San Benito Festival
San Benito de Palermo, the "santo negro" ("black saint"), is the saint patron of the Afro-descendants community in the yungas. "San Benito was our saint, the saint of the blacks... His festival is Easter ... The Tata San Juan de Dios is ... saint of the indigenous people. The Virgin of the Candelaria is [the virgin] of the white people", said in an interview the "abuelo" ("grandfather") Manuel Barra, born in 1930.
The San Benito festival is officially celebrated on the 4th of April. However, until early 20th century in the yungas it was held at the same time as the celebration of an old event known as the "Fiesta del Rey" ("King’s festival"), which took place on the first Saturday of Easter. It is said that when the black saint descends from his altar and goes out of the church that houses him, the community burst into joy while people take in the fun and excitement of the festival, especially that of the saya.
The year 1992 saw a revival of the "King’s festival" and it has since been celebrated yearly. On the 18th of April of that very same year, Julio Pinedo was crowned current king of the Afro-Bolivians. According to tradition, towards 1820, in an estate in Coroico owned by the Marquis of Pinedo, it was discovered that one of the African slaves had several tattoos and marks which identified him as a member of a royal family. This man turned out to be a prince named Uchicho, of Congolese or Senegalese origin (sources do not make it clear), who was brought into Bolivia together in one of the last contingents of slaves sent to the country. Uchicho was crowned king in 1832 and placed under the avocation of Saint Benito. Ever since, the saint protects Afro-descendants. Uchicho was followed by Bonifaz, who adopted the family name of his patrons, Pinedo. Bonifaz was followed by José and José by Bonifacio. The latter is still remembered by the elders. He was the grandfather of the present-day king and ascended the throne in 1932. This king was famous among his people for his good heartedness and friendly personality. He presided over the San Benito Festival celebrated in the village of Mururata, and it is said that he himself opened the festivities dancing the zemba or semba.
The Festival of San Benito, at least its name, rings a bell with many lovers of the "Andean music". A popular song to the rhythm of "tundiqui", "El San Benito", composed towards 1967 by Edgar "Yayo" Joffré (member of the famous Bolivian group Los Jairas), popularized the verses...
Hay un lorito con su monito.
Hay un lorito con su monito.
Es un regalo de San Benito
para la fiesta de los negritos.
[There is a little parrot with his little monkey.
There is a little parrot with his little monkey.
Is a gift from San Benito
for the festival of the blackies].
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Article. "Sin purezas y con mezclas: Las cambiantes identidades sonoras negro-africanas en Bolivia", by Walter Sánchez Canedo [es].
Article. "Historia de la Casa Real", in Casa Real Afroboliviana [es].