Apr 152012
 

Diane Lefer’s latest Letter from Bolivia is a rare treat, a look at one of the world’s great carnivals in Oruro. I mean here carnival in the old sense, the ancient sense, the Bakhtinian sense of the world turned upside-down for a moment, the modern world, the day-to-day, briefly, obliterated, when work stops and the dancing begins and the lords bow low to the workers, and shape-changers and mythic beings walk in the daylight. What you have to imagine as you read through this piece and look at the pictures is that you are not so far removed from this world as you think, that scratch a North American and you’ll find someone whose ancestors, four, five, eight, ten generations back, still danced at carnival, still harboured some vestigial belief in the forest gods (of Europe, of the East, of Africa). Part of what it means to be modern is to feel nostalgia for the ancient oral (not the primitive but the pre-literate, before the invention of writing) culture we have left behind. Such nostalgia is paradoxical; we think we’re better, but, goodness, that old world looks so rich and exciting and, yes, fun. (I can hear Diane saying, yes, yes, but stop being so intellectual about it.)

dg

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Oruro is an old mining town on the altiplano about four hours from Cochabamba and home to one of the most famous Carnaval celebrations in the world. My friend Jimena’s musical group–which you last encountered during the raunchy celebration at a Cochabamba restaurant–was invited to participate in the Saturday night procession.

Carnaval in Oruro is not a dancing-in-the-streets affair. Instead, thousands of participants in elaborate costumes dance and parade to honor La Virgen de la Candelaria, more commonly known as Our Lady of the Mineshaft as miners trust her to protect them underground.
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“They dance for faith, only for faith,” explained Jimena’s father who was born in Oruro and whom I accompanied to the church where he knelt a long time in prayer.

Jimena, who—in addition to her teaching degree and artistic work—has a degree in theology and is a contributor to a weekly radio show exploring religion from a woman’s point of view, dismissed the idea. “A lot of people dance because they like to dance,” she said and she sees nothing wrong with that. (She also loves pasta.)
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Streets in the center of town are lined with stalls where dancers can get false braids and makeup. Among them, Jimena’s aunt, getting ready here:

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And, later, dancing with her group, waving at the camera.

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We were made welcome at the family home where the ground level patio is her uncle’s mechanic’s workshop, her cousin’s project for his engineering degree hangs over the dining table (and makes my friend Tami look intelligent indeed)

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and the guest room is up a ramshackle exterior staircase of wooden planks, not all of which were all that sturdy or even present.

Jimena and Tami went off to find the musicians they would be joining. Jimena’s grandmother held places in the spectator bleachers for the family and for me.
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All day Saturday and until late at night the Carnaval groups take over the city.

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Kids spray each other with foam. Vendors sell snacks and drinks.

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And plastic raincoats. After all, it’s the rainy season. (Though we were lucky and the weather threatened but stayed fine.)

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I lasted only until about 1:00 AM. Later that night, needing the toilet which was located at the back of the patio. I slowly negotiated the steps in the dark. I had almost reached my destination when the guard dog came at me. I flew back upstairs condemned to hold it in till morning.

My friends didn’t return till I was already on my way out again. At dawn, after drinking and carousing, they went to El Alba, when people cram themselves into the church for morning service and where, alas, the crowded conditions are ideal for pickpockets. One friend lost her cell phone; another lost her camera and her wallet.

The processions begin again. Early in the morning, Alejandra is ready to leave our room wearing her folkloric dress.
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Some take the stairs up the steep hill en route to the church:

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Inside, one of the side altars is cut out of the rock, giving the appearance of the entrance to a mine.

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More than 50 groups joined the procession, each with its own brass band, some of them 300 pieces strong.
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Some of the costumes celebrate the many different indigenous cultures of Bolivia, from Amazon to altiplano. No getting away from cell phones.
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Under the leadership of the socialist president Evo Morales, Bolivia changed its name from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia, making the multicultural nature of the country (and its more than 50 different ethnic groups) official.
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The dancers seen below are called Tinkus. Tinku was once bloody ritual combat. No one gets hurt in the dance.

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“Saya” is the music of the Afro-Bolivian community. To some, these Saya dancers are merely amusing and some may object to the blackface, but the purpose of the dance is to commemorate and honor the Africans who were brought to work as slaves in the silver mines of Potosí, enriching the Spanish Empire.

