A year-end get-together

The story behind La Rioja’s Child Mayor ceremony.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
At noon on the last day of every year, the turning point in the history of the northwestern Argentine city of La Rioja is commemorated by the Lord Mayor and two religious images at the corner of the main square facing the Cathedral and the provincial Government House. The image of St. Nicholas of Bari, patron of the city of La Rioja, is taken out of the Cathedral and brought to the corner by a procession of the Alféreces (ensigns), a brotherhood representing the Spanish settlers of early colonial times. That of the Child Mayor is removed from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and taken to the square by a procession of the Aillis, who represent the Diaguita people.
The image of St. Nicholas is made to kneel three times in front of the Child Mayor, and all the dignitaries and townspeople present in the square do so as well. Then the Lord Mayor symbolically hands the keys of the city to the image of the Child Mayor, which is taken into the Cathedral along with that of St. Nicholas. Three days later, on January 3, a much simpler ceremony takes place outside the Cathedral: the Child Mayor takes leave of the city’s patron saint and returns to his place in the old Franciscan church.
The ceremony of December 31, called the “Tinkunaco” (which means “encounter” or “fusion” in the Quechua tongue), commemorates a non-aggression pact that the Spaniards and Diaguitas struck in 1593. Thousands of Indians who were fed up with the slavery that had been imposed on them by the Spanish colonists had descended on the settlement to demand the resignation of the mayor. The Spaniards were few, but they had firearms and cannon. On the other hand, the Indians were many and threatened to dam a river in the mountains to leave the city without water. Father Solano – already famous in the region for captivating Indians with his singing and violin-playing – was asked to mediate.

He told the Indians that Christ was a good person like themselves, and he scolded the Spaniards for their unchristian conduct. The Indians ended up accepting baptism in exchange for the “replacement” of the Spanish mayor with an image of the Christ Child. In 1624, the Jesuits invented the Tinkunaco festival to commemorate and institutionalize the deal arranged by Father Solano. The resourceful priest, the first New World saint, was canonized in 1726.
Must-do excursions to places not too far from the city of La Rioja: Quebrada de los Cóndores, a canyon where curious condors approach visitors,

and Talampaya National Park in La Rioja (below) and Ischigualasto Provincial Park (Valley of the Moon) in neighboring San Juan, both famed for their eroded landforms.

Information: http://www.turismolarioja.gov.ar/

PHOTO CREDITS: An antique image of the Child Mayor, and an ailli costume, both on display in the La Rioja Folklore Museum. Bonnie Tucker. Quebrada de los Cóndores (Condor Canyon), courtesy of Sandra Bonetto. Talampaya National Park, courtesy of Sandra Bonetto.