Dancing devils and crazy cucumbers

16 Jul, 2011 | Camilla Swift

Culture and Social issues

Taking time to learn about some of the characters and costumes of carnival leads to an understanding of the importance and sincerity of the homage that oruro - and other bolivian communities - pay to it’s history each year.

The principal figure of Carnaval in La Paz is the beloved Pepino. Children in La Paz love this harlequin type character due to his mischievous nature - he is a real joker and loves to play tricks and pranks on people. The disinterring of the Pepino is an old tradition that comes from a similar custom in Spain, where a sardine is dug up and then reburied as a symbol of the beginning and end of the fiesta. Here in La Paz the Pepino is resurrected at the beginning of Carnaval by being lifted out of a coffin into a burst of confetti. Dressed in a disheveled suit from his burial last year, the Pepino quickly changes costumes and plunges into the crowd with acrobatics and antics, his identity unknown until he removes his mask. Two years ago, Bolivia’s first elected indigenous president, Evo Morales, delighted the parade by playing the part of the Pepino!

The Oruro Carnival is best known for it’s spectacular Diablada (Dance of the Devils). The Diablada is led by two lavishly costumed dancers representing Lucifer and the Archangel St Michael, followed by hundreds of devil dancers who leap and prance through the streets in brightly embroidered, multicoloured costumes. Amongst them are groups of she-devils known as China Supay, a carnal temptress. The Diablo dancers wear intricate masks festooned with bulging lightbulb eyes, long twisted horns, tangled hair and leering mouths. The origins and meaning of the Diablada are multiple, which makes it an interesting example of the combination of Christian beliefs and Andean folklore. In essence, it represents the struggle between good and evil; The Archangel Michael triumphs over the Devil of Christian belief, but the dance is also a celebration of the devil as an incarnation of Huari, the pre-Columbian god of the underworld (closely related to El Tío de la Mina) who is the owner of the mineral wealth of the mines and the jealous patron of the miners, who dance in his honour.

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Wearing a golden crown and carrying a sceptre as a symbol of authority, the Rey Moreno is the key figure of the Morenada dance. Their masks are sculpted and painted using various traditional African features, and the body of the costume comprises of multicolored disks that resemble fringed tambourines in a vertical accordion shape. The costumed Oruro dancers perform the Morenada dance in a slow and erratic stumbling motion from side-to-side, representing the forced labour of the mining slaves centuries ago. The oral history of the countless folkloric festivities, in which the Morenos (Morenada dancers) have participated, is preserved in this image of the Rey Moreno.


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