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Land of winds > Traditions > Clothing | Issue 04. Mar.-Apr.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza


A poncho is a traditional warm outer garment designed to ward off wind and rain, which was created by the ancient peoples of South America. It is a thick and heavy piece of clothing made out of sheep, llama, alpaca or vicuna wool weaved. Made from a single large sheet of fabric with an opening in the center for the head, the poncho hangs from the shoulders and leave arms unrestricted.
The origin of the term remains uncertain. While most authors agree that the word comes from Quechua punchu, there are some who point out that it might derive from Mapundungu (Mapuche’s language) pontro, meaning “frazada” (blanket). In fact, in a number of old Argentinean documents the words “poncho” and “frazada” are used to designate the same piece of clothing (though they might also refer to ponchos made from old blankets).
The poncho is frequently used in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and in particular regions of Argentina and Chile. The size, shape, colour, and texture are all distinguishing characteristics of different communities such as Otavaleños in Ecuador (inhabitants of Otavalo whose dark ponchos are well-known), Chilotes (inhabitants of the Chiloé Island, Chile), morochucos from Ayacucho, montoneros from Arequipa and qorilazos from the south of Perú. In Chile the poncho is worn by Mapuche people (who call it makuñ) and huasos, as they are known the rural workers in the central and southern regions of the country. As a way of protest (and of approaching to ordinary people), artists and musicians of the Chilean New Song (e.g. Quilapayún or Inti-Illimani) also adopted the poncho. In this country there is a type of poncho called chamanto (from Mapudungu chamall, “shawl, wrap”) woven in silk and wool and presently used as a luxury garment.
In Colombia the poncho is a much lighter garment, usually white or light-coloured, made out of yarn and with embroidered motifs. The ruana, very similar but heavier, is characteristic of the paisa region (Antioquia), the temperate areas of Boyacá and the north-eastern part of Cundinamarca.
Along the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes we find many different types of poncho, highlighting those with countless stripes of bright colours. In Argentina the poncho is worn in the Pampas, the Patagonia and the Northwest. There are few plain examples since most of them are embellished with “guardas”, trims that run parallel on both sides of the poncho. In the province of Jujuy this traditional garment is brown, while in the province of Salta it is red with black “guardas” (as a means of mourning and honouring General Martín Miguel de Güemes, pro-independence fighter from Salta). In the province of Catamarca, ponchos are embellished with Incan “guardas”, and in the south of the country with “guardas pampas” of Mapuche origin. In the Pampas, gauchos worn the “poncho calamaco” brownish-grey coloured and the blue “poncho patria” sometimes lined with red baize.
Earliest examples of ponchos have been found in Pre-Incan burial sites, such as the one discovered close to the Angualasto mummy (San Juan, Argentina), or in graves along the Peruvian coastline (Nazca and Paracas cultures). In addition, the poncho was immortalized on Mochica pottery.
In Argentina, the already mentioned gauchos used it daily (especially as a blanket to spend the night out in the open) and, according to the descriptions offered by the 2316 line epic poem titled “Martín Fierro”, it also served as a shield (rolled around the arm) when they fought a knife duel.
The poncho has been and continues being an important part of South American cultures. There are “Poncho Festivals” (e.g. in Catamarca, Argentina) and the term has been included in many different expressions such as “alzar el poncho” (rising the poncho, meaning to rebel against sb/sth in the Plata basin), and “no permitir que le pisen a uno el poncho” (allowing no one to tread on your poncho, meaning don’t let anyone push you around in Ecuador and Colombia). It has also given rise to a traditional saying: “donde el Diablo perdió el poncho” (where the Devil lost his poncho), which stemmed from a popular tale and refers to a place very far away.


Poncho, in Wikipedia.
El poncho, in [es].
Weaving, knitting and dying techniques [es].

Poncho Festival (Catamarca, Argentina) [es].
How and where the devil lost his poncho [es].

Picture 01. Poncho from Salta (Argentina).
Picture 02. Poncho from Otavalo (Ecuador).
Picture 03. Poncho pampa (Argentina).
Picture 04. Mapuche poncho (Chile).
Picture 05. Ponchos from Jujuy (Argentina).
Picture 06. Quechua poncho (Bolivia).
Picture 07. Aymara ponchos (Bolivia).
Picture 08. Archaeological poncho (Nazca culture, Peru).
Picture 09. Archaeological poncho (Nazca culture, Peru).
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