Committing some carnival sins

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As Bolivia celebrates its cultural identity, Robin Perkins travels to Latin America to witness one of the world’s most intriguing carnivals

Bolivia may well be known for its lofty peaks, its indigenous population and its position as Latin America’s second landlocked country, however, what most people do not realise is that it is also home to one of Latin America’s most colourful and intriguing Carnavals. Once a year the former mining city of Oruro, lying some 200 kilometres south of capital La Paz, is transformed into a sea of dance, music and debauchery — all done in the name of the mysterious Virgen del Socavon.

Now recognised as the captial of Bolivian folkore, Oruro’s carnaval has its origins in a rare mix of catholic piety, paganic ritual and indigenous folklore. The festivities are held in the name of La Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft), an apparition of the Virgin Mary said to have appeared on the wall of one of the city’s mine shafts in 1789. Ever since, the mining community has paid homage with outlandish parades in her honour. The festivites however, also incorporate indigenous celebrations, such as the Ito festival of the Uru pepople, which were forbidden by the Spanish in the 17th Century, but the people continued to celebrate, concealing their beliefs within Catholic symbolism.

The Carnaval is the highlight of the calender, not only the Oruro community but for the whole of Bolivia, now accepted as Bolivia’s best Carnaval and named by UNESCO in 2001 as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Itangible Heritage of Humanity. The preperations begin as early as November building to a five day weekend the week before Ash Wednesday.

The highlight of the festivities is Saturday’s four kilometer parade through the city by some fifty or so groups of dancers and musicians in outlandish costumes culminating in the Socavon Church where they pay homage to the Virgen and enact scenes between good and evil, the devil and angels. The parade starts at 7am and lasts into the early hours of the following morning, repeated again the next day and ending in the Diablada (Devil dance) on the Monday.

Since the first homage some two hundred years ago the numbers of participents has grown to nearly 30,000 dancers and some 10,000 musicians. Each group consists of teams of dancers and a band, not too dissimilar to the British brass bands, associated with the former mining communities. However, Oruro is no ‘Brassed Off’.

The dances include satirical representations of the Spanish Conquistadores, traditional folkloric dances such as the Llamerada, Morenadas (inspired by the suffering of the black slaves brought by the Spanish to work in Bolivia’s mines) and Tobas, from the indigenous communities of the Amazon.

Each group of dancers has its own specific identity, traditions and dances; some with hundreds of years of history and others relatively recent. Every year the costumes are more impressive, the dances more expressive and the music louder and brasher. The most impressive and recogniseable of these groups are the Diabladas, leading the Carnaval and ending it. They are seen to represent the Devil or to others, the indigenous god if the mountains Tio Suapi, dressed with bright costumes and intricate masks, dancing alongside evil bears and seductive she-devils. They do however, also represent the high society of Oruro, who are able to pay for expensive costumes and the privelege to be the stars of the Carnaval.

Over the weekend of the Carnaval, a normally quiet, poor, alti-plano city fills with tourists from Bolivia celebrating their own folkloric traditions and visitors from all over the world wishing to witness the impressive spectacle.

Another rather less pious tradition is the throwing of water between the audience and the excessive drinking not only of specators but particpents as well. Come Sunday evening many dancers are visibly inebriated, stumbling behind their troops or supported by fellow dancers, not at all helped by their participation in the exhausting parades.

As a local Ormeno said, this year’s Carnaval was the biggest yet and that it continues to grow each year. It represents an economic lifeline for one of the poorest areas of Bolivia where the mining industry is a shadow of its former self and where employment rates remain low.

Every hotel changes its rates from Bolivianos to Dollars, (around seven times more valuable), and every citizen becomes an entrepreneur, selling waterproofs, umbrellas, water baloons, cold beers and food. Alongside this influx of tourists, the city was visited this year by President Evo Morales, on the dawn of his succesful attempt to implement a new Bolivian constiutution on February 7th. Morales showed his own indigenous heritige, dancing alongside the Diabladas and later joining one the marching bands, mainly made up of indigenous Oruroenos, playing along to the joy of the watchful crowds.

Each year the festivites continue to grow and Oruro’s renown continues to spread. Though a Christian tradition, the Carnaval is keeping alive local, indigenous traditions and culture in a country with one of the biggest indigenous populations in Latin America. It has also become an important economic influx for the region with the aid of tourism, albeit concentrated on one weekend in the year.

A number of the Carnaval’s dancing troops are open to anyone who wishes to participate, or those who have the money and time. Many non-Oruroenos have participated in this unique event, however, regardless of any influx of tourists and new participants, the Carnaval remains a celebration of Bolivia’s folkloric and historic traditions.