Aymara New Year

19 Jul, 2011 | Seneca Garrison


June 21st marked the 5,519th annual celebration of Aymara New Year, and an estimated 50,000 participants migrated to the Tiwanaku ruins for a freezing all-nighter of fun and timeless tradition. People began arriving at the ruins that lie about two hours outside of La Paz around 6pm in the evening, but micros and taxis bused excited locals and tourists there well into the wee hours of the morning – no one wanted to miss the festivities and abundance of alcohol that the night promised. All down the normally quiet streets of the small town that surrounds Tiwanaku, vendors bartered the prices of api for the hungry, gloves for the unprepared, and soy burgers for the hippies.

While live Andean music and the occasional firework were present from the get-go, the real ceremony begins around one in the morning and builds and builds until the pinnacle of the Aymaran New Year - ‘Wilkakuti’ or ‘return of the sun’ in Aymara.

For those unfamiliar with the Aymara, they are an ancient, indigenous people previously conquered by the Incas. They have lived in Bolivia for the past 2,000 years and remain the country’s largest pre-Hispanic ethnic group. The Aymara are historically an agricultural people and, therefore, placed their New Year on the Winter Solstice (the coldest, darkest night of the year). Praying and giving offerings of coca, alcohol, and a llama to Pachamama until sunrise on the most miserably cold night of the year entices Tata Inti, the sun god, to give the farmers a good harvest that year.

While the traditions are still taken quite seriously, the modern day celebration is attended mainly by the younger population and is more of party than a night of sacrifice. One participant of Aymara descent said that she comes every year to dance through the whole night, not to see shamans do their thing. Nonetheless, right before first light, Yatiris, Aymara traditional healers, still pour their offerings of alcohol on the ground as they chant “Jallalla” (“cheers to mother earth”), and a llama is sacrificed, its blood splashing on those seeking luck. The folds of the llama’s heart are believed to tell the future for those who know how to read them, but most seem to be having too much fun to worry about what the bloody mess has to tell them. Maybe if someone had taken the time to see the future for the festival itself they would have seen the controversy it would face. When Aymara New Year was declared a national holiday in 2009 by President Evo Morales, it did two things: ballooned up the celebration and turned it into a hot-button issue. More and more vendors and entertainers come out and the crowds have quadrupled in size. One vendor said that she is glad it’s an official holiday because it spreads the Aymara culture to the rest of the country. However, there are two sides to absolutely everything and while it seems silly to protest a holiday, those who dispute the holiday have some good points.

One of their principle arguments comes from a feeling of misrepresentation of the non-Aymara citizens of Bolivia. President Evo is a former Aymara coca farmer, and since he has assumed his office he has taken many steps to forward the visibility of Bolivia’s indigenous people, namely the Aymara. While this is almost universally recognized as good thing, Bolivia’s constitution still clearly defines the country as “plurinational.” So imposing an Aymara holiday on non-Aymara citizens does not go down so well when there are 36 other indigenous groups with their own festivals that remain undeclared. Mostly people just do not like seeing their President play favorites, which some call discrimination.

There are also many arguments against the legitimacy of the holiday as a whole. Though this is supposed to the 5,519th time Aymara New Year has been celebrated, there is very little historical evidence about the event before the arrival of the Spanish a mere 450-odd years ago. Others explain the lack of evidence by suggesting that Aymara New Year was engendered from the Incan festival of Inti Raymi (the sun god). Incan Emperor Pachacutec imposed the celebration on all Incan and conquered people in the 16th century. Furthermore, when the Spanish arrived, they made no record of an Aymara New Year, but did write about Inti Raymi. Now there would be nothing wrong with celebrating Inti Raymi here in Bolivia, nothing wrong with calling it Aymara New Year, either. But if it is going to be declared a national holiday, it should at least be a genuine historical day. It’s a bit much to impose an Aymara holiday on non-Aymara if said holiday is only a celebrated because the Incas imposed it on the Aymara to begin with. Get all that?

The third and possibly most reasonable argument deals with the location of the celebration: the Tiwanaku ruins. They provide an amazing setting for the night’s mystic activities, but Tiwanaku had its own inhabitants once upon a time, and they weren’t Aymara. They are simply known as ’the people of Tiwanaku’. They had no written language and so very little is known about them, but most historians and anthropologists consider them quite separate from the Aymara. Despite this wellknown fact, the ruins are subject to vandalism and all of the unavoidable damage that the presence of 50,000 Aymara partiers inevitably leads to. The ruins are actually under threat of losing their status as a world heritage site because of amount of deterioration it’s under gone in the past decade.

Although these concerns where far from the minds of the masses as they gathered under the Winter Solstice stars, there appear to be some simple solutions to this great New Year debate. Change the location. Declare some more ethnic groups’ festivals as national holidays. Or take away the “national holiday” title altogether; Aymara New Year would surely survive without it. The cons of the celebration raise some serious problems, but take anyone out on the chilling night of June 21st, wrap them in a blanket and hand them a beer and they’ll soon see the magic of this holiday.


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