Behind the Masks: Afro-Ecuadorian from the Chota Valley


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There are no lions, but Africa’s spirit lives strong in the midst of an arid landscape that suddenly turns into an oasis as the Chota River washes over the valley of the same name in the provinces of Imbabura and western Carchi. There are drums, mimicking the sound of a heartbeat with a fourfour rhythm. There are the gestures and the history of forced labor throughout what once were the eight Jesuit sugar plantations of northern Ecuador in Colonial times: Carpuela, Chalguayacu, Chamanal, Concepción Cuajara, Pisquer, Santa Lucia and Tumbabiro.

The religious followers of Ignacio de Loyola created a true economic machine of great political influence, which explains why the Spanish Crown expelled the order from the Americas; by that time, over half of the stillunfounded country was Jesuit land with 132 haciendas and 1,767 slaves, men and women torn from their homes in the long-lost savannahs where the antelopes grazed.

On their way here, aboard great caravels and mocking their chains, the African slaves brought their drums and songs, lending their tradition to a new musical creation, the “bomba,” that incorporated Spanish guitars and Andean sensibilities. The music told stories of Chota River floods, of the search for new paths to beat the desolation. Songs like Carpuela, by Milton Tadeo, became so emblematic for all Ecuadorian migrants that they adopted it as their anthem: “I leave you my heart, beautiful Carpuela / I swore I would forget you, but I couldn’t / I’m leaving, I’m already gone / there’s no work to be found here anymore.”

During the diaspora, the mandingas – sorcerers who made pacts with the goats – brought their skull rings and cheeky laughs. And the ancient gods of war and water transformed into agonizing Christs and Quattrocento-style plaster Virgins, now carried in processions, surrounded by chants that could just as easily have honored ancient African gods like Changó and Yemayá. This syncretic splendor lives on today during Holy Week, when dark-skinned Christs, Roman soldiers and the Virgin Mary come to life and go by African names: Congo, Minda, Carabalí, Mina, or Chalá, the surnames of descendants extracted from Mother Africa since 1610.

This historic background provides us with the foundations necessary to truly understand the Carpuela masks, crafted by artist Alicia Villalba, or those carved in Mascarilla, Carchi, as part of a cooperation project initiated by Belgian Marc Ghysselinckx. It’s worth noting that Belgium is home to the world’s largest collection of Congolese masks, a “primitive” art form that inspired the likes of Picasso, Klee, Modigliani and Giacometti.

Although the ritual nature of the masks has been lost, there are new reasons to visit the Chota Valley: a lively culture; a kindness that, in this case, is not cliché; the famous Coangue carnivals; or the deep mixed-heritage culture that many of the more traditional tourism complexes, unfortunately, have ignored.

Little by little, however, an alternative tourism is taking root. A tourism that bids you to walk along the fertile Chota River, listen to the warm sounds of the “banda mocha” – a country brass band of sorts – to get to know the Three Marias of Chalguyacu (declared part of the musical heritage of our country), to walk the narrow streets of these picturesque Andean towns, taste the guandul and cross the suspension bridge towards Pusir Grande, savoring the ovo fruit – a kind of tiny plum – or the famous Juncal pork fritada (a local fried pork delicacy), as one looks off in the distance at the men and women tilling the earth with their colored turbans. Continue along and complement your journey with a visit to the town of Salinas, where community tourism is the most established. There is little doubt you will be awed by the steps of the women dancing to rich beats while managing to keep a bottle balanced on their heads. Soon, more visitors will surely arrive, as this misty region follows the path of its own history.

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