October 2016


The famous annual carnival in Bolivia might have an European catholic origin, but is today one that celebrates Bolivia's unique religious plurality.

By: Oliver Joncus
Projects Abroad Volunteer
London - United Kingdom

Morenada dancers
Photo by: Ximena Noya

When visiting La Paz's Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, one is struck by the vivid personalities carved into the faces of the masks on display, making their display room one of the museum's most haunting ones. Each mask tells its own story of a region's indigenous culture, and each is crafted as a highly animated character.

Waca tokori dancers
Photo by: Ximena Noya

The most extravagant and gruesome of the faces staring back at you is that of the Diablada masks, representing the face of a devil. This type of mask is worn at the Bolivian Carnival, which most famously takes place in Oruro around Ash Wednesday. Although it is worn during Carnival – a festivity with origins from the Christian religion – the devils that they represent are not of Christian origin. According to the museum, this kind of mask, as many of the others found at Carnival, represent a blend of the Catholicism brought here by the Spaniards during the colonization period and that of the complex Andean religions that preceded it. The devil represented is not only honored through the masks, but also with a dance. The Diablada dance derives from that of the Uru people celebrating their god Tiw; eventually it melded with that of the Aymaran miners who worshipped Anchanchu (the demon spirit of the caves). Even though the Spanish resettled Oruro in 1606 and such rituals as this dance were banned in the early 18th century, they continued under the guise of Christian tradition. Heretofore, the famous Oruro carnival was born.

"The devil represented is not only honored through the masks, but also with a dance"

An extraordinary syncretism

Tinku dancers
Photo by: Ximena Noya

What Carnival really represents is more than just the cultural richness of Bolivian history and the importance of Bolivian Catholicism. It is the incarnation of the extraordinary syncretism that has connected both the indigenous and Catholic religion in the country. Although over 80% of the population identify as Catholic, far from the majority of the Bolivians are monotheistic (source: Bellabolivia.com). For many, the two sets of spiritual beliefs, the Catholic and the indigenous (e.g. the tradition of the Aymara or Quechua), happily co-exist. In fact, the relationship is symbiotic for many. For instance, the highest divinity and most universal deity of the Andean people, the Pachamama or Mother Earth, is often worshipped through the Virgin Mary. This interchangeability between the two can be seen on murals representing the Virgin of the Mountain, where her face is depicted on its peak while the body of the mountain also becomes the body of the Virgin herself. A great example of this is the painting "La Virgin del Cerro."

"In theory, the principles of a paganism and Christianity are contradictory, but that is not an obstacle for most Bolivians"

Social practices

Tinku female dancers
Photo by: Ximena Noya

Untangling the threads of Bolivia's religious past becomes even more difficult when looking at its social practices. Jonathan Lord describes in his dissertation Anthropological Case Studies of Religious Syncretism in Bolivia – which analyzes the Larecaja province of the country – that the idea of confraternity or cofradía was brought over by Spanish Catholics but "has been subverted by indigenous religious practice." The pre-Spanish confraternities represented the nature of citizenship in Bolivia as well, involving more distinctive characteristic of ritual attire and group dancing. When interviewing a priest in Sorata, Lord was told that "cofradías were non-operational in Bolivia" but that "here we have the word fraternity" – despite the fact that the pre-Columbian concept shares the same basic group dynamic as the Spanish. The same can be seen in the varied comparsas, which are groups of singers and dancers who take part in carnivals. Some are "more authentic"' in the use of the pinquillo flute and the Inca dress, while others are more obviously post-colonial as they are "groups wearing black masks over their faces to symbolize African slaves" and the band "plays melodies that sound like European military marches." The indigenous and colonial seamlessly blend together in many ways; it thereby becomes an easy mistake to look at their social practices or their spiritual beliefs through the singular lens of the Bolivian Catholic tradition.


Accommodating two spiritual traditions can sometimes be counterintuitive. In theory, the principles of paganism and Christianity are contradictory, but that is not an obstacle for most Bolivians. For instance, while drunkenness is actively discouraged in Catholic teaching, it has a spiritual potency in Bolivia, even though the country is mainly Catholic. Guy S. Duke argues in his paper Reinterpretation of identity through Chicha in the Andes that for indigenous people in Bolivia, "public drunkenness was a central aspect to religious and social life." It is something embraced enthusiastically – some might say piously – by most people during festivals such as the Day of the Dead in November.


The ability of religious beliefs to adapt is becoming more evident in the 21st century, paralleling the flexible belief system held by many Bolivians. For instance, the Catholic Church has started to reevaluate its views on same sex marriage and gender equality; while the Pope recently reshaped the climate debate by portraying the destruction of nature as a betrayal of Christ's teachings. Yet recognizing that there is more to having a religious belief than blindly following its dogma is still something to be learned by many. In a world where religious extremism and intolerance for another set of beliefs still forms a basis for mass conflict, syncretism seems all too peculiar to Bolivia.

So as the smell of Khoa and fireworks pervade the air for days, the celebrations of Carnival stand as a testament for the longevity of Bolivia's indigenous traditions as well as a celebration with Bolivian Christianity. Perhaps this mix is the real virtue of its Carnival.

Remarkable Bolivian Women
L.A.E.L. English Department wanted to make a special work to honor Bolivian Women in this October through the presentation of some works of the students of the career of Applied Linguistics Language Teaching
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