April 2014

Carnival - More than Parades, Parties, and (loads of) People

We all more or less know what Carnival is about, so to read an article about the clichés one already knows about isn’t very interesting, if you ask me. What did interest me was how I found out, in the run to Carnival, how this festivity is seen here by the youth and young adults as so much more than just a fun party. I went out to the streets, talked to several adolescents about their thoughts of Carnival and visited a place where they were embroidering the dance clothes for the most important parades of the Oruro Carnival.

By: Simone Batelaan
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Den Haag, Netherlands


Oruro is packed with people during Carnival
Photo: Simone Batelaan

One of the most surprising things that I learned while preparing this article is that not everyone approves of Carnival. Two girls from the juice store around the corner, both in their twenties, explained to me their aversion towards Carnival. One of them said, “Carnival is simply a Pagan festival in honor of the devil, it affects people from all social clases. Of course I do not celebrate any of his (the devil’s) parties, it is his strategy for bringing down every child of God. I consider Carnival as a national holiday, not as a party. No part of it pleases me since I know Jesus.”

The other girl added, “If I say Carnival, I’m saying God ‘Vaal.’ Carnival does not have any thoughts, it is a tradition and custom, a worship and ceremony to the Satan or Devil. It makes people condemn themselves; it makes them lose themselves because they drink so much; they have fun without control. I do not like any part of Carnival, it does not bring anything good to me, I never dance or participate in these kinds of parties.”

It is our culture. It makes me emotional. It is the best.

Fortunately, however, I was also able to listen to happy stories. Among others, I spoke to a 25-year old woman in her bridal store: “I celebrate carnival with kh’oa (a Quechua word for the ceremony where the mostly traditional people bury food, throw candies, and burn incense to thank the Pachamama for the livelong gifts she provided to us), with ch’alla (another Quechua word for a ritual with someone digging a hole in the ground and then filling it with cigarettes, coca leaves, cheap wine, and perhaps a ladle or two of llama stew; here the intended recipient of these offerings is the Pachamama, the most important deity in the Quechua and Aymara pantheons), my family, friends, the beautiful dances. It is our culture, it makes me emotional. It is the best.”


People filling the streets of Oruro with music and dancing
Photo: Simone Batelaan

After having spoken with many young people, I can summarize that carnival for the youth is equivalent to partying, joy, being drunk, nonstop playing with water and, unfortunately, riots and fights. Young Bolivians think that carnival is increasingly becoming more commercial than the tradition it used to be forsooth; however, Carnival is a festival where they literally taste Bolivian culture: dances, happiness, music, Ch’alla, traditional food; it covers their entire culture. A 16-year old high school student considered Carnival even like Christmas: “I think Carnival makes the family more united. It brings us together like only a few other special holidays such as Christmas. My mamá, papá, my brothers and sisters … they are all part of my Carnival.”

While conversing with the youths, I was also able to speak with a girl who was very dedicated to her temporary job as an embroiderer. It is generally known that the costumes in the parades during Carnival are extremely important. The ones with the most vivacious outfits steal the show. This girl absolutely wanted to have one of them. She explained everything about the tasks they are engaged during the months before Carnival and how it is carried out.

“What we are doing here is embroidering. We do everything by hand, which is definitely worth it since it is for the Oruro Carnival and the corso de corsos. The Oruro Carnival is the most important one in Bolivia and the corso de corsos is what is know as the conclusion of Carnival, a crucial part.”

She learned the art of embroidery when she was twelve by observing her older friends who were already embroidering while she was too young to participate. Alas, she learned the most from her father. “He has been doing this since he was a child, year in year out. He is very talented and makes amazing designs. For me, embroidering is very easy. You just have to follow the pattern. I think everybody can do it, but you have to be patient.”


At Carnival you will be a witness to the most crazy and impressive costumes
Photo: Simone Batelaan

Yes, one has to be patient since it takes a considerable amount of time to finish one garment (which contains around six embroideries). Every girl or boy who dances for a fraternity needs to make their own embroideries for the Carnival. Some are doing extra for others from the fraternity, but that is very rare because it takes three to four days to finish only one embroidery and, if you calculate that, six embroideries times three to four days …. Moroever, since they have to practice their dances many times plus attend school, there is not much time left.

They not only embroider for Carnival, but also for events as known as “Ansaldo,” a party held in Cochabamba in June; for “Urkupiña”, a festival celebrated in Quillacollo from the 14th to the 16th of August, held in honor of the Virgin of Urkupiña (pilgrims from all over the country and the world congregate in the city of Quillacollo to visit the altar of the Virgin María); and for the “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe” in Sucre. However, it is clear that these festivals are the underdogs: “In my opinion, and I think everyone’s else, is that the embroideries for the Oruro Carnival are the most important ones. If we want to finish these in time, we have to start the beginning of November (the Oruro Carnival commences the first weekend of March this year, so imagine how much time and effort they invest) and we work on them with the whole fraternity. But as I stated before: in the end, one has to take care of one’s own costumes.”

So, what is then the large difference between Oruro and Cochabamba? (Editor’s Note – These interviews were done prior to the accident in Oruro in 2014) Well, that was very clear. According to her (and I believe she is not the only one), the difference with Cochabamba is the organization. In Oruro, everything is organized up to the last detail. Everything is scheduled. There are perfect timetables. There is no chaos; it is simply superbly planned. As she said, “The Oruro Carnival is just much prettier. From the very beginning of the parade one sees the devotion, the dedication, and the enthusiasm. In Cochabamba, it is all about the competition.”


Two girls visiting the carnival for the very first time
Photo: Simone Batelaan

As I saw the beautiful embroideries, I wondered what they meant. I found out that there was a deeper and surprising meaning for the embroidered figures than what people thought when they saw them for the first time. For example the meaning for legs is a hawk. There are hearts that represent the love for the Virgin Mary; snakes represent healing and protection.”

“The Oruro Carnival you a very special feeling. We always visit the Virgin when we are going to Oruro, where we ask for health, work, and money. We love the Virgin Maria a lot.” What provides more of that very special feeling besides visiting the Virgin Mary? She explained to me that Carnival here is more than a simple party. One meets people from all over Bolivia, even from all over the world. Her thoughts towards Carnival are about making new friendships, discovering different cultures, and meeting people: the feeling of being one.


The Oruro festival is filled with joy and laughter
Photo: Simone Batelaan

On the question whether Carnival is a party to celebrate with friends or family, there was no doubt: the answer is with both. Carnival is a celebration with friends but at the same time a celebration with family. For her, the embroidering part, the preparation, the playing with water, is what she does with her family. “I come from an embroidery family and every year we do this together. We prepare our costumes for my sister and myself since we both dance for a fraternity that is going to dance in Oruro. The dancing and more ‘fun’ part, if I may say so, is with my friends. We dance, we drink, we play. We simply celebrate.”


Women dress up in glitter and glamour
Photo: Simone Batelaan

Carnival is a controversial celebration. Some cannot stop talking about it; others are not that enthusiastic, to put it mildly. If you ask me, having experienced this year’s Carnival in Oruro, it is by far the most amazing show of culture I have ever seen. My warmest thanks go out to those who put on the 18-hour parade, and my thoughts go to the families of those who perished.

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