Pageantry in Oruro.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
In the heart of the Bolivian Andes, at a crossroads of the mountains, tropics, and highlands, February arrives, and with it, Carnaval. That's when the city of Oruro gets ready to receive almost a million visitors eager to witness a show of color, imagination, tradition, and religious faith. About 45,000 dancers and 7,000 professional musicians are participating this year in the Majestic Carnival of Oruro. Soon, the streets will be lined with stands decorated with enormous replicas of masks and carnival figures, and the epic parade will begin.
Oruro is the cradle of one of the richest expressions of folklore in the world--"a masterpiece of oral and intangible human heritage," according to a 2001 UNESCO declaration. A surprising number of foreigners and Bolivians come to town every year to take part in this great display of Bolivian culture, and 2009 Hill be no exception. Enrique Jimenez has danced in the carnival for 30 years, and every February he is a witness to "how the city transforms to accommodate the throngs of visitors anxious to see the show."
This unique festival brings together various cultural currents that have their origins in the customs, deities, and religious practices of the Uru people of centuries past. Andean divinities worshipped in ancient Uru rituals survived years of censorship after the arrival of the Spaniards and gradually morphed into Catholic saints while preserving many of their original characteristics. Today's carnival invokes both Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Virgin Mary--especially the local Virgen del Socavvon. It also invokes Tio Supay (Satan Uncle), who owns the mines and rules the underworld. The Tio seems to be a combination of pre-Colombian mountain gods and the Christian idea of the devil, and the miners seek to pacify him through offerings in order to prevent accidents from occurring underground.
A number of other pre-Colombian stories have found their way into this carnival. One legend has it that a demigod named Huari laid siege to the old town of Uru Uru and attacked the small population with four terrible plagues: a giant snake; an enormous toad; millions of ants; and a huge lizard. These enemy creatures were overcome and turned to stone by a nusta--the Quechua name for "princess" in the Inca Empire---who later took the shape of the Virgin of the Socavon. Today, visitors can see the four plagues carved in stone and located on various hills around the city. The snake, for example, is on three separate stones, the head being very near the town of Oruro. Townspeople go to that site year-round to pray and to ask for favors. These are reminders of the ancient roots and symbolism of the carnival festivities. Nothing is coincidental here; the Carnaval has been around for centuries.
Another defining story goes like this: In the place that is known today as Oruro, there once lived a feared outlaw, a famous thief known as "Nina Nina" (Chiru-Chiru, in other versions) who used to steal from the rich in order to give to the poor. He was in love with a beautiful young mestiza woman whose father was opposed to the relationship, and one night he was ambushed and mortally wounded during one of his escapades. When he was close to death and hiding out in an old mineshaft (El Socavon), the Virgin Mary appeared to him and forgave him all his sins. Days later, his body was found by miners who also discovered the image of Our Lady of Socavon (the Virgin of Candelaria, in more traditional Catholic terms) etched into the wall of the cave. The image dates back to between the fifteenth and sixteenth century and is found at the entrance of the Socavon mine on a hill called Pie de Gallo. She is a dark-skinned Mary, a composite of various Bolivian ethnic traits, but especially resembling highland women in her dress and color.
Since the time of her appearance, the Virgin of Socavon has been venerated by miners, who consider her their patron saint, and by all of the faithful who pay homage to her during the days of Carnaval. They show their devotion to her by dancing for nearly twenty hours over the entire four kilometers of the procession. The parade ends at the gates of the Church where the dancers approach the altar of the Virgin on their knees to thank her for the blessings they have received and to ask forgiveness for their sins. "It is a pilgrimage in dance," says Brother Jairo de Jesus, the author of the most recent documentary on the Carnaval.
The Sanctuary of the Socavon has been renovated and widened to include three enormous naves, and the church is administered by a religious community called the Servants of Maria.
Fabricio Carazola, the current head of cultural affairs for the Oruro municipality, is proud to say that in Oruro's carnival, "all of the social groups in society participate democratically, like no other festival in Bolivia, and without any discrimination." Meanwhile, Jose Perez, one of the dancers, expresses his devotion in this way: "I made a promise to dance for three years, and my faith led me to dance 42 years. Carnaval is something that is sacred to me."
About nineteen different kinds of dances will be performed in this year's ritual, each with its own unique identity expressed in music, costume, and choreography.
