Ecuador – Latacunga Mama Negra Festival

We have heard of the famous Mama Negra festival in Latacunga for years.  This year Esteban Arevalo was setting up a trip to visit, so we jumped at the chance. As it turned out, we were the only two taking him up on the trip. Esteban took just the two of us as a result, and we ended up with a private guided tour.  This turned out to be perfect, as we were able to stop for photographs whenever we wanted, and Esteban gave us far more background information on what was going on, and where, than we could have possibly gotten on our own.  If you ever want to go to some authentic local festival in Ecuador (and beyond, it turns out), then we highly recommend contacting him to see what he can organize for you.  Use this link for his email address.

The history of the Mama Negra festival is actually rather complex and fascinating.  Rather than my explaining it all here, I strongly recommend you look at the Wikipedia page for the details.  The brief story though, is that Cotopaxi (the nearby volcano) was erupting in 1742 and threatened the town.  One black slave went to the mountain and prayed for salvation of the town.  When the volcano eruptions ceased, the black slave became celebrated as the Black Mama.  …or at least that is one of three competing origin stories for this festival.  It happens to be the one I like best… 

The festival is actually celebrated on three different dates in Latacunga. Don’t ask. Too complicated to get into, but the Wikipedia is a start if you really want to know why. We went to the September 24th celebration, which is the first for the year.  In this celebration, there are “many Black Mamas” (three for this parade) and they wear masks, as seen above.  Each is the Black Mama for a different neighborhood, and their accompanying marching group.

This festival continues for two days.  The parade starts at 9AM on September 24th.  At 1PM, everyone stops and goes to lunch.  At 4PM, they return to wherever they were at 1PM and start again!  This goes on well into the evening, by which time many in the audience are totally drunk, as this seems to be an excuse for the whole town to party…  It then starts again the next day.

Those people accompanying the Black Mamas, as well as those with the ashangueros (more on them later) have only the lower portion of their faces painted black.  They often also have other gold adornments in the paint, as seen above.  When we asked why that was, we were told that painting the entire face black was too much work.  I think they might have been pulling our leg though, since it was so universal and consistent.  If anyone knows the actual symbolism here, I would love to hear about it.

The Virgen de las Mercedes (Virgin of Mercedes) represents the saint that was prayed to for salvation from the volcano in 1742.  It is featured prominently in church displays (top half images above), at the local mercado, and with the faithful carrying their own versions in the procession (lower-right).  There are also plenty of black dolls representing the black slave that the faithful believe saved the town through her prayers (lower-left and lower-center).

The ashanguero are the standouts of this parade.  Only the strongest men need apply, since they must carry a full pig, adorned with all the extras needed for a feast at the end of the celebration.  That means strings of fruit, plus several cuy (guinea pigs), and up to ten bottles of liquor. The upper-right image shows the ashanguero’s friends helping him adjust the straps on this load that can weigh between 250 and 300 pounds.  There is always someone following close behind with a short table that the ashanguero can use to rest his load on.  Every few blocks, the honor of carrying the load shifts to another person in the team, so one person is not carrying the load the entire time. At the end of the parade is a feast for the parade participants.

We also saw two little boys in the parade acting as ashanguero by carrying foam rubber pigs (bottom-center). While the parade is going on, with the pigs being carried down the streets, there were plenty of pigs already cooked and being eaten by the audience (lower-right).

Another important character in this celebration is the Huaco, or sorcerer.  They wear paper mâché masks with horizontal colors over them, and carry similarly colored sticks, as seen above.  They roam the parade route, picking out audience members to be cleansed of their evil spirits.  Once singled out, 3 or 4 Huacos swarm over the the audience member, waving their sticks and mumbling incantations (center).  When complete (takes about 10 seconds), the person is cleansed of all evil spirits… and of course is expected to tip the Huacos for the service they have performed…  

This is a festival that primarily involves adults. However, there were a few children involved too. The center image above shows one Angel de la Estrella, representing the Archangel Gabriel. When he reaches a concentration of people, it is his responsibility to recite “praise the virgin.”  Each collective group with a ashanguero will also have an angel.  We found it surprising how many of the children here were covering their ears because of the high volume of the constant music and rockets.

Music and dancing always play a large role in any festival or parade in Ecuador, and this was no exception.  Each group had their own band, and their own dancers.  I found it interesting though that every group played the exact same tune in this parade.  If you stood with the leaving group on your right and the arriving group on your left, it seemed you could hear the music in stereo!

There were several other standard characters in the parade too, each having their place in the religious story of the festival.  “The Shirt” (lower-right) is a man dressed in drag, who carries candy to give to the children.  “The Clown” (lower-center) waves a flag ahead of the dancers, and his role is to attract attention to the group following. “The Captain” (center) is elegantly garbed with a sword in one hand, and is presented with fealty by each of the groups throughout the celebration.  I never did find who the people in pointed white hats (bottom-left) were supposed to represent, and there was only one group of them in the entire parade line.

Many of the parade members wore transparent white(ish) masks (top-right and bottom-right).  We were told that they represent the white slave-owners.  When I asked why they would be celebrated, I was told it was a farce, making fun of those owners, but also allowing the parade member to do whatever he wanted, without repercussions — just as the white overlords were able to do in the 18th century.  (I am not quite sure if I buy that explanation, but it is the best I could find in my research)

As with every celebration in Ecuador, there were rockets being fired at frequent intervals.  Here is one man who lit off a dozen in as many minutes.  He had a small tube with base that he put his rockets in.  He then lit the fuse with a cigarette (left).  Once it caught, he turned and walked slowly away (middle).  The rocket would fire (right), explode in the air, and the process would start again.

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