Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mama Negra

Beautiful Cotopaxi

We experienced the third robbery in our three months in Ecuador today. It was not violent and none of us were hurt, in fact we were not around when it happened. Someone removed the lock on the passenger side of the car and stole the radio faceplate and a bag that contained my wonderful English Spanish dictionary and some of Eric's underwear ( I need not tell you why there was underwear in the bag). The thieves must have been very disappointed that there was not more in the car. When we arrived at the car after spending a few hours at the Mama Negra festival in Latacunga, I noticed that someone had written a very rude word on the side of the car. It did not register that we had been robbed when we noticed that there was no lock in the door, but even then there was confusion; not until Eric saw that the radio was gone was it clear what had happened. Thankfully we had a number to call for help; a friend of a friend is a lawyer and a native of Latacunga, and we met him at the 'Fiscalia' where we were required to make a report and get a notarized 'denuncia'. After the requisite hours in the police department, we were invited to the lawyer's house in the countryside for 'allullas' which are a specialty of Latacunga and are doughy cookies made with cheese and pork fat and served with local 'oja' cheese.

The day did not start well. Eric has been ill for days and was not in good shape for a long drive and a few hours in the hot sun and Maya did not want to leave the comfort of her bed and Harry Potter. We were late in starting the day, later at the Budget RentACar, late arriving in Latacunga, and then we took a wrong turn and arrived at the parade near the end. I think we saw most of the characters involved in this very bizarre and colourful festival, but we were stunned at the amount of alcohol that was being ingested and the number of drunken spectators overflowing onto the parade route. It was wild and chaotic and out of control.

Men Dressed as Women

Big Men Dressed as Women

We saw the 'Mama Negra' at the end of the parade. 'She' is a big man dressed as a woman with black face paint and sprays milk out at the crowd from her 'breast'. Men dressed as women (camisonas) run about with whips which they actually use for crowd control. There are men who walk around with a huge structure on their heads including whole roasted pigs. 'Huacas' wear white and colourful masks and wear a shield on their backs full of trinkets and scraps of plastic and glass and mirrors. The 'Angel de la Estrella' wears wings and asks the Virgin for safety against the volcano's eruptions (Cotopaxi). Women and men in traditional dress dance and bands with big drums and trumpets add to the mix. The festival began in 1742 when Cotopaxi erupted and the citizens of Latacunga petitioned the Virgin of Mercy (the patron saint of the volcano) to intervene and Latacunga was spared. The annual celebration was set in place to honour her. The varied cast of characters bring together both indigenous and Spanish beliefs and elements. In addition, when the Spanish colonized Latacunga, they brought in African slaves to work in the mines and the local population has incorporated their experience with this foreign element in the festivities.


I am not sure if it is the robbery that makes the parade feel threatening, at least in retrospect. There was an edge to it, perhaps because it was so disorganized and unusual. The characters did not make much sense, and, at least in the parts we saw, it did not feel particularly joyous.

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