Bolivia’s Carnaval: Spanglish Ojos Blue

Updated: Oct 10, 2019

Melanie Anastacia Van Allen




Bolivia’s Carnaval: Spanglish Ojos Blue


Bolivia’s most anticipated cultural event of the year is Carnaval in Oruro, which has a lengthy historia and has taken many forms throughout the pre-colonial and colonial eras. Oruro is in the region of the central Bolivian altiplano, which is closely identified with its mining industry and the Indigenous cultures residing there. Nearly one million visitors travel to the sleepy mining town every February to witness the incredible pageantry of dance, music, tradición, religious conviction and profligacy. Now, don’t get it twisted. Just because the festival is steeped in religion doesn’t mean that la gente act like saints. Everyone drinks…mucho. This is counterintuitive, but somehow in the Bolivian culture, it makes sense. They take this event so seriously that almost all of the retail stores and professional oficinas close down two days before, and dos days after Carnaval. La Paz, for example, is the largest cuidad in Bolivia and during Carnaval it is an eerie ghost town. Almost everyone has dipped out to Oruro except the grubby bastards who hang around the calle corners to pelt people with shaving cream and water balloons. Um, like, get a vida. Stay with me, this will sort of make sense later. The purpose of the festival is to celebrate (drink) and to observe the customs, deities, and religious practices of the Uru Uru people. They are closely related to the Aymara and Quechua highland people and currently reside in Oruro and the regions near Lake Titicaca. During the 17th century the Spanish forbade their rituals and beliefs, but they continued camouflaged as Catholic liturgy. Escucha, besides the excessive drinking, this is another pervasive theme of Carnaval. Andean deities were transformed into Christian images and worshiped as Catholic santos. This form of syncretism is persistent throughout the spectacle and extends into the ideologies behind all of the bailes performed.


On paper, this is a hygienic and linear summation. However, Carnaval is dirty, saturated with spirits (the kind you drink and the kind you pray to) and resists Western systems of logic, language, performance, space, and time. Meaning, you can’t fully understand Caranval through one lens, especially a gringa one. Therefore, looking to the colonial histories and legends surrounding Carnaval is one way to understand its important place in Bolivian culture. Another way of understanding Carnaval is experiential. Being in the middle of the frenetic spectacle puts the colonial historia and legends into a different perspective, as they are embodied in every flash of vibrant color, sound, and acción. Carnaval democratizes the scene by blurring the historical lines between colonizer and colonized. Bakhtin would dig this mucho and refer to this lack of hierarchy as a “temporary suspension”, which offers a momentary liberation from the prevailing verdad and established order.(Bakhtin 1965,10). This is not a show, but puro spectacle. It’s a modern day Bacchanalia. This egalitarian nature of Carnaval resists the hegemonies of language and palabras, offering the dancing bodies agency to mimic and subvert the “power” that El Capataz had over the Indigenous. One doesn’t need to be educated in Carnaval’s colonial history in order to enjoy the spectacle, however, in order to comprehend the profound conotaciones of the divine debauchery, you might need some schooling on the matter. Having that conocimiento provides a very different experience of Carnaval. However, being an interloping alien, with mal Spanish, of Bolivian culture brings another diferente experience. No sé.


Busted Spanglish, Challary Tinku


650 Bolivianos= $100 US. Private coach bus from La Paz, a bilingual tour guide, unlimited cerveza and VIP seating 20 feet above the main street of Plaza 10 de Febrero. It’s early afternoon and the procession has not officially begun. The trek up the stairs to reach the “VIP” section reveals Carnaval’s resistance to efficiency, as the rickety metal infrastructure was quite unstable and not easy to navigate. The seating area was sort of bleecher-esque, with a MacGyver aesthetic. VIP what? Mierda! This is a fucking lawsuit waiting to happen. Before I even get to my seat, others from the tour are already crackin’ the tops: Paceña, Huariy Taquiña. Drinking alcohol at the elevation of 12,159 feet above sea level has physical implications for peeps not fully acclimated. But, that’s not really a consideration; it’s part of the equation of Carnaval. Seco! Perched with my bird’s eye view, I begin to imagine what the dances will look like when they come down the street and wonder if the vibration of la música will transport to my voyeuristic vantage point? Other questions begin to formulate: ¿a que hora does Carnaval officially begin? (No one knows.) What is the “show order?” (Nadie sabe.) There is no printed program or information available to guide an outsider…me:una solita American Gringita, con ojos blueish-green, y locks rubios, with busted Spanglish, on how the spectacle unfolds. I forget how to say bathroom. I panic. I remember: baño. ¿Donde esta el baño? (It’s down the rickety-ass stairs) Muy bad! Are you kidding me?

