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More than just a big party

Tuesday January 16, 2007

Cyrilla Castel

Each year from Latin America, millions of people fill our imagination and television screens with the images of their sensational fiestas. In Bolivia, the celebrations of El Gran Poder in La Paz at the beginning of June are world famous and a great tribute to the Bolivian spirit.

Bolivia's majority Indian population holds hundreds of traditional festivals every year. Beautiful fiestas take place throughout the whole country. These smaller, more discreet celebrations are as important and magical as the ones taking place under the firmament of national and international stardom. Thousands of citizens spare a day to celebrate their patron saint, and with incredible enthusiasm reflect their religious beliefs.

Fiestas reflect the distinctive mix of the multicoloured, multicultural and multilingual Bolivian ethos. They are the spiritual science of uniting rituals, customs and tradition to modernity, and one can find in these events the identity of the people.

Culture and folklore in Bolivia have rarely been limited by norms or legislation. The dances, costumes and music are a form of entertainment, but also an obsessive quest for indigenous identity ? as well as an affirmation of the people's roots. They reflect a collective desire to know more about the country.

What is the purpose of fiestas, so numerous and cherished in each village? As for any other social group, a party is an opportunity to show off, but in these small indigenous villages, a fiesta holds a much more important role. One can only rise within a social group through the parties one can give. They are an instrument of social promotion, as well as a medium of freedom of expression, as they were during the Spanish conquest, the colonisation and under various dictatorships.

For a young man, the celebrations are time to show off strength and courage to the opposite sex. In Huni, a small village nestling at the foot of Mount Illimani, a few kilometres from La Paz, the fiesta of San Geronimo is a great affair of colour and music. A Portuguese-style bullfight, where the beast is never injured, takes place on the hill with Mount Illimani as a stunning backdrop. During this bullfight, young men show their courage to the assembled women, watching from the top of colourful trucks. The scares and screams are numerous, as well as the smiles and discreet flirting between the two parties. Further away on the hills, each house hosts a party ? the more ostentatious the better, as it shows the money spent and the popularity of the owner. With a bottle of Huari in their hands, bands and dancers go from one party to the other.

These events last one or two days and display a great deal about the Bolivians. Although the parties are organised with great care and carry a strong message among the population of the communities, they nevertheless remain spontaneous and authentic.

According to Yolenda Mazuelos, a respected Bolivian sociologist and traditional dancer, the cultural heritage in Bolivia has not yet been adequately recorded or documented. There is a risk of losing the fragile symbiosis of these events in favour of promoting tourism. She sees a trend of standardising this popular art form in order to commercialise indigenous heritage; real, rural folk do not recognise themselves in the Carnival of Oruro or the Gran Poder celebration in La Paz. These large-scale productions have lost touch with their original meaning and cultural significance.

Tourism should respect traditional and indigenous culture. There is a need to research and educate, to go back to the original art form in order to preserve the country's heritage. This is the mission of the young people in Bolivia. Meanwhile, the traditional fiestas of Bolivia celebrating their village patron are worth discovering. Click here for a list.

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