Written by: Ilan Greenfield
Photos: Paula Holguín
The street parade of this small town lost in the deepest folds of the Tungurahua highlands is officially catalogued as part of Ecuador’s Intangible Heritage. Since 2009, it has become pretty famous, with tour companies including it on their circuits and television crews covering the event. It’s now a “must” in the traditional fiesta calendar…
Ambato’s gigantic Fiesta de las Flores y las Frutas became an official manifestation of Intangible Heritage the same year. But, at that time, there was little talk of the irreverent fiesta taking place in the remote countryside of Tungurahua, in tiny Píllaro.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s now crucial aspect of Píllaro’s identity, reinforcing something that a few years ago would have been controversial.
The pride of the native peoples, the cruelty of the colonizers and their religion, the fascinating inventiveness of the indigenous communities when coping with their slavery through color and dance; all this is deeply rooted in the present-day Diablada Pillareña (Píllaro Devils’ Dance).
The festivity marks the beginning of the Catholic year, a moment of peace that celebrates the recent birth of Jesus and culminates on January 6, Day of Kings. In this case, the wise men and nativity scenes have been replaced by horrid masks with four demonic “faces” on all sides, with real-life goats, deer or bull horns and blood-red costumes… And how, again, is this Christmas-y, you may wonder. It certainly seems more Halloween-y. “What peace?” the demons scream at the onlookers, “500 years of peace?”
To take the Christian symbol of Lucifer and make him the protagonist of a fiesta so close to Christmas, feels more like irony than mere coincidence. The original idea, some claim, was to scare landowners in their time of spiritual vulnerability. Others emphasize the mocking of the colonizers’ beliefs. But there is great subtlety in the whole affair. A central part of the Diablada are the so-called “line pairs“, a formation within the parade in which couples dance in a row, imitating the palatial styles of the Colonial aristocracy. But here they combine kitsch colors and wire masks that erase the dancers’ features, all melded with a healthy dose of tragicomic drama.
The devils, at this point in the program, act specifically to defend the mock Whiteman’s dance from the (perhaps) outraged crowd, cracking their whips in case someone attempts to interrupt the ritual.
Is it the Devil, then, who is portrayed as protecting Colonial social structures? Is it the Devil, and not God, who maintains the social constructs that have prevailed since Colonial times? Was it not the colonizers after all who, by bringing the Christian god, also brought their Devil? This and much more is both open and hidden as the dancers whirl and the bands play.
The rural locals dressed as devils have become masters of horror. With smoking incense and large cauldrons of smoldering logs, monstrous masks made out of the vertebrae and teeth of dead animals, with their oversized eyes and mouths, they beat on the doors of Píllaro’s homes and dance and cackle in front of them with. With a dead rodent-sized animal between them, they hold in their hands to scare off the onlookers… to add insult to injury, of course, the dance’s final act takes place in front of the town church (which, for many years, closed its doors… yes… during Day of Kings).
All this is still celebrated today in Píllaro, with great reverie, innuendo, and an underlying sense of solidarity for the suffering of the indigenous people.
Cast of characters and vocab
Partida – The parade group.
Parejas de línea –A synchronized dance in which the dancers line up in rows.
Guarichas –Men dressed in drag who offer drinks to the public.
Capariches – Men dressed as street cleaners with white trousers and a broom.
Payaso – A jester-type character who moves about freely amidst the dancers.
Cazador – The hunter with a rifle, ready to shoot down the Devil.