Every year in January I’m invited to photograph the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua, the most traditional festival celebrating the patron saint of Cañar. Held in a village at about 11,000 feet, it lasts seven days, and usually I’ve just landed in Ecuador and have not yet adjusted to the altitude. (Although it’s obvious no one comprehends my comments about the effects of altitude, having breathed this rarified air all their lives.) In any case, the physical effort is tremendous, and it’s impossible for me to document a weeklong event. (The municipal fiestas, just ended, lasted 30 days!) Nonetheless, over the past ten years I have documented all the different days and most nights of the Fiesta de San Antonio, including the bullfight, where I was knocked off the fence and limped home.
But when I show up on Saturday morning for the dancing vacas locas and music at the church, preceding the procession into the countryside, I always hear, “Where were you? We started on Tuesday night!” I always explain that night-time photos are not the best (without mentioning that it’s cold and dark and miserable to be out at night in Cañar). Also, I’ve noticed that after so many years my photos of the fiesta look much the same. So this year, as it was cold and rainy, I only accompanied the long procession to the host community, Cuchucún, stayed and couple of hours, and focused on details and faces.
Music is essential in all Cañar fiestas, and is no doubt one of the main costs. This day, the high sweet sound of the reed dulcena, with rat-a-tat accompanying drum, marked the beginning of activities at the church. Soon a town band arrived, with brass and cymbals and drums. They follow the procession, set up in the community and play all day and evening and probably the next day too.
Leaving the church for the procession, one young woman carries the santo, while another carries el niño, baby Jesus.
A host community must invest a tremendous amount of money, time and other resources in this fiesta, including a bull to be ritually killed, then roasted and served to the hundreds of participants. A community leader is designated the prioste, or steward of the fiesta. The man on the right, holding his baton of authority, is this year’s prioste. Fireworks, or rather bombas that split the air with a tremendous boom! all day long, are also important. The man on the left is in charge of the explosives. His job is to find a safe place to let them off, asking folks along the procession for permission to set them up on their property.
Rukuyayas, or clowns hired for the duration of the event, play an important role in the fiesta. There are usually two or three or four, and they stay in character the entire time, with masks and crazy clothing. They carry chicotes – short decorated hardwood batons that are a traditional weapon of the Cañaris – and pretend to hit one another and chase onlookers. Although I might know them in everyday life, I can never figure out their real identities. (Only once did a friend take off his mask at the last day to show me who he was.) They act out physically in humorous and vulgar ways that I never see otherwise in this indigenous culture. There’re lots of sexual and scatological jokes – both verbal and physical – played out in hilarious scenes.
They always target me, the gringa, yelling things I don’t understand, making everyone laugh, and threatening me and asking for money. Usually I run and hide behind an older woman in an exaggerated way that the audience loves, but sometimes I give one of them a coin, which he holds up and prances around and crows about. The rukuyayas also drink liberally and as the festival goes on, day and night, they get increasingly plastered, sometimes passing out amidst the activities, taking a snooze, then jumping up and joining the festivities again. I hope they are getting paid well because they work tremendously hard.
Rukuyayas are also ritual objects in the cosmology of Cañari cultural that I’ve never clearly understood. Some say they represent abuelos – grandfathers – or sabios – wise men – or protectors. In the museum in Guayaquil a few weeks ago, we saw hundreds of little figurines called rukuyayas – described as talismans or accessories carried to guard against malas energías. I await more information. Anyone?
News of Michael: He loves to grill on the open fire – shrimp, pork, chicken, vegetables – and he has built or bought various devices over our years in Cañar: a portable grill for the front porch, where the wind blew smoke back into the house; a rack to go into the fireplace, which works beautifully but means he has to tamp down the fire, cook on it, then build it back up. A half-barrel thing with a rack he bought last year… So, during the months in Portland he was dreaming of, and designing, a cook shack to be built behind the kitchen, out of the wind, where he can grill in all weathers. Here it is taking shape.
That’s all for now. Next time: a cooking shot and a recipe.