article from February 14, 2011
by Julie R Butler
Carnival season has already begun in some parts of Latin America. The pageantry, the parades, the contests, the music and dance – this is what Carnival is all about. Yet the regional expressions of this annual celebration are richly diverse.
Among all of the different celebrations, those of the Andean southwestern region of the Colombia, centered around the city of Pasto, are the most complex. Here, there are not only a series of carnival events, but the pre-Carnival end-of-year festivities are also an important part of the celebrations.
Colombia’s Carnival season
In Colombia, the festival season begins December 7 with Día de las Velitas, Day of the Little Candles, when candles and paper lanterns are set out, and in the big cities, spectacular displays are lit and celebrations sparked. Christmas season includes the nine days of Novena and Christmas itself, but it doesn’t end there. Día de los Inocentes, or All Fools Day, on December 28, begins to set the satirical and mischievous tones of Carnival with trickery. Then for New Years, the people of Pasto parade dolls and puppets that they have made from old clothes and scraps, filling them with sawdust (the gunpowder that was once used is now forbidden), which represent the old year and usually express political and social satire. The puppets vie for prizes, then they are burned at midnight, thus unleashing the Spirit of the New.
Black and White Carnival
Pasto’s Carnival de Negros y Blancos is held January 2-7 and has been designated a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. It begins with a day that includes farmers making offerings of flowers and serenades to the Virgin of Mercy in exchange for her blessings, along with the Colonies Parade, where the area’s communities showcase their unique identities,. There’s also an alternative rock festival that encourages the melding of musical traditions and the emergence of new sounds.
The Children’s Carnival is held on the second day, and in recent years, a new parade has been added to celebrate indigenous cultures.
The following day commemorates the arrival to Pasto of a colorful group of characters – the Castañeda family – which involves yet more burlesque and making fun of society.
January 5 is Blacks’ Day, devoted to the motto ¡Que viven los Negros! It celebrates a day of freedom that was granted to the slaves of Colombia in response to a rebellion, and when everyone paints black cosmetics on their faces, all become one big family. The Carnival Queen makes her way through the city in a convoy on this day, inviting everyone to join in the playful festivities, and final preparations are made to the lavish floats that will come out on the streets for the following Whites’ Day Grand Parade.
On this parade day, people color themselves white with creams and talc, and the cry is ¡Que viven los Blancos! The parade is an abundance of many different kinds of music and dance, colorful costumes, performing groups known as Comparsas and Murgas, mini-floats, and mega-floats, with the Queen at the lead.
The final day is the Rural Culture and Cuy’s Festival, featuring regional rural fairs and the eating of cuy. This is a type of guinea pig that has traditionally been raised throughout the Andes as a food that is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol.
Elsewhere in Latin America
Because the different Carnival celebrations are so varied, I have begun here and will continue this series with Argentina and Uruguay’s versions coming next, as they are currently in full swing, leading up to Brazil’s famous festivities, which, despite the tragic fire that just occurred in Samba City, will still be held March 4-8 of this year.
Other parts of Colombia share the more Caribbean-style Carnival festivities, which are what people in the US are familiar with because of the influence of the Haitians in New Orleans. These variations, having arisen due to different mixes of European, African, and indigenous influences, make the Carnival season in Latin America all the more intriguing.
[Image via Wikipedia]
Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler