Sunday morning arrives, and the excitement in the air is palpable, with little children running noisily along the main streets, all heading towards a small square where the procession is starting. The origins of the festival are obscure, but amongst the suppositions are that it arose from a combination of two events: in colonial times, it was common practice by the colonisers to bring in Negro slaves to work the mines. A group of these slaves were brought to work the mine in nearby Sigchos. The arrival of these dark skinned slaves made a significant impression on the local indigenous population who in turn dramatized their presence, linking it with a particularly violent explosion of Cotopaxi in 1742. And so the festival of La Virgen de las Merced, a festival to honour the Virgin, to plead for protection from the volcano, became a festival procession with the Mama Negra
It doesn’t seem to make much sense, but then again most of the people singing and dancing here in the town’s square, at 11.00 am in the morning, don’t seem to need much sense. It’s a riotous explosion of colour, music, dancing and cross dressing! Ostensibly it’s a catholic festival, with a mass celebrated at the start of the proceedings, but this is a brilliant example of what they call religious ‘syncretism’ that is so evident in Latin America. During the Spanish conquest, rather than suffer a violent end, many converted to Christianity, but the Catholics of Latin America have held on to more than a little of their pre-columbine traditions.
The first thing I notice, approaching the crowd, is the movement. Everyone is shimmying and swaying, to the sound of the brass band that’s striking up a tune that will become the theme for the whole day. The music isn’t marching music, or even vaguely related to the swing-less music I associate with brass, perhaps from watching too many grim English mining films! Instead it’s vibrant and infectious, an almost narcotic call to shuffle from one foot to the other. Up to this point I’d reveled in some of the similarities between the Andean and Irish culture – an agrarian, poor culture, where food means ‘meat and two veg’ and both veg are potatoes! – but now, seeing the local men and women march/dance (for it’s one and the same), I’m struck by the difference. Sure, they’re not Brazilian Samba dancers, but there’s a fluidity of movement that’s in tune with the music, and each other – a fluidity that my genes don’t carry.
Then there are the peculiarities of the festival. Everywhere you look there’s something that seems downright weird. At the head of the procession is the ‘Mama Negra’, a man dressed as a woman, with a grotesque caricature Negro mask, all wide eyed and huge lipped, who spray’s the crowd with milk from ‘her’ breast. What’s it all about, I can’t begin to fathom.
Then there are the Juacos or Limpiadores, the aforementioned trio wandering around ‘blessing’ people with aguardiente. Certainly something that I imagine doesn’t particularly go down well with the Church authorities. Added to this there are numerous colourful costumes and rituals going on. Here there’s a handful of men dressed as Spanish soldiers, with garish pink masks that take on a porcine hue; over there are a group of men dressed as women; all around are groups of women in local costume, and groups of women dressed as Spanish señoras, and each and every group is dancing.
The festival is very much tied in with drink. Everyone is drinking copiously – people come up to us offering us swigs from dubious looking bottles, and it’s clear that everyone is completely tanked and tranced. It gives the parade an edge, and makes me wonder how on earth they can continue to dance/march a
ll day long and night, for the march isn’t as I’d imagined, with a starting point and finish, but rather is an unbreaking circuit going from morning till night. The stamina is astounding.