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Most of the women dancers are young and pretty and wear short skirts.


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.But Carnaval is about community, not about looking like a model.

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Diabladas–dancers dressed as devils–appear with flashing eyes and some with actual flames erupting from their headdresses.
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I missed the culmination of the event on Monday when, I’m told, every year the devils are defeated by the angels.

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One might suggest that Our Lady of the Mineshaft is actually Pachamama, the indigenous divinity we would translate at Mother Earth. Satan? That’s Tío (Uncle) Supay, the Lord of the Underworld. She offers the fruits of the earth. He sends earthquake and volcano and destroys those who venture into his realm.

But what do I know? I was there so briefly and my questions didn’t always get clear answers. For example, I acquired this figure made of tin from a vendor of indigenous charms.
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She was also selling items used in the Coa rite, including preserved llama fetuses and ritual herbs, incense, and sugar figures showing what the supplicant wants: e.g., livestock, a house, US dollars.
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Sacrificial objects. Notice Star Wars paraphernalia in the background.
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The coa is a sort of hoe with a sharp point traditional to indigenous agriculture. Before the ground is broken for planting, it’s important to ask Pachamama’s favor.

As for the tin charm, I sort of understand you’re supposed to bury it wishing for prosperity, but when I asked a friend what it’s called and what you do with it, she answered, “I’m a Catholic. I wouldn’t know anything about that,” before she proceeded to make an offering to Pachamama.

So please enjoy the photos and take my commentary with a grain of salt! And maybe you can tell me why some of the devils feature crosses on their attire.
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Or Our Lady.
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—Diane Lefer

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Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea, and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”

  9 Responses to “Letter from Bolivia: Carnaval de Oruro — Diane Lefer”

  1. Gorgeous photos, Diane! Thanks for this window into another aspect of Bolivian culture!

  2. Oops – somehow the wrong photo got posted for the Tinkus. I’ll send the correct one along and maybe it will show up soon.

    • The tinkus are now dancing! Thank you, web-guru Mary Stein.

    • Nothing like this has ever happened before. The management of NC takes full responsibility for this error and apologizes profusely to Diane Lefer. Douglas Glover is, of course, not responsible since, like many editors of fantastically successful literary magazines, he has been on extended leave to attend to his private Caribbean island retreat for the last three months. Repeated attempts to email him have been in vain; his vacation responder reads “Internet connection failed. We cannot receive email. We cannot respond to your stupid email. DG is on the portico with his personal assistant, drinking pina coladas and Talisker.”

      An internal investigation (involving lie detectors, water-boarding, electro-shock encouragement, and a baseball bat) at NC Headquarters has revealed that much of the blame rests with a 13-year-old, legally blind, learning disabled, unpaid intern from Terre Haute, IN. His name is Extract P. “Snake” Treadwell, would-be novelist in the enigmatic style of youth-writing sensation Nathalie Sarraute and stand-out point guard with the East Terre Haute Middle School Tigres (that’s how he spelled it). NC staffers RF, MS, BB, KA, and NS dragged Extract to the back lot this morning in the rain and executed him gradually with an air rifle as an example and a message to our readers that we take editing seriously. There will never be another editorial mistake on NC, EVER AGAIN.

      The mangement hopes that Ms. Lefer will rest earily now that justice has been did.

      dg (not really dg, someone impersonating him, actually a bot named dg, equally irresponsible however)

  3. NO NO NO!!! You killed Extract P. “Snake” Treadwell?!?!? I could always rely on him. Now who is going to be my catsitter when I’m on the road? No more “Letters from…” for you from this author-in-mourning.

    • Extract P. “Snake” Treadwell, is truly ex now, dead, moribund, and no longer a threat to the NC community. We thought you hated him for that incredible editorial faux pas, we did this for you. There seemed to be no question of his surviving this catastrophe (and, really, he hated cats; on his laptop we found poems about kittens and bags and buckets of water). And you know as well as I do that if our culture is to survive we have to be willing to draw lines in the sand, recognize the tipping point when we see one, nip terrorism in the bud.

      No, wait, Extract just walked in the door with a Happy Meal and a shake and walked over to his desk and started working. This is strange. Who did we execute this morning?

      • Is there no end to the incompetence at NC?

      • Well, I’m glad I don’t have his blood on my hands but my cat now requests his immediate execution so that I’ll have to stay home. She is a carnivore and the blood won’t bother her.

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