The official parenthesis of our day-to-day, an invocation of the past and, in a drunken trance, a crude encountre with the present; the triumphal arrival of identity in the era of gentrification, the Ecuadorian fiesta popular continues to represent that crack in the calendar through with the immemorial, the unfathomable, the intractable, and the essential, filter through. During any Ecuadorian fiesta, the country transcends its political borders; it returns to the land and forgets its name; it stops in its tracks, it gets hammered, gets all prettied up, dances the night away, reinvents itself, comes to its knees, thanks and prays and explodes like a thousand firecrackers in the sky.
When a Zuleteña thinks about her Sanjuanes, her thoughts are boundless. She spends significant sums in relation to her salary, she loses concentration, she daydreams and asks for her two-weeks’ vacation. If she doesn’t get them, she will disappear anyway from this everyday world to return to her family, to her homeland… she will be swallowed up by memory. She will sit beside her grandmother, beside her comadre and her sisters; she will get her singing voice ready; she will be fit to walk from one side of her eternal valley to the other, chanting, stomping her feet day in and night out, urging dancers to keep going with tasteful delicacies she learned from her ancestors with the culinary secrets of a wordless recipe book, with her most colorful dress, her finest embroidery, her whitest blouse. Her language, somewhere in between medieval Castilian and ancestral Kichwa; her dress, somewhere in between Andalusia and Karanki; her entire being, somewhere in between heaven and earth, reality and fiction; her fiesta, somewhere in between meaning and sheer entertainment… she will not leave it for the world.
Is it art? Is it a game? Is it theater? Is it a ritual? Is it real?
Do they really become Uma Devils? To what extent are the Yumbos divine shamans and Sacha-Runas mother nature…? Or it is all a diversion, a parade of freakish characters that exist only to amuse those who come see them arrive all wrapped in moss, their faces covered in wool, in foam, in devil masks, with sabers, Indian lances and cowboy suits. Are fiestas just an excuse to get off work? Or the work one does on the holiday? To what extent is it a party? To what extent is it sacred?
A year to prepare
A fiesta does not take place on a specific day, or a specific week. It is an event that is year-long, organized by the priostes, those in charge of managing and executing the celebration events, but taken to the streets by each participant: fruit bouquets, bread baskets, chicha, masks, costumes, offerings, the color, spirit and energy that comes from each and every participant, and makes, or breaks, the party…
The modern world has dwarfed the very concept of the ancestral celebration to living rooms and the enclosures of a night club, simplifying parades and processions to a gigantism devoid of symbols or prehistory, featuring television characters, balloons, colorful banners and princess costumes… But the Ecuador of today delves its hand deep into the chest of memory. While Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Scream costumes offer a perspective already distant from their origins, the complexity and color of popular celebrations in Ecuador are true windows on to what has always given Man a reason to celebrate: knowledge of solar and lunar cycles, gratitude for crops and harvests, the opportunity to eat together, to share mother nature, to forget it all and be one with the night; the grace to live in the best of all possible worlds.
And yet, the fiesta is so much more. It is very much of this day and age, with its DJs and its fireworks. It is not folklore for the sake of folklore or a Lonely Planet tourist trap for impressionable foreigners. It is, among many things, a fashion event to choose a fiesta pageant queen, and, although faced with the harsh judgement of the traditionalists, it also becomes the golden moment to take to the streets a Lion King or Mickey Mouse disguise. It is the time to play music rehearsed since childhood, but also a chance to reveal this year’s hits on the radio.
It is the moment to give thanks to the seasons but also to request more passion and money for the mischievous spirits.
From the moment the victors of wars defeated their opponents and climbed the podiums to ban everything that came before, the fiesta was that opportunity to remember what it was like before being conquered, a chance to break away from time and forget history, disguising the profane with religion, mockery with drunkenness and defeat with victory, or vice versa. For today, our popular celebrations are layers of disguises that take us to the beginning of everything. Because no matter how desperately people try to force them into their little box of tradition, protecting orthodoxy and protocol, fiestas are always slippery amoebas easily infected by the impurities of time, ready to be transformed, to be molded and absorb change. And it is thanks to this flexibility that they exist. The very essence of these celebrations is their ability to resist and adapt… They bring ancient forest spirits face to face with Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. This confusion of identity allows the disparate humming of every song no matter how old, and no matter how new, to achieve harmony, a cultural polyphony that makes up our heritage and leads us both to origin and the certainty that we will continue to celebrate… forever, through time and despite time…