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A letter from Chenoa Stock in Bolivia

March 20, 2011

A Celebratory Search

Photo of dancers in colorful, fanciful costumes.

The Diablada dance in Oruro Carnaval represents the search for harmony.

As I read about the many happenings around the world, I send out prayers and thoughts of restoration for those people affected by natural disasters, dictators and a loss of hope. I continue to follow the world news, but also continue to focus on my Spanish studies, the Bolivian culture surrounding me as well as the flooding and landslides which have occurred here. It seems nobody can escape Mother Nature. But in the midst of all of this, Bolivians have still been able to celebrate their most important holiday, Carnaval, in which giving thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) is one of the many symbolic acts of the eight day festival. I will not claim to be a Carnaval expert, but I would like to share a few bits of information about the holiday that I have learned in our conferences at the Instituto and in talking to those around me.

Carnaval is a cultural festival that is not tied to any religious or indigenous group, but is one that is tied to the Cosmovision of Bolivians. It is a festival that occurs annually during the eight days leading up to Ash Wednesday (el miércoles de ceniza), and is a time that brings about a reminder for the renewal of life. There are many myths and legends around the creation and symbolism of Carnaval, one of which includes a story about the four plagues of toads, vipers, ants and lizards. In the attempt of these pests to destroy the land of the Urus — the indigenous people of Oruro (a mining city in southern Bolivia) — the pests were destroyed by the Virgin Mary, thus saving the Uru people and their land. Though I have also heard stories which do not portray such a beautiful bond between Christianity and the indigenous groups, the bottom line among these myths is that they symbolize the people searching for harmony and liberty and for the interconnectedness between the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell.

Photo of dancers wearing red and white costumes.

The Caporales dance in Oruro Carnaval represents the search for liberty.

This search is symbolized in the offerings and reunions that are held among families and friends during these eight days. These fiestas include Dias de Compadres and Comadres, which occur on the two Thursdays before Ash Wednesday, respectively, and are a time to celebrate men and women in one’s life. The profesoras of the Instituto held a lovely fiesta for the women students, which included a band, dinner, dancing and the lack of escape from either being thrown in the pool or having buckets of water thrown upon you, as water is another important symbol of Carnaval. There are also meetings among friends and relatives throughout the eight days, and the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a day to perform the ch’alla (ch-ayya), a ritual symbolizing the gratitude of the fertility of the land and the harvest. Families will perform ch’allas throughout their homes on this day, walking around with a hand-held bowl or pan for burning charcoal and incense. It is both a blessing and an offering for their home, their family and the year that has passed and is to come.

Photo of Chenoa wearing a clear plastic poncho.

Chenoa Stock with the Entrada of the Oruro Carnaval.

The culmination of this symbolism is greatly portrayed in the Entrada (parade) in Oruro, which is home to many miners and of Bolivian folklore. The Entrada includes the energetic and symbolic dances, which represent these different worlds, and are performed by dance and musical groups from across the country, donning ornate dresses and costumes. The search for harmony between good and evil is expressed in the dance of the Diablada, the search for liberty is expressed in the dances of the Morenada and Caporales, which represent the slaves who were brought over from Africa by the Spaniards, the Tobas, which represents a nomadic people who lived in nature, donning feathers and loincloths, and the Tinku, which expresses the fighting spirit of the people from the region in the north of Potosi and south of Oruro. The search for fertility is also shown in some costumes of the women, who wear short skirts and somewhat revealing tops (thankfully it was not rainy this year!) and high heels or boots. These dancers and musicians must have devotion, as the Entrada lasts about 20 (almost) consecutive hours, and each group performs twice on the parade route, which is about four kilometers long. The first part of the Entrada culminates at La Sanctuaria del Socavon (the Church of the Mineshaft), where the Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft) is located and where many people go to give offerings of thanks during this festival. It is here where all of the dancers come together to dance, celebrate and end the first day at dawn, before beginning the second round of the Entrada. Before a person commits to performing in the Entrada, they must each promise to the Virgen de la Candelaria that they will dance or perform for at least three years. This is indeed a commitment for each person, not only in the promise, but in the fact that some costumes could cost up to $500! Now that’s dedication.

Photo of women wearing blue costumes and hats.

Women Caporales dancers in Oruro Carnaval; the dance represents the search for liberty.

It was indeed a treat to see the devotion and energy of these performers in Oruro on March 5 and 6. A group of students from the Instituto traveled south to enjoy the Entrada as well as the extra accoutrement that comes with Carnaval, such as globos (water balloons), espuma (foam spray) and ponchos for protection. The following Saturday, Cochabamba held its own parade, El Corso de Corsos, to celebrate Carnaval. Here one was able to see the creativity in costumes of the military of Cochabamba (everything from Terminator to Toy Story) as well as indigenous dances from La Paz and even some dance groups from Oruro. Thankfully globos (water balloons) were banned, but the espuma (foam spray) was a-flowing! Perhaps I will understand and learn more about Carnaval and its symbolism with each year that I live here. So we can leave this as Carnaval 101 and see what next year brings.


Photo of several people; one man is carrying a hanging vessel by a strap.

Celebrating the Ch'alla at the Maryknoll Language Institute - the ritual of blessing and thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

It was indeed a different vibe to move into Lent with such a rousing experience. But though Carnaval is not necessarily tied to religion, one can still find similarities between this festival and the time of cuaresma (Lent), this time where Christians search for harmony and liberty to help bring about transformation or growth in their lives and their environments. A time when we discern what it is that we do not need or that we do need to add into our lives to bring about new life, fertility. A time when we walk an “Entrada” for 40 days, perhaps in pain, perhaps in discernment, but knowing that it is all being done for renewal, for resurrection, for a unity that can be celebrated with the other dancers of life.

Like those dancers in high heels, I hope we are embracing the suffering and the questioning that could come into our lives throughout these 40 days, fully knowing that in this embrace a celebration will come at the dawn of a new day and new life.


Chenoa Stock
Companionship Facilitator
Joining Hands - UMAVIDA

For more information:

Joining Hands Program
Joining Hands Partnership Newsletters
Joining Hands Bolivia – UMAVIDA profile
Presbyterian Partnership in Bolivia

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 301


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