The people live El Carnaval

16 Jul, 2011 | Mads Ryle

Culture and Social issues


Dr. Fernando Cajias de la Vega is former Culture Minister for Bolivia, currently Professor of History and Deacon of Humanities and Education Sciences at San Andres University in La Paz, and a member of a Carnaval collective. As such he’s something of an authority on carnival traditions, and we were lucky to get time with him to tap into his expertise. Read on for a deeper insight into el Carnaval’s history, economics, demographics, gender politics and more…

*N.B. ‘carnival’ (the English spelling) is used throughout to refer to the universal idea in its manifold instances. ‘Carnaval’ and ‘el Carnaval’ refer to specific instances of this phenomenon, especially those taking place in Bolivia.

BX: Tell us something about the origins of the carnival, and the syncretism of Andean and Catholic traditions…

FC: Some call it syncretism, but others prefer to call it a religious symbiosis, more of a living experience than a union of two faiths. Carnival started in the West. It recovered the tradition, from the Saturnalias and Dionysian festivals of classical Greece and Rome, of the world in reverse, of transgression: night becomes more important than day, the streets are for dancing and not for cars...The Christians annulled many Roman festivals, but it’s impossible to eliminate them all. Because for human beings to be festive is part of our nature. And the medieval festival that grew the most was carnival.

Carnival was brought here by the Spanish. ‘Carnival’, from Latin, means to say goodbye to meat prior to Lent, so its date is the same in the whole Christian world: the three days before the start of the forty days of Lent. But here, the Christian carnival united with Andean festivals or ‘anatas’ of fertility and harvest. In the Andean farming cycle harvest starts in February, and with the union with Christianity the key date became the 2nd February, which is that of the Virgin of Candlemass. This was the first union. But later, in Oruro in particular, the Virgin became associated with mining production. The Virgin of Oruro is the Virgen del Socavón [Virgin of the Cave] - the Virgin of the miners - but it is still the Virgin of Candlemass. But the other major association is with Tio de la Mina [a subterranean idol modelled on popular conceptions of the devil], who, for Aymaras and Quechuas, is the god of the mines.

In Oruro now the Virgin of Socavon is much more prominent than Tio de la Mina. A large majority believe that by dancing for the Virgen del Socavón they can obtain many more of their heart’s desires. Which is the Andean idea of reciprocity: I dance for you, you help me. I invest in you, you help me. The most important dance in Oruro is the Diablada. The Diablada represents the Archangel Michael in battle against the cardinal sins. But in the Andean vision the devil is also Supay, the god of the underworld who, since it is carnival-time and everyone is distracted, comes up here and takes on a human appearance in order to dance.

The second most important dance is the Morenada…there is a dispute as to whether or not it represents the history of black slavery, but in reality - since it costs so much, in terms of the costume, the band – what it represents these days is power.

BX: Isn’t it said that this is an elitist dance - because only a certain group can become part of these fraternities?

FC: As with all festivals there are people who have money, and others who have to borrow it in order to dance. There are Morenadas with a lot of money and others who have less. But in the end, on the day of the parade everyone is equal, no? And it wasn’t always like this. Before the Fifties there were two ‘Carnavales’, the elite and the popular. In Oruro they came together. Another important dance is the Caporales, in which there are also powerful groups, but above all it is a dance for young people.

BX: And what about women?

FC: In the last 20 years there has been this feminisation of the festival. Before then the men took part, and the women accompanied them without dancing. Today the women dance as much as the men, but there are male and female roles inside each dance. For example in the Diablada the cardinal sins are represented by men, and the virtues are represented by women. But on the other hand the Archangel cannot be played by a woman. And the worst devil is a man disguised as a woman, la China Supay, who is the wife of Supay. There is positive and negative machismo. Women can’t represent lust nor can they be the Angel.

There are dances in which men and women dance in the same way – the Morenada, the Kullawada are in pairs. The sense of the two in the Aymara cosmovision is very strong, that you cannot have someone on their own. But in other dances, for example in the rural Carnaval of Tarabuco, men are warriors and women ñustas [virgins of the Incas who held a sacerdotal role], who accompany them to heal their wounds. But now in Oruro and La Paz, there are women who dance as warriors. This doesn’t go down well in the countryside.

BX: It’s an effect of modernity…

FC: Of course. And in the music bands, it was always the men who played all the instruments. There are more women in the dances each year, 60 per cent women for 40 per cent men perhaps. But in the bands it’s 80/20 the other way. But in general the incursion of women is enormous…if one removes a bear’s mask [the bear is one of the personae in the Diablada], you often find women underneath. And women participate now as power, but also as a symbol of liberation, of beauty, of sensuality. Before it was impossible to see such short skirts… Now nearly all the dances have the female as their principal figure. In Santa Cruz the main figure is the Queen of Carnaval. But this exalting of feminine beauty also happens in Oruro and La Paz.

BX: How is Carnaval in Santa Cruz different to that in Oruro?

FC: In Oruro, el Carnaval is very folkloric – the Diablada, the Morenada, the Caporales, the Llameros, the Kullawas. They are traditional dances that have been transmitted generation to generation and in which the same costumes are maintained. In Santa Cruz, Carnaval is a little more like in Rio: the samba school has its rhythm but the theme changes each year. You can make effigies of football players, or comment on current affairs. The same thing happens in Santa Cruz. Each fraternity chooses a theme of the moment, but they maintain a structure that includes the dance - the taquirari - and the Queen of Carnaval.

