Living Carnaval


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 hes something of an authority on Carnaval, and we were lucky to get time with him to tap into his expertise. Read on for a deeper insight into Bolivian Carnavals history, economics, demographics, gender politics and more

MR: Tell us something about the origins of Carnaval, 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. Carnaval started in the Occident. 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 carsThe Christians annulled many Roman festivals, but its 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 Carnaval.

Carnaval was brought here by the Spanish. Carnaval in 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 Christian Carnaval 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 Virgin of Socavon [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, 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 go because they believe that by dancing for the Virgin of Socavon one can obtain many more of your hearts desires. Which is the Andean idea of reciprocity: I dance for you, you help me. I invest in you, you help me.

Another proof of this union is that 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 Carnaval and everyone is distracted, comes up here and takes on a human appearance in order to dance, and afterwards returns to the underworld.

The second most important dance is the Morenadathere 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. Many people who have power dance the Morenada.

MR: Isnt 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 borrow 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? In Oruro and Santa Cruz today, nearly everyone participates, and it wasnt 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.

MR: And what about women?

FC: In the last 20 years there has been this feminization of the festival. Before then the men took part, and the women accompanied them but 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 cant represent lust nor can they be the Angel.

There are dances in which men and women dance in the same way the Morenada, the Kulluwada are in pairs. The sense of the two in Aymara is very strong, that you cannot have someone on their own. But in other dances, for example in the rural Carnaval of Tarabuko, men are soldiers and women princesses, the pretty ones who accompany them to heal their wounds. But now in Oruro and La Paz, there are women who dance as soldiers. Which doesnt go down well in the countryside.

MR: Its an effect of modernity

Of course. And in the music bands, it was always the men who played all the instruments. Each time, in each of the dances, there are more women, 60 per cent women for 40 per cent men perhaps. But in the bands its 80/20 the other way. But in general the incursion of women is enormousif one removes the mask from a bear, you often 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.

MR: How is Carnaval different in Santa Cruz?

In Oruro Carnaval is very folkloric the Diablada, the Morenada, the Caporales, the Llameros, the Kullawadas. 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 politicians, 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 its more playful, its the language of fun. The disguises, the masks. The central character in La Paz is el Pepino, a kind of pierrot figure who can do what he wants during Carnaval because hes masked.

MR: Where does the Pepino figure come from?

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. Hes like a harlequin, only hes been recreated over here. 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. Whats bad is that it goes to the other extreme. Its difficult to go and see el Pepino because he likes to play too many tricks with water.

MR: I wanted to know what you think Carnaval means for Bolivians in 2011?

There is a division. There is a section of the Bolivian population which believes that the fiestas do us a lot of harm, because its not only Carnaval, 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 holiday 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 Occidental habits, in their style, in their foodin dancing as well, especially among young people. Whereas the fiesta is a great conserver of identity, that takes one back to different cultures outside of our globalised one.

Something very important to see in these fiestas are the social groups that represent themselves. The chola Pacea dances as a chola Pacea, only more elegant, as a chola of the fiesta. The Afro-Bolivians also dance as themselves. But in many other dances they appropriate another identity, for example the university groups dont dance as themselves, they dance all the rural dances, the Llameras, the Kullawada, the Caporales. But the youth have given something newthe rhythm is the same, but the young people provide another kind of force. They have greatly urbanized the rural traditions, but I think its for the good, because the rural keeps itself going. The urban is another thing. But still it recalls the rural, and this has served greatly towards understanding the country.

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

It creates a lot of work, for example among the costume makers, the musicians. In Oruro there is also touristic activity. But we fail to take more advantage of tourism. Were missing the politics in order to take advantage like in Rio, no? Because in the cultural industries Bolivia is weak. In contrast, what the Brazilians call the creative businesses around the festival, the typical food and typical dances they are very good. Here the majority are informal. Its difficult to find economic data but yes, various millions go on Carnaval. Those that spend most are the businesses, the beer companies. But they recoup their expenses.

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

In Bolivia, since the countrys founding, we have a weak state and a strong society. The same goes for Carnaval. Participation by the state is minor. Its impossible that the municipality of Oruro could cover the costs involvednow what do they put in? Prizes, setting up the streets, some seating, clearing the rubbish which is a major investment. Before the state was at the margin of these fiestas. But since around 50 years ago, since these festivals became urban megafiestas, the President never misses it, the mayor, the magistrates, MPs.

Communication media as well now plays an important role. At the start of the 20th Century, the media would say, no, Carnaval is something Indianhow long are we going to go on with these customs? Today the media has changed enormously, they celebrate Carnaval, and they cover it in its entirety. Happily here we havent reached the point where the media controls the event. In other Carnavales like Rio itself you can see that the media decides the timetable. Here no, but because they dont payIn Rio the profits of each Carnaval group come from the rights that the media pays. Here the government has said no.

MR: Final thoughts?

Its interesting to see that before, Carnaval existed in the whole Christian world, that is to say in all of Europe and America. But this has been diminishing. There are many cities and societies that no longer have Carnaval. Under the military dictatorships, in the Seventies, they suppressed Carnaval in Buenos Aires, in Santiago. But as they say in Argentina, why have Carnaval, since if its to have fun, in the large cities we can get this every weekend. And its true.

So in the countries that maintain Carnaval, the fun is very important but there are other forces at work too. And in the case of Bolivia its the search for identity. And in Oruro moreover its about religionWe have spoken about the major ones, but there is Carnaval in every city, in all the towns, and each has its identity. The miners have their Carnaval. Those in the countryside have their Carnaval, each village. So undoubtedly Carnaval is understood as diversion, as fun, something that liberates and is a change from your daily existence. But here it has many identities, and the people live Carnaval. And because of this it keeps going.