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The Yaqui Easter Festival goes on for seven weeks. It is celebrated in the State of Arizona in the United States and in the country of Mexico.  The ceremony ends on Easter Sunday. The name of this festival comes from the Yaqui Indians, now living in the Tuscon and Phoenix, Arizona area that are descendants of the original tribe that lived near the Yaqui River in the northwestern area of Mexico. And, who later fled to the southwestern U.S. during the 18th  and 19th century wars between Spain and the Mexican governments. But, earlier in the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries arrived in the area and began teaching Christianity to the Yaqui. They continued to hold on to many of their cultural beliefs, while also accepting some Roman Catholic practices as well. This mixing of tribal customs with Christian customs is a good example with their Easter celebration.  

Easter preparation begins before Ash Wednesday with the Yaqui who decorate churches, make ceremonial masks and set up crosses for the reenactment of the Passion of Christ.

Throughout the 40 days of lent, public ceremonies and tribal dances (i.e. the deer dance) take place. But the celebration climaxes durng the Easter week. On Holy Thursday, the chapayekas (soldiers who have been searching for for Jesus throughout Lent) capture an effigy of Christ and then seize control of the church. The Pharisees are known as the fariseos, and they are the enemies of Christ who carry out a symbolic crucifixion on Good Friday. But,that night the Resurrection happens and so they do not realize that they have lost possession of Christ's body. On Holy Saturday, there's a confrontation between the Fariseos and the Chapayekas on one side. On the other side is a group who is defending the church and have armed themselves with flowers.

The Fariseos and Chapayekas  will advance towards the church 3 times. Each time they are stopped and have to turn back because of the Matachin Dancers, the Deer Dancers, the Pascolas and flooding of real and crepe paper flowers.  Eventually the Fariseos get defeated. To represent their defeat they throw their ceremonial masks and the straw effigy of Judas into a huge fire.  The Pascolas,the Deer Dancers and the Matachin Dancers perform at the celebration that soon follows.  When the news of Christ's resurrection reaches them on Sunday morning, the join the rest of the Yaqui in a final procession of happiness and joy that ends with a sermon which explains the varies parts of the Easter Ceremony.

Further Explanation of Specific Symbols:

Burning of the Masks

Not only is burning the ceremonial masks and effigy of Judas in a fire on Easter Sunday a symbolic gesture admitting defeat on the part of the chapayekas in this ceremony, but it also is a way to symbolize ridding themselves of the sins of the entire Yaqui community (by getting rid of their leader, Judas).  This is a blending of tribual rituals of driving out evil with the biblical teachings of how Judas betrayed Jesus right before He was crucified.


The Caballeros are the cavalry or horsemen, who guard Jesus from those trying to capture him in this reenactment.  They wear hats and swords. They also carry a blue flag which symbolizes all that is good in the Yaqui tribe.


The word chapayekas means "long nose" in Yaqui. So, the traditional helmet-like masks worn by these soldiers in the Easter Ceremony have long, slender noses.  Some say that the word is used to describe the Spanish invaders of Mexico. (Note: If you look at some of the pictures of some of them they do have long noses!)   These Chapayekas are the enforcement team of the Fariseos (or Pharisees) who are enemies of Jesus and play an important role in His capture and crucifixion. Besides the masks, they also wear plaid blankets over their shoulders and cocoon rattles around their legs and waists. They are known for their clowning around and their purpose is to distract the crowd from what's going on by teasing and taunting them with their red-tipped swords, symbolic of Jesus' blood. As a group, they represent an extension of their leader, Judas.  Because of that, they symbolize the evil or sinful elements in the Yaqui community.

Deer Dance

The Yaqui Deer Dancers wear deer heads with antlers and glass eyes on their own heads which are covered by a white cloth.  Normally they are bare-chested and carry rattles made from dried gourds in one of their hands. Or they have cocoon rattles tid to their ankles.  The Deer Dancers perform with the Pascolas who attempt to capture them.  The movements in their dance represent the deer they impersonate - silent, skittish and aloof.  The Deer Dancers will dance to the music performed by 3 singers who accompany themselves on rasping sticks, which are to represent the deer's breathing. They also use a water drum made from a hollow gourd floating in water which represents the deer's beating heart.

At one time, deer was a very crucial source of food for the Yaqui.  Their skins were also important as well.  The Deer Dance is performed not only during the Easter Ceremony but at other Yaqui events also. The Deer Dance pays homage to the longstanding relationship between the Yaqui and the deer, an animal which they both fear and admire.


The Fariseos (or Pharisees) along with the Caballeros are the two groups who are responsible for organizing the Yaqui Easter Ceremony.  The Fariseos are the infantry or foot soldiers who symbolize the evil forces and persecuted and crucified Christ. Pontius Pilate is their leader, the Roman official who presided over Jesus' trial and ordered Him to be crucified.  The Fariseos are often referred to as the Soldiers of Rome.

Their costume is totally black, with black scarves covering most of their faces.  During the final confrontation on Holy Saturday, the Fariseos get defeated by those defending the church.  The Fariseos are pelted with flowers.  Once they are defeated, they are welcomed back into the church.  This greeting represents men who have been rebaptized into the Christian faith.


Flowers have always been a symbol in Yaqui life, especially those flowers that grow in the Mexican desert.  These flowers also are sung about in their songs, and often symbolize the Virgin Mary, whose heaven is believed to be filled with flowers. On Holy Saturday's final conflict, the defenders of the church pelt their enemies with flowers which symbolize the flood of Jesus which has the power to overcome evil.  Red flowers are preferred, but sometimes confetti is used as well.

Matachin Dance

Matachin Dancers not only perform at the Easter Ceremony, but at other Yaqui festivals as well. These dancers represent the forces of good.  They wear headdresses decorated with red flowers and brightly colored shirts.  They carry rattles made from hollowed gourds. They also carry palma, which are wands shaped like a trident covered in feathers.

Of all the Yaqui dances, the Matachin is considered to be the most sacred because it honors the Virgin Mary, who is their patroness.  This dance is performed to ensure that she continues to look favorably upon the Yaqui people.  During the Easter Ceremony, the Yaqui Dancers are not seen until the final confrontation with the Fariseos on Holy Saturday.


The word Pascola originates from a Yaqui word, pahko, which means "fiesta" and ola which means "old man." These dancers perform at all the Yaqui festivals.  They are accompanied by a harp, a violin, a drum and a flute.  Just like the Deer Dancers, they also wear cocoon rattles around their ankles, and bells and rattles around their waists. Their masks are usually black or brown, with red or white decorations; and, are made to look like either humans or animals with long tufts of hair and a cross carved into their chin or forehead.  The Pascolas who perform individually usually play the role of a clown who is trying to get the audience more involved and who also provide some kind of comic relief during this otherwise serious celebration.  They will also serve as a unifying element throughout the rest of the year, opening every Yaqui fiesta with their dancing, storytelling and comedic actions.

Return to our April Holidays Listings page.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2003

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