Indigenous Calendar January, 2012: Mamá Negra in Ecuador

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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In Ecuador, as in many places where indigenous people still live, celebration is a big part of life and of cultural heritage. In the Ecuadorian town of Latacunga this can be seen every year in late September as it hosts one of that country's largest and most popular festivals, La Virgen de las Mercedes (known locally as Fiesta de la Mamá Negra, although she actually has a separate festival all to herself held in the same town a few weeks later.)

Both festivals celebrate, at least partially, the folkloric African slave, Mamá Negra who was trafficked to Ecuador by the Spanish. In one version of the tale she prayed to the Virgin for her freedom, was unexpectedly granted it and went through the streets of the town celebrating. In another version she prayed to the Virgin for the town itself to be spared from the eruption of the volcano, Cotopaxi. The town was unexpectedly spared by the Virgiin and the whole town celebrated. (They have ever since and Cotopaxi has not erupted since.)

Whether either version of the tale is true will probably never be known. But what is true is that this festival and its counterpart are among the most interesting of indigenous festivals anywhere to be experienced. To say that loud band music, masked dancing, spirit cleansing by having alcohol spat on you and cross-gender dressing in the streets form a large part of the festival is, while also true, to miss the point.

The festival is one of the most harmonious mixtures imaginable of ancient, Animistic ritual and modern Catholic tradition. While the Virgin's statue leads the procession, masked witches follow performing their ritual cleansing and men with apparent supernatural strength parade statues of their own — butchured pigs adorned with various smaller dead animals (all real), food and bottles of liquor. Ultimately the festival is a celebration of the fertility of both the people and the land.

Among all this is Mamá Negra herself — sometimes on horseback and sometimes in the crowd. I already knew from my research that she is actually portrayed in the procession by a male (part of the cross-gender dressing). What I didn't know was how many Mamá Negras I would find given that it was her festival. In the end there was only one — at least that I saw in the two days.

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