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Carnaval Putleco Brings a Oaxacan Festival of Colors to the Bay Area

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Iván Olivera wears a tiliche alongside the group Carnaval Putleco during the Twilight Parade in Healdsburg on May 23, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Iris Alejandra Arcos Cisneros, 18, was nervous. And excited, too.

The teen from Daly City was about to climb on top of a white pickup truck that would take her through the streets of Healdsburg. On Thursday, the small town in the heart of Sonoma County held its Twilight Parade, marking the start of summer festivities that have existed in Wine Country for 75 years.

But Arcos Cisneros was also there to represent her own tradition, bestowed upon her by her family and community.

In her right hand, she had a golden staff. On her head, she wore a sparkling crown. She is this year’s Queen of Carnaval Putleco, a title that pays homage to a celebration that has existed for almost two centuries in Putla, a town in the western mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.

“It’s been my dream to be queen since I was a little girl,” she says. “I love to see the reactions of people who have never seen something like Carnaval Putleco before.”

Iris Alejandra Arcos Cisneros, 18, this year’s Carnaval Putleco queen, poses for a photo alongside the group. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Arcos Cisneros debuts as Carnaval Putleco queen atop a float that Amanda Herrera drives during the Twilight Parade. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Someone from Putla is called “putleco” or “putleca,” and in the past two decades, more and more putleco families have migrated to Bay Area cities. Despite Oaxaca and California being thousands of miles apart, putlecos have found each other in the Bay and pooled resources to continue the traditions of Carnaval Putleco — or the Carnaval of Putla — in their new home.

One of those traditions is to crown a queen each year who will lead Carnaval Putleco at different events throughout the region, like Healdsburg’s Twilight Festival and the upcoming Grand Parade of San Francisco Carnaval, scheduled for Sunday, May 26.


As the truck carrying Arcos Cisneros moves through the streets of Healdsburg, dozens of dancers follow closely behind. Each dancer is wearing a tiliche — an incredibly colorful and elaborate full-body suit made out of hundreds of ribbons that move in all directions as the dancer deftly skips and jumps to the rhythm of the music. When one person dances with a tiliche on, you start noticing more details: a mask made of animal fur and an oversized hat made of palm straw.

But seeing many tiliches together at once becomes an experience. Color seamlessly combines with rhythm. The space around them fills with energy as dynamic and graceful as their movements.

Crowds line the streets as Carnaval Putleco dances in the Twilight Parade. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And at every block, they’re greeted by loud cheers.

“They’re definitely the highlight of the parade,” says Kate Howell, who lives in Sonoma County and has come to the Twilight Festival her whole life. Her young daughter, Maizey, jumped up as soon as she saw the tiliches and danced along with them. Carnaval Putleco adds something that Healdsburg needs now, Howell says, “the music, the color, the enthusiasm, the costumes, the joy of it all.”

Dozens of blocks of nonstop dancing later, Carnaval Putleco finally made it to the end of the parade. They gathered at the house of one of the member families in Healdsburg. As the dancers streamed into the backyard to relax, they removed their masks.

Everyone is soaked in sweat. Each tiliche weighs at least 20 pounds, and the more elaborate ones can weigh up to 40 pounds. It’s a serious workout under the hot Sonoma sun.

Thankfully, a giant pot of delicious pozole is ready — perfect to replenish body and soul.

Left: Grismel Alonso Soto holds ‘el torito’ or little bull as she dances in the Twilight Parade. Right: The group Carnaval Putleco dances through Healdsburg. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Iván Olivera wears a tiliche made with multicolor ribbons created by Martha Cortés Rojas as he dances with Carnaval Putleco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Today wasn’t just any parade,” says Grismel Alonso Soto, who came all the way from Cloverdale with her 3-year-old son, Francisco, to dance. “All of this has such a deeper meaning.”

She shares that her grandmother, who taught her so much about Putla’s traditions, couldn’t make it to the celebrations because her health had been worsening. “I danced for her today,” she says. “When you dance, you connect with all those things you don’t want to forget.”