The Diablada, or Dance of the Devil, is the most spectacular and emblematic dance of Carnaval. It is a depiction of the underworld that originated among Bolivian miners and is now quite famous throughout the world. Different groups, or strata, are represented in the dance. For instance, one stratum is made up of children, two to ten years old, dressed as little devils and bears; they are a miniature representation of the rest of the dance and the visitors absolutely love them. The children are followed by a single condor, a dancer in a costume crafted to look like the region's most famous bird. Then come the Diablezas, young women in their teens and early twenties who wear stylized devil's costumes and dance in synchrony with movements that tease and cajole. Claudia Emily is one of these Diablezas who has participated in the carnival since she was a child.
After the Diablezas come an energetic group of terrible Luciferes, or larger devils, with enormous masks and splendid costumes, accompanied by a group of Chinas Supay ("The Devil's wife")--beautiful women who, in their colorful and daring costumes, represent the temptations of the flesh. These are followed by the Satanases (the Satans), who sport dramatic capes and render a song and dance of thundering strength. The next group provides lighter fare. They are the Osos, or bears, who are in charge of livening up the crowd with their antics. The bears---especially the littlest ones--are the crowd's favorite. Another favorite is the Naupas (old devils) because of the elegant design of both the men's and women's costumes.
The music gets louder and the Chinas Diablas dance by in tiny costumes, daring and sensual; these women are totally entranced in the frenetic motions and rhythms of the dance. Finally, nearing the end, the "Seven Mortal Sins" pass by. That's when you see the figure of the Michael the Archangel who dances a vigorous and lively dance in front of another troop of devils. These last devils have impressive strength and their movements seem to rock with all of the powers of hell. Their costumes include terrifying masks with bulging eyes, gold-embroidered shawls over the neck and back, a pechera covering the chest, and a pollerin (skirt) with 300 old coins tied at the waist. David Alcocer, one of the devils in this dance, says that when he dies, he wants to be buried with his Diablo costume "while a band plays the songs of my Diablada."
Another dance that must be mentioned is the famous Danza de la Morenada, or "Dance of the Dark Peoples" representing the slaves who were brought to Latin America from Africa. This dance also includes several groups of people with spectacular costumes, some of which are enormous and weigh almost 50 pounds. Dancer Kelly Carmina says "The music of the Morenada is very contagious. It makes you want to sing and dance. Many of these melodies are from Jacha Flores, a well known Bolivian composer."
Other dances include the simpar (partnerless) dances like the Kullawada, which simulates the roundups of llamas, and the Dance of the Inca, with men and women dancers and costumes bearing the rich designs and embroidery of the Inca ancestors. Also worthy of mention are the peculiar dance of the Negritos which came originally from Yungas de la Paz; and the dance of the Caporales, which tells the story of a mulatto who has become a foreman. The Caporales dance is another favorite of the crowd.
The warriors or Tobas leap more than five feet in the air and the Potolos dance with typical costumes and playful movements. The Tinkus (which means "encounter") is a dance that demonstrates strength and vigor against an opponent. The dancers are decorated with weavings made from sheep's wool. The Pujllay is a dance to celebrate a time of recreation and play when the crops in the field begin to flower.
The Suri Sikuris also participate in this great festival, with a dance that imitates the movements of the ostrich. The women wear several skirts of various colors, a blouse embroidered with local designs, and a small sheepskin hat adorned with long feathers. The Awataris is a dance of shepherds, and the Wititis is a virile and warlike dance representing the physical strength of the region's peasant farmers who have been called "men of bronze."
Each costume, each gesture, each character, color, and movement has a symbolism and meaning in this carnival. More than 50 folk music groups play in the joyful and majestic parade; this part is organized by the Oruro Folk Musicians Association along with the mayor's office. "The main goal of all of the people of Oruro is to safeguard the heritage of our Carnaval," says Ascanio Nava, the president of the Association.
That seems to be a unanimous sentiment, so if you are looking for a Carnaval experience, keep in mind the Majestuoso Carnaval de Oruro, which will take place February 20-22, 2009. Omro is located in a beautiful and convenient geographic area, near the La Paz airport and close to other major cities. It also has excellent hotel facilities. There, amidst the local foods and paper streamers and the displays of faith and tradition in the crazy days of Carnaval, you may hear a song that goes, "Oruro, land of love and carnival, you are the beloved of the gringo and the gypsy," and you may find yourself singing along.
Fernando Bustamante is a native Bolivian who resides in Washington, DC.