Argentina’s Andean carnival

An ancient harvest festival with its own devil.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
In Argentina’s northwestern provinces, and in Jujuy and Salta in particular, there is an annual festivity that is more eagerly awaited than others. For the Andean peoples of the Puna highlands and the canyons and valleys that are still rich in pre-Hispanic traditions, that festivity comprises the carnival days and nights they dedicate to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
For more than a week in February, from the moment that a little doll representing the devil is enthusiastically retrieved from beneath the Pachamama’s stone altar on Carnival Saturday, to the following Sunday when it is reburied until the following year, everyone has permission to do whatever he or she pleases, including run off with somebody else’s spouse. Hiding behind a mask, a costume or a covering of talc or flour helps maintain anonymity. Some people will see this as an incitement to sin, and others as freedom to be oneself for a few days. Whatever one’s feelings about the matter, the enjoyment that the Andean peoples associate with the fertility of the earth has long been one of the major attractions of Carnival in northwestern Argentina and in certain regions of other countries that underwent Spanish colonization 500 years ago.
… foto CARNAVAL trajes BLOG. jpg …..
As opposed to the European-inspired festivity of large groups of well-trained dancers who parade with impressive floats in front of crowds in many Argentine cities, Carnival in the rural and mining communities in the northwestern corner of the country is a harvest festival in which common people dance; they do not perform for an audience. They don’t even rehearse; they dance to have fun and honor the Pachamama. The carnival dance groups, or comparsas, do not compete with each other for status or money. Each town has two or more of them, and each has its own altar with its respective "Devil."
Although some provinces are attempting to attract tourists to these community events in an organized manner, Carnival in this part of the world is still a basically religious event that thanks Mother Earth for a good crop year and asks for happiness and health for all in the future. For a few days, people leave their drab everyday lives and get together to have fun in towns.
In Jujuy, the most important carnival festivities from a tourist’s point of view take place in Humahuaca, followed by Tilcara, Purmamarca and Uquía in the Humahuaca Valley, and in Abra Pampa and La Quiaca in the Puna highlands. In Salta, a relative newcomer to the divulgation of this type of carnival, the places to go are the mining towns of San Antonio de los Cobres and Tolar Grande in the Puna.
In the indigenous community of Amaicha del Valle in Tucumán just over the border from Salta, Carnival takes place within the framework of the National Pachamama Festival, held in February.

The Fortines
During the nine days of Carnival, several families establish fortines ("forts") in their homes; i.e. they provide a place for all and sundry to eat, drink and be happy. A big lunch is followed by a party with dancing and more drinking. Actually, it’s a potluck lunch, with guests contributing different victuals to be shared. But it is free, and a tourist can join the party in a fortín. Just enquire in the street about the location of the nearest such place, and state your desire to the host. And be prepared to be received with talc and streamers, and be offered lots of alcohol. The only requirement is that you enjoy yourself and show it. Upon arrival you will be given a "vacuna" (vaccination), a cocktail of sweet alcoholic drinks that wards off bad feelings like envy and jealousy. Immediately thereafter, the fortín rules will be read to you: worry is a no-no and diversion is a must. If you infringe the rules you will undergo a fusilamiento (execution by firing squad), consisting of being given a glass of wine and seated in a visible place until you drink it.
… foto CARNAVAL comadres BLOG.jpg … The Andean Carnival has four stages – two warmer-ups, the main event, and the last act. First there is a Jueves de Compadres (Mens’ Thursday) during which the menfolk get together and sing or talk about the good and bad things that happened to them during the past year. This year, it took place February 4. The Jueves de Comadres (Women’s Thursday), February 11, is considered an even bigger attraction, perhaps because females are cattier than men and are often wont to say what they really think of their neighbors on this occasion.

The Desentierro
The main event is the Desentierro (Disinterment) when the "Devil" is unearthed from where he was interred the previous year, and the aforementioned carousing begins. This year, the date is Saturday February 13. The procedure is the same everywhere. Each comparsa walks from their headquarters or meeting point to a pile of stones, (mojón, or altar), which is usually located on the outskirts of town. Each member of the group takes a stone to leave on the pile. The stone is an offering to the Pachamama. (A stone left on one of the many similar piles (called apachetas) along drovers’ trails in the mountains is also an entreaty for safe passage.)
… foto CARNAVAL apacheta BLOG … Everybody decorates the altar with sample of their agricultural produce or various other trimmings. At the base of the altar they dig a hole into which everybody places a bit of food or drink, or perhaps a lighted cigarette to share with their nature deity.
… foto CARNAVAL corpachada BLOG … Finally, the devil doll is unearthed from beneath the altar, a large group of howling youths dressed in devil costumes comes rushing in, and everybody joins hands to dance around the altar.
…. foto CARNAVAL público BLOG … Quite a few use spray foam aerosols instead of four or talc, and some visitors don sieve masks for protection.
… foto CARNAVAL colador BLOG … That evening, the comparsa people go from house to house, where they sing and dance, and are served drinks.
Many will cry real tears during the final act, when the Devil doll is buried Sunday February 21.
(Ideally, tourists who wish to accompany, watch and/or participate in the last two activities should ask the comparsa leader for permission in advance.)

Who is that devil?
Like many other popular festivals in the Andes, Carnival is a product of religious syncretism in which ancient local deities became Christian virgins or the devil during the colonial period.
The harvest festival thanking Mother Earth for the multiplication of crops and livestock, which forms the core of the Andean Carnival, was celebrated long before the arrival of the conquistadores, who enslaved indigenous people in mines in the Puna and on plantations in the jungle areas of the region.
Given the nearness of northwestern Argentina to the major Bolivian mining cities and the constant movements of transient workers across the border, the Andean Carnival in Argentina is influenced to a certain extent by Bolivian carnival characters, in particular the figure of the devil presented by the showy Diablada dancers of the Oruro Carnival, famed for their devil masks and costumes.
However, the role played by the devil in carnival festivities appears to change according to the dominant economic activity of each area.
The Bolivian devil character harks back to Huari (Wari), an Andean god of who lives in mountains and mines. He is the guardian of mineral wealth and is associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. He is good to humans if propitiated, and very mean if he isn’t.
After the Conquest which imposed large-scale gallery mining, Huari became el Tío (the Uncle), the owner of the ore veins who must be placated with alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes in a special place in the mine shaft. According to Bolivian mining tradition, priests are denied access to the place assigned to the Tío.
The characters played by the Oruro Carnival dancers represent figures from Bolivia’s pre-Hispanic and colonial past, and several of them are villains.
In Bolivia Huari/el Tío is a fearsome character, but in the Humahuaca Valley, where the climate is more favorable to agriculture and life is easier that in the mining towns of the Puna, his resurrection in the form of a devil doll once a year brings joy, and his burial draws tears.

PHOTO CREDITS: The pictures that illustrate this article were taken by the author during carnival in Uquía, Jujuy in 2001.