Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

In the Shadow of Cotopaxi – the festival of La Mama Negra, Latacunga, Ecuador

As the festival is a celebration and an offering to the Virgen, or the Gods more realistically, there are physical offerings that highlight the links back to pre-Catholic religion in the Andes, as historian Peter Blackewell points out:

“Into these survivals Christianity had been woven, with an intricacy that was the despair of the investigating Catholic priests. Seasonal festivals of the Andes became entangled with Christian feasts, so that the images of saints might be offered the traditional gifts of coca, chicha, and guinea pigs.” [pg236 A History of Latin America by Peter Blackewell]

In this case the offerings take the form of men carrying improvised backpacks comprising of a full-size dead pig, with packets of cigarettes, bottles of booze, sweets and toys tied to it. Whether these offerings go to the Virgen, or the Mama Negra, or to some dodgy bloke working a massive con job is unclear to me, but my heart goes out to the guys who have to carry the pig!

We in the meantime have the opportunity of roast chicken, or guinea pig. Cuy or guinea pig, is a staple of the Andean diet, and you find it from Colombia to Argentina. An Irish mate had tasted it in Peru, and when asked about it, sagely responded “There’s not much meat on it – you’d best ask for two!”. In reality we order one, solely to say we’ve had it, and then pig out on chicken and beer.

As the night pulls in, the band plays on, and weary but incessantly the parade continues, until it merges into the fireworks display. Crammed tight into a small Plaza, the coordinating committee start setting off the fireworks, with a certain amount of pride. They’re amazing. A rocket shoots off from beside us, explodes colourfully above the church and then plummets downwards hitting a woman in front of me on the neck. We’re a long, long way from E.U safety regulations, and co-coordinated ‘Skyfests’ – but yet the show, with presumably miniscule funding compared to those we have in Europe, turns out to be the most memorable I’ve ever seen. All around us people are lighting home made hot air balloons. They light a candle which, heating the air, lifts the small balloon, floating up until it burns itself out. At the same time there are various Castillos being built, rickety frames with homicidal amounts of fireworks attached. When they go, off it’s terrifying, in the crisp clear air. The noise is constantly deafening, and it feels like being inside the GPO in 1916, or the Alamo. An appropriate enough ending to a festival hoping to appease a hostile volcano.

After many hours dancing, drinking, eating, and gasping, the festival is taking its toll on us, and those around us. Tempers are starting to fray, and a full scale fight breaks out between some of the Macho Men in the centre of the crowd. Time to call it a day. We head with our heads full of contradictory images, which is to be expected, from a festival that somehow manages to capture so many things in this hybrid culture: conquest, resistance, slavery, poverty, religion, music, sex and spirit. It almost makes you understand why people would want to live in the shadow of a Volcano!

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