The chunchos are promisers/dancers, richly dressed for the occasion, who take part in the processions held in the town of Tarija (department of Tarija, south of Bolivia) in honour of St. Roque. Each year, the festival brings together between 1,500 and 4,000 chunchos coming from across the department and the country to fulfil their vows and sing in St. Roque's praise.
Their name comes from the Quechua ch'unchu, a term often used to designate the indigenous inhabitants of the largely tropical rainforest that lies the east of the Andes. It's telling that a word used to refer to the indigenous peoples of western Bolivia ended being associated with a dance of religious worship. However, it is not the only case: the same term can be found in the Central and Southern Sierra of Peru to designate the dancers inspired by rainforest warriors who sing and dance in praise of Mother Mary or the Patron Saints.
Tarija's dancers, traditionally male, wear rich colourful costumes. On their heads, covered with a scarf, they wear a kind of cylinder-turban, about 40 cm high, wrapped with turkey feathers dyed like a rainbow, from which a fine veil embellished with little pearls and mirrors hangs down covering their faces. They dress in a white shirt over which a small colourful silk poncho richly embroidered is worn, which in turn is covered by a heart-shaped cape or "aljaba" adorned with shells and sequins. From the elbows hang the "coderas", consisting of as many ribbons as the years the promiser has been dancing. Their costumes are completed with a silk "pollerín" or "faldellin" (kind of skirt), knee-high stockings and black shoes. In their hands, the chunchos carry their typical "arrows", wooden pieces adorned with colourful feathers and several strips of cane bound together; their sound when they are shaken matches the rhythm of the dance.
The choreography is very simple: the chunchos march in rows, setting the pace and performing a number of figures to the music of the tambores (drums), the quenillas or kamacheñas (small notched flutes) and the "cañas" (huge natural horns).
The origins of this tradition remain unclear. One of the theories describes the chunchos as representing lepers from a nearby leper hospital (with their faces and bodies completely covered and carrying canes in their hands to warm people of their presence) walking the streets of Tarija asking for food and for St. Roque's intercession for their healing. In the course of time, their costumes would also include clothes and accessories worn by lowland indigenous peoples, such as the "arrows", feathers and the "aljaba".
Article. "Los chunchos", in Parroquia San Roque [es].
Article. "San Lázaro y San Roque en Tarija", in Centro Eclesial de Documentación del Convento Franciscano de Tarija [es].
Article. "Guerrahuayco, Lazareto y los chunchos. Una historia inédita", by Luis F. Ortiz Lema. In El Pais Online [es].
Artículo. "La vestimenta del chuncho", by José Paz Garzón. In El País Online [es].