Tiliches: An art, a tradition, a vision

Martha Cortés Rojas works alongside her daughter Heather, 15, at their home in Healdsburg on May 15, 2024, to create garments for this year’s Carnaval Putleco parades in Healdsburg and San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Carnaval Putleco started 17 years ago when a group of families from Putla and the communities surrounding it formed Comité Pochtlán, a collective with the goal of promoting putleco culture in the Bay Area. 

One of the members of Comité Pochtlán, Martha Cortés Rojas, who lives in Healdsburg, remembers how she and her husband, Amando Herrera Villa, went to that city’s Twilight Parade in 2007. As they both watched different floats pass by, Herrera Villa turned to her and told her they should join the following year wearing the tiliches they missed seeing so much in Putla.

“I agreed,” she says in Spanish, “but I told him we would need to find a way to make our own tiliches.”

Left: Martha Cortés Rojas strings beads and ayoyote shells onto a wire to create a tiliche. Right: Rojas shows a stitch she created for a tiliche made of woven palm leaves. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

They started calling friends and family members they knew were now living in California. While many were in Sonoma County, others had settled in Daly City, Sunnyvale, San José and as far as Los Angeles.

Folks quickly got on board. Despite time and distance, Carnaval is something deeply entrenched in the memories of so many putlecos. In Putla, like other Carnaval celebrations held across Latin America, Carnaval happens right before the start of Lent, when Catholics must focus on prayer and self-control for 40 days.

But before Lent, one big party usually takes place — Carnaval, the biggest celebration in Oaxaca after the Guelaguetza. For three straight days, the streets of Putla fill up with parties, where you’ll see three different types of dances: la danza de los machos, la comparsa de copalas and la danza de los viejos. The last one, danza de los viejos, is where you see the tiliches appear.

The name, danza de los viejos, translates to “the dance of the old men,” and traditionally, the tiliches were meant to represent older men and women. The suits would be made up completely of old fabric and ribbons, but in contemporary celebrations, most tiliches are now made up of newer material and represent various characters, including animals, demons and mythical characters.

Heather Herrera Cortés, 15, works with her mother, Martha, to paint a mask for this year’s Carnaval Putleco celebrations. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But when Cortés Rojas went about creating a tiliche back in 2007, she stuck close to tradition and designed her suit to look like an old man. It was the first tiliche she had ever made in her life, after all. As a young girl in Putla, she would watch the Carnaval each year but never got involved in the production. Now, as an adult living in Sonoma, she had to figure out the process by herself, using completely different materials. But that challenge proved to be an opportunity for her creativity to take over.

“I’m making tiliches in my own way now,” she says. In her backyard, she’s set up several of the tiliches she’s made over the years. She points at a tiliche made completely out of white chiffon ribbons. “This one varies from the traditional style,” she says, “back in Putla, each piece of cloth in the suit has to be of a completely different color from different pieces of clothing.”

But a tiliche made of only white ribbons will stand out wherever she says, adding, “White represents purity, and when someone dances with this, it almost looks like they are floating.”

With every tiliche she makes, her vision as an artist becomes bolder, and her skill as an artisan has only grown stronger.

Instead of pieces of cloth, she covered one tiliche with thousands of braided palm leaves. She didn’t braid the palm leaves herself — she bought them from Mexico readymade — but she sowed each of them one by one on the suit. The final result is a tiliche as vibrant as a traditional one but that responds to the dancer’s movement in a completely distinct way: The braids spring against each other as the dancer moves, giving a lighter and more ecstatic sensation.

“All of this represents a lot of time and money we have invested,” she says, adding that it takes her about a year to make one tiliche, “but this makes us happy. … my mind is always full of ideas for new tiliches, new ways to make each one more elaborate, more beautiful, more original.”

With only a few days left before Carnaval San Francisco, she’s rushing to finish the tiliche her husband will wear in that parade. This suit could be her most ambitious design yet: a tiliche covered entirely in colorful beads and ayoyotes.