In La Paz it’s more playful, it’s the language of fun. The disguises, the masks. The central character in La Paz is ‘el Pepino’ [which literally means ‘the cucumber’], a kind of Pierrot figure who can do what he wants during Carnival because he’s masked.

BX: Where does the Pepino figure come from?

FC: There are records of him from the start of the 20th Century, but he probably existed before. El Pepino has more of an urban origin, more of a French influence, like a harlequin...They say that the people in La Paz are shy, and so putting on the Pepino mask transforms them. They play a lot of jokes. What’s bad is that it goes to the other extreme. It’s difficult to go and see el Pepino because he likes to play too many tricks with water.

BX: What do you think el Carnaval means for Bolivians in 2011?

FC: There is a division. There is a section of the Bolivian population which believes that the fiestas do us a lot of harm, because there are many festivals throughout the year. So they think that in Bolivia we are too festive and should work more. But in reality when you compare our calendar, understanding that the fiesta is like a day off in European cities, they have more free days there than here. I think that festivals, by helping people to forget all their problems, allow Bolivia to be a much more peaceful society. And moreover, festivals are an important refuge for identity because in daily life I think many people have adopted Western habits, especially among young people. Whereas the fiesta is a great preserver of identity, that takes one back to different cultures outside of our globalised one.

It’s important to note in these fiestas the social groups that represent themselves. The chola Paceña, the Afro-Bolivians dance as themselves. But in many other dances they appropriate another identity, for example the university groups - they dance the rural dances: the Llamerada, the Kullawada, the Caporales. But the youth have given something new…the rhythm is the same, but the young people provide another kind of force. They have greatly urbanized the rural traditions, but I think it’s for the good, because the rural keeps itself going. The urban is another thing. But still it recalls the rural, which serves greatly towards understanding the country.

BX: And I presume Carnaval has a major economic importance for Bolivia? For tourism...

FC: It generates a lot of employment, for example among the costume makers, the musicians. In Oruro there is also touristic activity. But we fail to take more advantage of tourism. We’re missing the politics in order to take advantage like in Rio, no? Because in the cultural industries Bolivia is weak...It’s difficult to find economic data but yes, many millions get spent during Carnaval. Those that spend most are the businesses, the beer companies. But they recover their investment.

BX: And the municipal governments of the various towns, do they spend a lot on Carnaval?

FC: In Bolivia, since the country’s founding, we have a weak state and a strong society. The same goes for the Carnaval. Participation by the state is minor. It’s impossible that the municipality of Oruro could cover the costs involved…now what do they put in? Prizes, setting up the streets, clearing the rubbish (which is a major investment!). Before the state was at the margin of these events. But since these festivals became urban megafiestas, the President never misses them, nor the mayor, the magistrates or the members of parliament.

Communication media as well now plays an important role. At the start of the 20th Century, the media would say, “no, el Carnaval is something indigenous… how long are we going to go on with these customs?” Today the media has changed enormously, they celebrate carnival, and they cover it in its entirety. Thankfully here we haven’t reached the point where the media controls the event. In other carnivals, like Rio itself, you can see that the media decides the timetable. Here they don’t, but because they don’t pay…In Rio the profits of each carnival group come from media rights. Here the government has said no.

BX: Any final thoughts?

FC: It’s interesting to see that, before, carnival existed in all of Christian Europe and America. But this has been diminishing. Many cities and societies no longer have a carnival. Under the military dictatorships, in the Seventies, they suppressed carnival in Buenos Aires and Santiago. But as they say in Argentina, why have carnival, if it´s for fun, since you can get this every weekend in the large cities anyway? And it’s true.

So in the countries that maintain the carnival tradition, the fun is very important but there are other forces at work too. And in the case of Bolivia it’s the search for identity…We have spoken about the major ones, but there is Carnaval in every city, in each town and village, and each has its identity. The miners have their own Carnaval. Those in the countryside have their Carnaval.

So undoubtedly ‘el Carnaval’ is understood as diversion, as something that liberates and is a change from your daily existence. But here it has many identities, and the people live el Carnaval. And because of this it keeps going.

“The Oruro Carnaval is set up thus: the Friday [before Lent] is the day of Tio de la Mina; the Saturday is the day of the Virgin of Socavon. The Sunday is a day of no gods, the only day simply for carnival, for the god Momo, the god of joy. And so the devils can, for example, take off their masks to drink on Sunday. The Monday is the day of the devil. And not only for dances, but for all rituals associated with the devil. The Tuesday is the Tuesday of ch’alla, the Tuesday of Mother Earth, which also happens here in La Paz. Mother Earth and Kunduru Mamani, the one who protects what one has, for example your work. But because on the Tuesday everything is closed, many people perform these rites on the Friday. In all the offices. And the Wednesday in Oruro is the day of Sapo as well. But it is also Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. For Christianity it all finishes on Ash Wednesday. But not in Andean cosmology, in which Carnaval continues on until the Sunday. Here in La Paz the Sunday is the burial of Pepino, and in the rural world they finish all the rites of the first harvest.”


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