There’s no doubt that Carnival in our country comes from Spain. This street celebration is evidently linked to ancestral customs brought to our country from Europe, coinciding with the beginning of the Catholic liturgical calendar and Ash Wednesday.
But when we head to a place like Cacha, a small provincial town in Chimborazo, and make our way to communities deeply-rooted in their indigenous traditions, we are immediately transported to something very different. One might even fancy thinking that something like “Carnival” existed well before the Spanish caravels brought it over back in the 1500s.
The village itself is actually known as Ecuador’s first officially-declared indigenous community. So it makes sense that Cacha would best express the indigenous dimension of the Carnival celebrations in Ecuador. A clue is its clear link to the Pawkar Raymi (celebrations of flowering) dedicated to the first sown fields of the year, which also coincides with the first new moon of the agricultural calendar.
The celebration, on the other hand, is also known as Alajahuán, after the sacred hill that the locals visit this time of year, as it became the setting of a legendary apparition of Christ. Despite the Catholic theme, folk-songs and ditties in Kichwa dominate. Three symbolic “beings” are also venerated by the offering of germination: Pachacama (God), Pachamama (Mother Earth), and the Ayllu (the spirit of people reunited).
The women arrive at Cacha’s main square with millstones or carry live cockerels tied to a stick, so that they can play at catching them, or the one-and-only “buried rooster” game.
Men wear beautiful red, patterned ponchos (though some dress up as policemen or even in drag, with brightly colored clothes), livening up the arrival and departure of the adjacent communities to the central square of the town, where they let rip with dancing and mayhem. The party continues over the following days in the surrounding neighborhoods and rural villages.
During the days of celebration, groups of men go from house to house, singing and asking for offerings of food from the owners. The younger suitors ask for their daughters! There’s also a “procession in search of single women”!
Carnival is a time to rejoice and let loose, and throughout Ecuador, they offer fascinating examples of our ancestral culture and identity.
Main photograph: Yolanda Escobar: foam on a Carnival-paraders face.