zayacos in the house where everyone gets ready for the day’s events during the pre-Carnaval parades.
José de Jesus Romero Pérez dressed as a zayaco for Carnival in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
José de Jesus Romero Pérez dressed as a zayaco, a traditional character from the town of Ajijic, Mexico, which appears during the yearly Carnaval celebrations. He’s wearing a wooden mask which he carved himself. In an age of Hollywood and Halloween masks, José and his brothers help maintain the zayaca tradition of masks made from wood and elegant dress.
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Abel Romero Pérez dressed as a zayaco during Carnival in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
Abel Romero Pérez dressed as a zayaco (a traditional character from the town of Ajijic, Mexico) which appears during the yearly Carnaval celebrations. He’s wearing a wooden mask carved by his brother, José de Jesús.
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Aron Axael Romero Pérez dressed as a zayaco, a traditional character from Ajijic, Mexico.
Aron Axael Romero Pérez dressed as a zayaco, a traditional character from the town of Ajijic, Mexico, which appears during the yearly Carnaval celebrations. He’s wearing a wooden mask carved by his brother, José de Jesús.
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A masked zayaca throws confetti during Carnaval in Ajijic, Mexico.
A zayaca throws confetti during the Carnival day parade in Ajijic. Though the zayacas come out for Carnival, it’s only the grand finale. Parades, rodeos and communal lunches along the malecón dominate the events for the three weekends leading up to “Fat Tuesday.”
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Boy who had lost his zayaca mask.
This boy’s mask wouldn’t stay on, so he went ahead without. Here he is eyeing a girl across the street that he’d like to dump the flour he has clenched in his hand.
A zayaca wears a dress with a necklace made from a baby doll.
A zayaca wears elegant dress and a mask emblematic of the traditional zayaca outfit, topped off with a baby doll necklace.
A boy with a dress stuffed with balloons dressed as a zayaca before a Carnaval parade.
A boy less around four-years-old poses for a photo before one of the Carnaval parades in Ajijic.
José Romero as a zayaco during the Fiesta of San Sebastián
José Romero as a zayaco during the Fiesta of San Sebastián.
Zayaco during Carnaval.
A zayaco during a Carnaval parade in Ajijic.
A zayaco during a Carnaval parade in Ajijic.
A zayaco during a Carnaval parade in Ajijic.
A zayaco eating tacos with a family.
A zayaco sits briefly with a family that’s eating tacos and watching the parade pass.
Zayaco and boys on a wall in the bullring.
A zayaco and three boys hop up onto the wall of the bullring to avoid a passing bull during the fiestas taurinas of Carnaval in Ajijic. The rodeo and cowboys are a large part of how Carnaval is celbrated in the town.
A man dressed as a zayaca lifts his dress suggestively during the 2016 Fiesta of San Sebastián, a January holiday that comes a few weeks before the town starts its Carnival celebrations. The fiesta for Saint Sebastian marks the first appearance of the zayacos in the calendar year.
A man dressed as a zayaca lifts his dress suggestively during the 2016 Fiesta of San Sebastián, a January holiday that comes a few weeks before the town starts its Carnival celebrations. The fiesta for Saint Sebastian marks the first appearance of the zayacos in the calendar year.
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Two kids dressed as zayacas take a quick break during Carnival in Ajijic, Mexico.
Two kids dressed as zayacas take a quick break from chasing other kids during the Carnaval parades in Ajijic.
A zayaca in Ajijic, Mexico.
A zayaca in Ajijic, Mexico.
Zayacas get flour rationed to them before the parade.
A man rations out flour to the zayacas while getting prepared for the day’s events.
Zayaca responds to taunting kids at Seis Equinas.
A zayaca encourages taunting kids to come closer while others dance at Seis Esquinas (Six Corners) in Ajijic.
Zayacos attack a boy and shove flour in his pants.
A boy gets attacked by a group of zayacos, which in this case included flour into his pants.
A boy gets attacked by a group of zayacos in the bullring.
A boy gets attacked by a group of zayacos during the rodeo event at the end of the pre-Carnaval parades.
The crowd covered with flour as the parade passes.
The crowd watches the events unfold at Seis Esquinas in Ajijic. The parades usually leave bystanders covered in flour, even the dogs. This dog was waiting for its owner, a cowboy riding horseback in the parade.
An infant covered in flour.
An infant covered in flour after the parade has passed.
A woman covered in flour.
A woman covered in flour.
The zayacos gather in the packed bullring with their town behind them in the stands.
Inside the bullring, on the final Sunday before Carnaval 2015, the zayacos of Ajijic gather for a portrait with their town behind them.