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Land of winds > Traditions > Festival | Issue 06. Jul.-Ago.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

Carnaval de Negros y Blancos
The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Blacks and Whites Carnival) in San Juan de Pasto is one of the greatest celebrations in the Southern Colombian Andes. Originated in the capital city of the Nariño department, it has gained followers in South-western Colombia and spread to other municipalities. It is celebrated every year at the beginning of January and was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.
Historically, the city of Pasto has been a crossroads and a meeting place for various peoples and colonies, and this celebration is a cultural sample expressing the influences that have been in play in the region for centuries: Native, Spanish and African cultures. It might have its origins in the rites performed by the agrarian native Pasto and Quillacinga peoples to honour the sun and the moon at sowing and harvesting seasons. Over the time, elements from Spanish festivities and African slaves traditions were added, thus consolidating what nowadays is known as the Carnival of Blacks and Whites. At present, the Carnival is meant to symbolize equality and integrate all citizens through a celebration of ethnic and cultural difference; however, in the early 19th century, the colonial authorities banned it to prevent native peoples uprisings. By 1834 “Natives, Mestizos and Whites festivities” reappeared, coinciding with holy days in the Catholic calendar such as the feast of Our Lady of Mercy (September, 24), and the feast of the Immaculate Conception (December, 8), and would become part of today’s Blacks and Whites Carnival.
The “black” element dates back to the so called “juego de negritos” (blackies’ game) which was mostly celebrated by mestizos and whites (there were not many African slaves in the region of Pasto at the time of the Colony) on the Epiphany Eve, every 5th of January. The origins of this celebration are established in the “asueto de negros” (resting day for blacks), a day off granted to black people by the Spanish Crown in 1607 after the slaves uprising that took place in the city of Remedios (Antioquía department), which badly frightened the Spanish masters. The slave population of Popayán played on this fear and demanded at least one day of freedom to offset a similar revolt. They were given the 5th of January as their own, and on that day they took over the streets dancing to African rhythms played on tamboras and marimbas, and blackened the city’s walls with coal. This celebration spread to the south and it is said that it was brought to Pasto by the Ayerbe family in the mid-1880s, where, by the late 1880s, it had taken on the traditional Carnival use of masks and costumes.
The Blacks and Whites Carnival, as it is known today, dates back to the mid-1920s, when decorated floats, comparsas (large group of dancers dancing and travelling on the streets) and murgas (a form of popular musical theatre performed by a group of people) were added to the celebration.
The Carnival has four distinct sections drawn from different aspects of its traditions and history: the little Carnival (Spanish “el Carnavalito”), the Castañeda familly parade, the Day of the Blacks and the Day of the Whites.
On January 3, pre-Carnival festivities continue with “el Carnavalito”, featuring a special children’s parade. The Carnival officially opens on January 4, with a parade that commemorates the arrival in Pasto of the Castañeda family. The Castañedas might well be a caricature of the Ayerbe family according to some, while others believe they were a large country family that passed through or settled in Pasto in the early 20th century (allegedly, these travellers loaded with baggage and stores came across a riders parade and were placed at its center. Immediately after, the unexpected visitors received the cheers of thousands of people along roads, squares and avenues of the capital of Nariño and were welcomed at the shout of “viva la familia Castañeda” — hurray to Castañeda family!). In the parade the Castañedas are presented as a zany group that includes a pregnant teenaged bride, a fancy grandmother and many misbehaving children. They are overburdened with luggage, mattresses and cooking equipment. Keeping them company the parade also includes a comparsa of laddies of the evening and a drunkard. The following day, January 5, is the Day of the Blacks, on which the slave revolt is remembered. Pasto inhabitants and tourists celebrate in the streets, as once did black slaves, and using special paints and cosmetics designated for the occasion, they paint themselves, their friends and the town’s walls and buildings black. Tamboras and marimbas are played, currulaos performed (powerful folk genre from the Pacific coast with black origins) and people dance to the beat of commercial bands in a wild evening.
Festivities continue on January 6 with the Day of the Whites. This time white paints and cosmetics are used as black ones were the day before, and people throw white talcum powder at each other. The Carnival reaches its peak on this day with a final parade (“Desfile Magno”) consisting of costumes groups, musical and dance ensembles, decorated floats and enormous figures made by artisans travelling on the streets half-hidden under confetti and streamers. Open-air dances include very popular folk songs such as “La guaneña” and “Chambú” (bambuco), “Trompo sarandengue”, “Sandoná” and several examples of southern dance-oriented music.
A traditional character of this Carnival is Pericles Carnaval, who welcomes Castañedas to the city and reads and edict to the crowd announcing his authority and purpose to rule the festivities. During these days typical dishes and desserts are prepared according to the ancient traditions, such as the locro, the hervido and the paila ice-cream.
The Blacks and Whites Carnival is considered the largest meeting of races in Colombia and is very famous in the country and abroad, especially in the rest of Latin America. The Chilean band Illapu composed an instrumental song titled “Comparsa en Negro y Blanco” (on the album “Vivir es mucho más”, 2006), which was drawn from their own experience and dedicated to this celebration.


Blacks and Whites Carnival, in Wikipedia.
Carnival of Blacks and Whites, in the Free Dictionary.
Murgas in Blacks and Whites Carnival of Pasto, in Wikipedia [es].
Blacks and Whites Carnival. Official webpage [es].
Blacks and Whites Carnival, in Vivencia Andina [es].
La guaneña (traditional song), in Wikipedia [es].

Picture 01. Panpipe players.
Picture 02. Talc used in Black and Whites Carnival.
Picture 03. Decorated float 01.
Picture 04. Decorated float 02.
Picture 05. Decorated float 03.
Picture 06. Decorated float 04.

Song 01. “Comparsa en negro y blanco”, by Illapu [].

Video 01. Blacks and Whites Carnival, Promotional video from UNESCO.
Video 02. Blacks and Whites Carnival.
Video 03. Blacks and Whites Carnival 2011, RPA Sur commercial.
Video 04. Blacks and Whites Carnival 2012, promotional video.
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