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    Land of winds > The land > History | Issue 11 (Jul.-Aug. 2012)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Carnival before becoming Carnival

Carnival before becoming Carnival

Latin America in general and the Andes in particular celebrate Carnival since European conquerors and Catholic missionaries set up the festival in the 16th century. By imposing the celebration, colonial authorities and friars attempted to silence and ultimately eradicate "idolatrous" practices. Their purpose was to wean native Andean peoples from celebrating the harvest of the first crops in February. However, it was half achieved: five centuries later, agricultural ceremonies, far from disappearing, found new forms of expression and new ways of coexisting with Catholic beliefs and practices.

In north-western Argentina, the traditions and rituals of the Colla people (a native culture formed by several regional indigenous groups) are a vibrant thread weaving through the Carnival celebrations held in Humahuaca, San Antonio de los Cobres or La Rioja. The oldest and most traditional musical instruments, the "challas" (the act of pouring a liquor on the ground before drinking as an offering to the Pachamama) and the tradition of unearthening and buring the so-called "pujllay" (a doll that embodies the spirit of festive times) are all indigenous traits that remain alive nowadays.

Indigenous presence (mostly Aymara culture) is even more pronounced in the Carnival celebrations held in the Chilean region known as Norte Grande (Big North, Far North). In fact, it can be stated that, with the exception of some central Catholic rituals, the festival reflect traditions and beliefs that are of value to the native cultures, who celebrate the end of the jallu pacha or rainy period. In Chiapa, Socoroma, Pica or Caspana, drinks, food, clothes, music, community festivities and even the language belong to the native cultural heritage. A cultural heritage that is made up of the practices and traditions proper to Aymara, but also to Lickan-Antay (or Atacameños) communities, whose influence can be found in the "Carnaval Santo" that takes place in San Pedro de Atacama.

The confluence of mixed cultural background is even more prominent in the region located on the Collao plateau, Bolivian-Peruvian Altiplano. Here, Catholic priests have had to adjust their practices to the customs of Aymara and Quechua congregations. The oldest dances, the most ancient rhythms and musical instruments as well as the most traditional attires continue to be present in communities, villages and towns. Rituals to thank the Pachamama and the Achachilas (protective spirits, linked to geographical features or natural elements) are the norm instead of the exception. For their part, Catholic saints and virgins have been reapropriated through the personification of ancient native deities. Some dances, as the Diablada, are rooted in ancestral legends of the Uru people, while others still make fun of the Spanish conquerors more than five centuries later.

In the Peruvian Andes, Carnival celebrations blended with traditions inherited from Tawantinsuyu or Inca Empire, mostly those linked to the Jatun Puquy Killa (in Quechua, "moon/month when crops ripen") and the Pacha Puquy Killa (in Quechua, "moon/month when land ripens") coinciding with February and March respectively. According to what Guaman Poma de Ayala wrote down in his "Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno", with the first potato and maize harvests, offerings and sacrifices were made to the earth spirits and Gods in the hope to ensuring another fruitful harvest. Today, on the same dates, "pagos" (offerings; literally, "payments") continue to be made in all Peruvian communities. In addition, old rhythms and dances continue to be performed to the music of instruments that seem to have been drawn from famous Guaman Poma’s illustrations.

In Ecuador, Carnival mixed with the Pawkar Raymi festival, which is still celebrated in different locations in the Andean region of Ecuador, especially in the valley of Otavalo.

Carnival in the Andes was and is still tinged with ancient traditions that were present in the region long before the festival was brought in. As stated in the previous lines there is a fine line between indigenous and European traits that make up Andean Carnival. Ones and the others have combined in a unique way to reflect this cultural mix.

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