Carnival in La Rioja

A festival that brings people together.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Of all the Argentine carnivals with pre-Hispanic folk roots, the “Chaya” that is celebrated in the province of La Rioja in February is a perfect example of modern-day syncretism. It combines Catholic and pagan elements in a cultural product with theatrical and show biz additives. A homegrown myth differentiates it from other carnivals of this type. Here, Pachamama (Mother Earth) of the Andean Carnival celebrated in the northern provinces is Chaya, the dew goddess of the local Diaguita culture who provides the moisture necessary for life in the desert. The festivity that bears her name and delights thousands of locals centers on the unhappy love affair of the girl who became Chaya and the demigod Pujllay, who met a sorry end for not having wanted or known how to requite her love.
The Chaya is celebrated in the neighborhoods of the capital and other towns in the province. In each neighborhood, a life-size cloth doll representing Pujllay is disinterred to signal the beginning of the revelry. On Carnival Sunday, two people representing Chaya and Pujllay go through a symbolic marriage ceremony. But later, during a lively event that is reminiscent of the burning of Judas festivities so dear to old towns in Spain, revelers set fire to the Pujllay doll to free themselves of bad thoughts. In some neighborhoods the singed remains of the doll are buried afterwards. Later, partiers wash down pieces of a Guagua (a bread doll) with a glass of wine.
… foto Chaya 1 BLOG.jpg During the Chaya, riojanos also enjoy a folk music festival in the capital that lasts several nights, just like in the neighboring province of Córdoba, the national leader in the organization of such events. But this festival comes with flour. Every night, some people dance to the music, others sit and watch, and most engage in flour games. As one musician once complained: “They’re more interested in the flour than the festival!”
There are different versions as to how the mythological Pujllay burned to death, but the festival itself dates back no further than 1968, when José Jesús Oyola, a poet and musician, and later the founder of the La Rioja Folklore Association, decided that riojanos needed to be brought together in a yearly festival that sets their province apart from others. The festivity’s distinguishing features are the sprigs of fresh sweet basil that people tuck behind their ears, the rivers of wine that flow, and especially the kilos of flour and buckets of water that they throw at each other at this time of year. The performers on the festival stage also get dusted with the clouds of flour that fill the air.
… foto Chaya 2 BLOG.jpgOne way to protect your hair from the paste produced by the mixture of flour and water is to wear a wide-brimmed hat, as did former Argentine President Carlos Menem and his then wife Cecilia Bolocco several years ago.
This year the Chaya festivities took place from February 13 to 21. The folk festival, held from Feb. 19 to 22 in a stadium near the center of the capital, was attended by more than 10,000 people every night.
On February 27, the “24 Hours of Chaya” marathon talent contest for new singers and folk music composers will take place in Plaza Facundo Quiroga in the capital. As always, the winners will be chosen by the public.

PHOTO CREDITS: Youths in La Rioja pose with a Pujllay doll and a Guagua cookie. Two revelers enjoy their floury faces. Both images courtesy of Sandra Bonetto.