Martha Cortés Rojas hollows out an ayoyote shell to adorn a tiliche. Rojas makes all of her Carnaval Putleco attire by hand. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ayoyotes are the shells of a nut that come from an ayoyote tree. Many dancers throughout Mexico and Central America use ayoyotes to make rattles that they can wear or carry during their performances (Aztec dancers, for example, cover their ankles with them so they make that familiar rattle as they move). Cortés Rojas has to crack open each ayoyote nut, carefully remove the toxic seeds, and drill a hole where she can run the string that will attach it to the suit.

“Each suit takes up a couple drops of blood, too,” she jokes but points to her fingertips, where she has poked herself countless times, drilling through ayoyotes. It’s taken almost two years to finish this tiliche. But the wait is absolutely worth it, she says. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before — not even in Oaxaca.

“The greatest reward is that someone sees one of my suits and is left in awe by its beauty and the effort that it requires. Everything is handmade,” she says. “When someone sees a tiliche, they know us putlecos are here.”

‘¡Que viva Putla!’

Perhaps those who have the deepest love for the traditions of Carnaval Putleco are young putlecos who grew up here in California, far away from Putla.

Iván Olivera, 33, came to the U.S. when he was 1, brought to Sonoma by his parents. He’s never had the chance to visit Putla, but he grew up hearing family always talk about its traditions. When he turned 17, he joined Carnaval Putleco and donned a tiliche. He hasn’t stopped since.

Left: Iván Olivera shows the stitches inside his tiliche, which Martha Cortés Rojas created. Right: Olivera puts on a tiliche over a backpack to create the traditional shape. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Misael Olivera (left) and his brother Iván put on their tiliches at a coronation event for this year’s Carnaval Putleco queen hosted by Comité Pochtlán, a group promoting Oaxacan culture, at the Healdsburg Community Center. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It’s something from our roots; we love doing it,” he says. His tiliche is perhaps one of the biggest — and heaviest — ones. He’s joined a crossfit class and regularly runs to stay in tiliche-ready shape throughout the year. After dancing for a couple of hours, it can get extremely hot inside the suit, but he says he doesn’t mind the heat.

“It’s the crowd — the rhythm of the music, that gets me going,” he says. Dancing with a tiliche, surrounded by other putlecos, with traditional Oaxacan music playing, it gives him a feeling of home and family that he can’t get anywhere else.

As he’s gotten older, he’s invited friends who grew up with him in Sonoma to dance with him. His brother, Misael, also dances with the group. The two brothers got to catch up and perform together on April 20 at the Healdsburg Community Center when Carnaval Putleco crowned Arcos Cisneros as the new queen.

Left: Cecilia Carlos Montesinos, the 2023 queen, poses for a photo before she passes the crown to Iris Alejandra Arcos Cisneros. Right: Cecilia Carlos Montesinos (left) pins a crown on Arcos Cisneros, this year’s Carnaval Putleco queen, during a coronation ceremony. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Arcos Cisneros also grew up in the Bay, but she’s been lucky enough to visit Putla many times. “Growing up, this felt like a big party until I realized the cultural significance of it all,” she says.

“Over there, it’s a different ambiente — everyone knows each other and the traditions,” she says. “Over here, it feels like we’re sharing something new with people.”

On Sunday, she will lead Carnaval Putleco through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District as tens of thousands of people from all over California cheer them on. But this time around, she won’t be on top of the group’s float — instead, she’ll be dancing right along with all the other tiliches.

After all, she takes her role as queen seriously. At the end of her coronation ceremony, she told her fellow putlecos, “Es un orgullo para mi representar la comunidad putleca en estas tierras californianas.” — “It is a great pride for me to represent the putleco community here in California.”

¡Que viva Oaxaca! ¡Que viva Putla y sus comunidades! ¡Y que viva el Carnaval!” — “Long live Oaxaca! Long live Putla and its surrounding communities! And long live Carnaval!”

Iris Alejandra Arcos Cisneros, 18, this year’s Carnaval Putleco queen, holds ‘el torito’ as she dances during her coronation ceremony at an event hosted by Comité Pochtlán, a group promoting Oaxacan culture at the Healdsburg Community Center. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)


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