Mama Negra festival

25 Jan

A man, dressed as a woman, with a blacked up face and riding a horse sauntered past us. A group of traditional Ecuadorian dancers span around with perfect rhythm and exuded seemingly endless energy. Staggering to make ten steps forward, a strong guy collapsed onto a stool to take a breather from carrying a whole roasted pig on his back which was decorated with cooked guinea pigs, large bottles of strong spirits and packets of cigarettes! We were stunned, enthralled and thoroughly entertained – this could only be the Mama Negra festival, one of Ecuador’s biggest and most loved festivals, which combines traditional culture and folklore in a two-day long fiesta.

The historic and orderly market town of Latacunga, in Ecuador’s central highlands, initially seemed like an unlikely place to host the Mama Negra festival but each year on 23rd and 24th September, and repeated again on 11th November to coincide with its independence day, the town rocks! Streets come alive with processions, music, costumes, dancing and fireworks and the whole town, plus a stack of local and international visitors, come out to party.

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My birthday is on 22nd September and Dan’s on 26th September so we were in the mood for some revelry and, unknown to us, we checked into a hotel which was slap bang in the middle of the parade route. Our hotel (Endamo) turned out to be a great budget option where the friendly manager treated us like one of the family so we were instantly at home there.

The procession started early afternoon from the main square and was due to reach our hotel on ‘2 de Mayo’ at around 4.00pm so we had time to shower, eat some lunch and to buy a couple of beers to drink whilst securing our spot on the steps in front of the hotel.

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The streets were electric with excitement as families with young kids gathered, seats were put out for older folk and groups of teenagers played music on their mobile phones and shared large bottles of fizzy pop. All of the parked cars had been moved along so the procession had a clear run and the streets were decorated with colourful paper bunting. Street vendors sold helium filled balloons, huge bags of popcorn or crisps and bright pink candy floss.

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The festival’s roots are founded in a darker past where being surrounded by active volcanos and positioned in an earthquake zone left the town’s citizens constantly fearing for their lives. When Cotopaxi erupted in 1742 it seemed that Latacunga would be destroyed. As the lava edged closer to the town, the Virgin of Mercy, the Patron of Cotopaxi, was paraded through the streets and miraculously disaster was avoided. Locals of the region made this an annual celebration in honour of the saint. As it happened, her powers weren’t always quite so powerful as Latacunga has suffered from dozens of devastating eruptions and earthquakes since but we chose to overlook that for the sake of a good party.

The Incas, the Spanish, the Mayans and black slaves brought into the area at the end of the 1700’s shaped the festival into what it is today and it eventually became known as Mama Negra. The festival was initially a solemn religious affair for the elders of the community but these days the festival has more of a party atmosphere and it’s status as an official holiday has encouraged interest from the younger generations.

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We heard the procession long before we could see it – the beat of drums, the blare of trumpets, the holler of dancers being spun in circles. At the head of the procession a float was covered in flowers, carrying a statue of the virgin and accompanied by impeccably dressed men in uniform. Following a dignified start, the party just exuded bags of fun and craziness.

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Troupes of traditional dancers and bands came in waves.

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Each of the dancers had outfits unique to certain parts of Ecuador and were a riot of swirling colours.

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They’d been parading all afternoon but they had loads of energy and style. The ladies long dark hair was plaited with colourful ribbons which matched their elaborately embroidered dresses and colourful under-skirts which bellowed out like balloons.

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The slim male dancers were full of cheeky smiles and leapt around encouraging the spectators to clap in time with the music.

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Groups of small children dressed beautifully in hand crafted outfits stole the show and posed for pictures confidently.

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Brass bands and drummers created an infectious marching beat which made it impossible to stand still. The musicians had taken great pride in their appearance and wore smart-looking matching outfits.

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If playing a musical instrument wasn’t hard enough, these groups could play, walk and dance simultaneously whilst looking happy about it. Boys and girls played drums of various sizes and made it hard to hear ourselves think when they passed. Music was definitely in the blood of these Latin Americans.

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As an offering to the virgin and to be consumed at the end of the night, strong men carried whole roasted pigs strapped to their backs.

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A number of other men ran beside to make sure the pig bearer didn’t stumble and fall under the weight, and to help him sit down on a stool each time they covered a short distance.

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To amuse themselves and to enhance the party atmosphere, the accompanying men and some young boys carried bottles of home-brew and hard liquor and approached members of the crowd to get them to down a shot. As you can imagine us tourists were prime targets for their advances and after just a couple of these face distorting shots we were feeling merry! One cheeky young lad befriended Dan and before he knew it a bright orange juice laced with whiskey was being poured into his mouth much to everyone´s amusement.

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We laughed to see one incredibly cute little boy carrying his own version of the roast pig offering – a cuddly toy! Then, following closely behind, his slightly overweight older brother, who must have been only 12, looking exhausted as his pushy dad encouraged him along with his own piglet offering. Despite tickling his ribs for a photograph, he could only manage a half-hearted smile as he was so tired!

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The festival includes several key characters who are played by people in the procession.

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Groups of men dressed in white called ‘Guacos’ would grab spectators and perform cleansing ceremonies – dancing in circles around them, spitting water or milk at them and collecting some money for the pleasure. We managed to avoid being ‘cleansed’ but the manager of our hotel made eye contact for a second too long and got pulled from the crowd.

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The ‘Guacos’ with their cleansing powers make way for the ‘Angel of the Star’ all dressed in white and carrying a white star which represents guidance and light. The pretty little girl on top of her steed beamed from ear-to-ear, delighted to be dressed as the Angel.

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The manager at our hotel like an embarrassing parent called several of the characters over for pictures with us as they passed.

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The ´Flag Bearer´carrying a multi-coloured flag preceded the ‘Captain’ wearing a smart military uniform with a feathered hat. The Captain is in charge of making sure the party is a big success and with a shotgun like that, we weren’t going to disagree with him! He shouted an order at me in Spanish and before I knew what was happening I was brandishing his gun. I´d like to say I looked fearsome but it was more like I was playing air guitar for the crowds!

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The star of the show was Mama Negra herself who is always played by a prominent man from the community who has been nominated for the privilege that year. The Mama Negra has a blacked up face and carries black dolls to represent her children. We laughed to hear the screams from the crowd as Mama Negra sprayed milk and water over the spectators for good luck…that was until we ourselves got covered!

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In more recent years colourful transvestites have become a regular addition to the festival which we found to be very forward thinking in a predominately strict Catholic country. For some reason they took a particular liking to Dan and during several photographs Dan felt a hand on his bum which wasn’t mine!

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The festival lasted into the night and came to a close at around 10pm after a full day of partying.

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Fireworks filled the sky for the final thrill of the day and we knew Mama Negra festival was an event that would linger for a long time in our memories!

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