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 themselves 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 last century, and it helps people let off steam before the 40 days of Lent.

The zayaco activities are 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 young daughters in the many parades and older girls show up by themselves 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.)

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.
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 banda with another man during Carnival in Ajijic, Mexico.

Zayacos

The Masked Zayacas of Ajijic

Forest Zayaco in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
Forest Zayaco in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
For sale as a fine art print
Forest Zayaco in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
Forest Zayaco in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
For sale as a fine art print
Forest Zayaco in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
Forest Zayaco in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
For sale as a fine art print

A masked zayaca during Carnaval in Ajijic, Mexico

Boy zayaca without a mask.
Boy zayaca without a mask.
Zayaca on Carnival day in Ajijic, Mexico
Zayaca on Carnival day in Ajijic, Mexico.
Zayacos
A zayaca before the parade.
José Romero as a zayaco during the Fiesta of San Sebastián
José Romero as a zayaco during the Fiesta of San Sebastián.
Zayaco portrait
Zayaco.
Zayaco portrait
Zayaco.
Zayacos
A zayaco sits with a family that’s eating tacos and watching the parade pass.
Carnival celebrations in Ajijic
Carnival celebrations in Ajijic
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.
Two kids dressed as zayacas during Carnival in Ajijic, Mexico.
Two kids dressed as zayacas during Carnival in Ajijic, Mexico.
A zayaca in Ajijic, Mexico.
A zayaca in Ajijic, Mexico.

The Masked Zayacas of Ajijic, Mexico

Zayacos

Zayacos

Zayacos

Las Zayacas

Zayacos

Zayacos

Zayacos

The zayacos gather in the packed bullring with their town behind them in the stands.