What Ecuadorian festival is a mix of Spanish, Indigenous, African, Ecuadorian, Catholic, and Pagan elements, with a good amount of black face thrown in? The Mama Negra festival, held in Latacunga each September and November.
I was in Latacunga for an EFL conference that happened to fall on Mama Negra weekend, so I made a point to watch one of the many parades celebrating the “Black Mama.” From what I can gather, the celebration is for La Virgen de la Merced, who locals believe protects Latacunga from the nearby Cotopaxi Volcano. They honor the Virgin with days of parades, dancing, and drinking. The parade starts off with this guy, setting off bottle rockets in alarmingly close proximity to people and buildings. I guess that’s one way to clear a path for the parade.
So what does the volcano-protecting Virgin have to do with a prominent local businessman dressed as a black woman? He (or she?) is the festival’s namesake, and the 2011 Mama Negra was the owner of a local dairy factory. Why is he in drag? And black face? According to Lonely Planet, “a priest that wanted to earn favor by hosting the Virgin’s procession failed to provide sufficiently grand quantities of food and drink, and during the night an apparition of a black woman berated his negligence. She terrified the priest and the rest of the town, so they introduced a new figure to the procession, that of the black mother astride a horse.” Mama Negra carries a black baby doll named Balthazara, which I guess is the name of the black wiseman who brought gifts to baby Jesus.
Next we have a little more Catholicism in the form of El Angel de la Estrella (Angel of the Star), representing the Angel Gabriel.
Along with The King we have El Embajador (The Ambassador). This piece is purportedly Spanish.
Up next: huacos (shaman). Their job is to cleanse bystanders (which entails spitting alcohol on them in the wilder parades – luckily I witnessed one of the more somber religiously-oriented parades). They carry deer skulls or antlers, but I don’t know what that symbolizes. Probably something from indigenous mythology.
There were also several Camisonas. They wear long night gowns and wire masks. They also carry snacks for the kiddos and whips to keep back parade spectators, though I never saw either of these in use.
There were Curiquingues (bird men – see? they have wings). Their job is maintaining the parade route, which they did by walking along the outer edge of the parade. Better than whipping spectators, I suppose.
The parade ended at the Iglesia de la Merced, where El Capitan and his company made a show of placing the Virgin back where she belongs. (Pssst – the Captain is supposedly Mama Negra’s lover!)
And with the religious celebration concluded, the party could really get started. The rest of the afternoon featured several bands, yumbadas (dance troupes), ashangas (roasted pig offerings surrounded by roasted guinea pigs, chickens, packs of cigarettes and bottles of whiskey), and a whole lot of alcohol.