As the first dance group, a Morenada, rounds the corner, people begin to fill the empty spaces by flanking both sides of la calle. Sidebar: the Morenada is a danza telling a story about African slaves brought to Bolivia. The masks worn during this dance are exquisitely ornate with exaggerated features that mimic the colonial rule of the Spanish. Blue ojos with shady-ass smiles. The gargantuan tongues protruding from darker masks represent the physical toll the extremo altitude and harsh environment the silver mines had on the slaves, who were forced to work in horrible conditions. The dancers carry a percussion instrument, a Matraca, which references the sonido of the slave’s bound feet. The dance is complicated; it celebrates Bolivian nationalism while mocking those Spanish diablos. Back to la calle. There are bleacher seats on the street level as well, and from my vantage point they look just as “safe” as the metal slats I am sitting on. Even though they seem haphazardly conceived and constructed, they are somehow working. This is also another equation of Carnaval. Mira! Don’t let appearances fool you. The energy from below begins to build as well as the amount of alcohol being consumed. Seco! Seco! The VIP seating situation is getting attention from below, receiving looks, gestures, and unintelligible utterances. Crema de shaving is flying from the street; I am totally amazed at the precision and range the bottles have to project la sustancia blanca up to our realm.


Many comparsas (dance fraternities) have passed down the street and it seems that Carnaval resists grouping dances into any formulaic order, at least that my Western basis could decipher. As Tinku begins to round the corner, Oye! It just got real.Perched from my bird’s eye-view, in the distance, lines of Tinku dancers round the narrow city street corner, situated in perfectly straight lines. The dance is framed by the shape of the city street, by the large advertising banners hanging from the streetlights above, promoting the official cerveza of Carnaval (Paceña), and by the large, boisterous crowd surrounding the street on both sides. As the brass band starts to play the music of the Tinku, the dancers’ postures grow taller and their feet start to slowly march in time with the beat of the drum. The rhythm provides a means to tune or unite the energy of each dancing body. As each line begins to advance forward down the street, in perfect synchronicity of the drum, the collective nature of the Tinku starts to take shape. The trajectory of the Tinku rarely travels backwards, due to the sheer number of dancers in each comparsa.


The quick and dirty on the Tinku: In the rural highlands of Bolivia, a very pequeño population of Indigenous peoples engage in an annual ritual, called Tinku, where men fight each other in order to shed sangre for Pachamama. They also engage in slinging rocks, at a very close proximity, to further insure that someone will be bleedin’ out. The blood seeps into the earth; Pachamama takes it as an offering of respect and reciprocity. She then will provide a fruitful harvest for the coming year. From this ritual, the Tinku as dance was born. The movement and gestural dynamics directly reference the fighting techniques and cosmology of the ritual Tinku. However, in the dance, you won’t see anyone getting literally beat down in the street. The movement patterns reference the Indigenous cosmology of dualism and symmetry as the abundant use of repetition, mirroring, and inversion is utilized throughout the choreography. As the music builds in volumen and melody, el ritmo of the percussion propels the dancers forward, while executing movements that imitate the combative nature of the ritual Tinku, such as forward punches, deep lunges, and powerful kicks: a Bolivian Fight Club. Step forward, forward, forward, clap, stomp, punch, clap…step forward, forward, forward, clap, stomp, punch. They also reveal the fuerza of unity in forward motion, which connects to the subversive nature of Carnaval. As each line travels down the street, it is followed by another line that is in complete synchronicity with the previous. When the speed of la danza accelerates, the lines charge forward at a faster rate. The crowd responds; it’s a deafening sonic rumpus. I see the first water balloons start to fly. ¿Qué fue eso? As a spectator, this powerful trajectory creates a temporal vacuum, as the sheer amount of dancing bodies and their frontward movement seems never-ending. It reveals un espacio that blurs the margin between past and present; a space that colonialism could not fully eradicate. I step down to the lowest level of the bleechers, getting as close to the movement as posible. I have been exposed. “La rubia gringita arriba!” Water bombs are thrown intentionally at me. Mas shaving cream. More water balloons. Shaving cream mixed with bright colored confetti. I bob and weave. Counter-defense. Ducking and retrieving their failed air strikes and chucking them back forcefully. Hoooold up! One balloon gets me, exploding on the right side of mi cara. Mother beeatches, carajo! That fucking hurt! This confrontational nature of the audience grew in occurrence with every group that passed down the street. In order to watch the combative nature of the Tinku, I literally had to be on the offense. Fighting not to get hit by the water bombs, which was interestingly metonymical. The balloons referenced the rocks that are flung between the opposing parties during the actual Tinku battle ritual in the highlands. It was meta-magic. We were teleported to the highlands. In that moment, Tio Supay also showed up. I can’t be mad at those folks down low. They were just offering me some Challa love. It’s all starting to feel right, but I don’t understand a thing. No entiendo.


