This article originally appeared on VICE Español.A humble, soft-spoken man dressed in blue jeans and a hat, Gerrado Paez is a tlaloque: a present-day assistant to Tláloc, the Mexican god of rain and lightning.In a room in his home close to Izaccíhuatl, an active volcano in central Mexico, stands an altar adorned with fruits and candles. In front of the altar is a huge cross, upon which a corncob takes Jesus Christ’s traditional place in a tableau of eternal suffering.
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Here, in the Amecameca municipality of Mexico State, everything is dedicated to currying favour with Tláloc — he who makes things sprout. If the tlaloque’s ritual mission is successful, he or she will receive the divine messages the community are waiting for. Farmers, blessed by Tláloc, can prepare themselves and their cornfields for the season ahead.Tlaloques respect Izaccíhuatl and talk to the rain. They communicate with moss, forest and the air. Messages come to them in dreams; messages they obey.The inspiration for Paez’s altar came to him in one such dream. Upon waking he shared his vision with his neighbours, one of whom told him she’d had a similar dream; that she knew how to make the offerings Tláloc had requested in their shared somnambulant wanderings. Every believer in the community brought what they could for the shrine: pine branches, flowers, crops, mole, guavas, confetti, candlesticks, censers. Everything becomes part of the ritual; it all plays a role in making a connection with the spirits. Without the offerings, there is no bridge to beings above. Paez asks if there’s anything I want to contribute to his altar. All I had on me was a few beers and some unfiltered cigars. This was fine, he told me; it will be accepted as it comes from the heart. Tlaloques have a high-status position in their community. Becoming one involves an initiation process: In addition to being dedicated to one’s community and having a deep knowledge of local history, culture, landscape and meteorological idiosyncrasies, you’ve got to survive a lightning strike.
“One afternoon I was working the land and at exactly 4PM I saw a light, saw its edges. I felt the force of the lightning. It felt like it had whipped me and I was thrown about five meters back,” Paez says of the day he was anointed by the god of rain. “I felt a burning in my arm and quickly undressed myself. I was taken to the village’s mayora [a wise and respected woman who have amassed a huge amount of magical ancestral knowledge, and who possess the power to heal physical and emotional discomfort through ritual] and cured.”Paez told her of his dreams. “She listened to me and said, ‘From now on, you are the guardian of the Sacromonte [a hill considered sacred since pre-Hispanic times and now part of a national park]. You are the chosen one.’”He is now one of seven tlaloques in the Amecameca area and surrounding communities in the zona de volcanes (Spanish for “zone of volcanoes”), as the towns on the slopes of the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl are known.
Each of the tlaloques is thought of as a guardian of a specific mountain, chosen by Tláloc for the task. Once the tlaloque is sure of his mission, instructions are passed to him in his dreams and he regularly climbs to the top of his ordained peak to present offerings at designated times. Every May, the tlaloques set up altars atop their respective mountains or hills. The purpose of these early summer visits is to plead for the rain needed for a year of agricultural prosperity. Come across any one of these altars and you’ll find offerings like tobacco, apples, rice and plum jam. These edible votives must be laid according to rigorous rules, placed correctly to ensure that the ire of the gods is calmed and the waters flow in favour of the local community.
Dr. Mauricio Ramsés Hernández, who works at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, says: “The cult of water and the mountain is fundamental in these cultures. From Tlalocan, from the underworld, emerge lively meteorological forces such as rain, thunder, lightning, rainbows. This cult is of such fundamental importance for a simple reason: It provides food.”Amecamecans have a strong connection to the land. Many plant maiz criollo, a corn grown for both sustenance and for medicinal purposes. This sense of kinship with crops and the fields they grow in means locals are, by and large, incredibly attuned to changes in weather. The droughts the area experiences most years are getting longer. “They used to last six months,” says Jamie Ariza, an Amecamecan farmer. “Now it’s seven. The climate is changing, the rains are changing, and we see all this playing out on our cornfields.”These changes mean that Ariza and his fellow farmers are facing new agricultural challenges on a daily basis. Corn has to be sown months later than before, and a major new pest has made itself known. “Magpies have begun to arrive,” Ariza says. They’ve now got to formulate methods to ensure that the lively birds don’t consume too much of their crop. “Before, you’d never see them flying round these parts. This is how we know things are changing.”
“The weather is not reliable. The sky changes. The warming is a cleansing process of what doesn’t work. The earth will renew itself. The question is whether we will be part of this ecosystem,” Paez says as we drink some pulques, an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave sap, with Iztaccíhuatl rising behind us.
Earlier this year, this volcanic community caught the attention of international broadcasters because of the death of the Ayoloco glacier, one of the last remaining in Mexico, which had been located on the slopes of Iztaccíhuatl.“We’re currently at the warmest part of the glaciation process,” says Hugo Delgado, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s department of volcanology. “Precipitation and aridity patterns are changing. Human activity leads to greenhouse gases which exacerbate the effects of global climate change.” One of the many consequences of this slide into climate apocalypse is the inevitable death of Mexico’s glaciers.It’s a conclusion that the tlaloques themselves would likely agree with, even if their methodology differs from volcanology departments the world over. Both responses rely on deep observation. For the tlaloques, there’s the change in firefly mating rituals, the changing colour of moss, the rustling of the trees.
Anthropologist Ramsés Hernández, in his book Nahualac: Relato sobre ofrendas contadas en el Iztaccíhuatl (“Nahualac: Story of Offerings at the Iztaccíhuatl”) argues that, for the tlaloques of Amecameca, there is no division between the self and the landscape they inhabit. “The ritual is the ancestral knowledge that intends to regulate the human life in society with nature,” he writes, “under a rural logic of reciprocity in relation to the cosmos, nature, the deceased and the saints.”
Maintaining that connection is why Paez and his colleagues climb their mountains when the call beckons. The tlaloques complain about new generations who they see as ignoring long-standing traditions, rituals etched in the soil. “They expect a magician to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Paez says, as calmly as ever. “They believe in a lot of fantastic things, but the real magic lies in being in sync with nature.”Perhaps hoping that we’d pick up some sense of his divine feel for the natural world, Paez escorted us up Sacromonte that evening. As darkness encroached, and rain clouds heaved on the horizon, all was quiet.This was where he’d been struck by lightning, where the rituals that make up Paez and his community’s lives play out. This was where the feeling of the innate kinship between the man and his environment was most deeply felt. This was the place Gerrado Paez worships.