The texture of Carnaval has changed; a delightful mingle of cerveza, shaving crema, confetti, silly string, Challa water, and most likely urine has coated the city street. It’s dirty, muy sucio. Diablada rounds the corner. A sea of exaggerated bright blue eyes are coming at me. The dance has a clear narrative that pits good against evil, in the Christian sense. The star of LaDiablada is the Archangel Michael as he takes out an entire legion of devils. The masks of the Diablada amalgamate Christian iconography with the Indigenous cosmology. Most of the highly ornate masks pair the horns of Tio Supay, or depending on whose history you are following, the Devil, with a large set of European ojos azules.I am seeing my European roots coming towards me. Doble conciencia. The mask is polysemous; it performs elements of the Indigenous cosmology, resistance against colonialism, and mimicry as strategy. The dominance of colonial power is disrupted and displaced in a constructive manner. Mimicry consists of a “double articulation: a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power (Bhabba 1984, 86). This double vision manifests as metonymy. A rhetorical strategy that describes something, indirectly, by referencing what is near it. Like, Yo pienso that it’s all coming together, maybe.


El Backstory


According to a legend, there once was a well-known crook named Chiru Chiru, or sometimes known as Nina Nina, who would steal from the rich and give to the poor; an Incan Robin (the) Hood. One night he attempted to rob a traveler, resulting in a violent altercation, which left him seriously injured. Immediately after, LaVirgen de la Candelaria (Virgin of the Candle Mass) appeared and carried him back to his abode in the mineshaft. While he lay on the floor, the virgin absolved him of all his sins, forgiving all transgressions, until he eventually died. When the miners found el muerto the next day, they discovered a miraculous mural of LaVirgen had been etched into the ceiling, directly over where Chiru Chiru had died. Today the virgin is known as La Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft) and the sanctuary Santuario de la Virgen del Socavon was built and placed directly over the mural to house and protect the virgin. She is the patron saint of Carnaval, and the city of Oruro. She’s so boss. In order to participate in the procession, a solemn promise of faithfulness to the virgin must take place in Santuariode la Virgen del Socavon, pledging to dance in Carnaval for three consecutive years. The end of the parade route leads back to the gates of the sanctuary. Entonces, it is required that all dancers finish Carnaval by entering on their knees to ask the virgin for absolution of their sins and to express gratitud for the blessings she had bestowed upon them. Interestingly,Carnaval also pays homage to two notable divinities from the Andean cosmology. Pachamama, (Mother Earth) who is the highly revered goddess of fecundity and Tio Supay (Uncle Satan) who owns the mines in Oruro and rules the underworld of Ukhu Pacha. The miners feared that Tio Supay would become engulfed with jealousy because all the adoración and celebration was in honor of the virgin and Pachamama, so it was declared he would be honored as well. Ego masculino. Whatevs. There is a shrine figure of him deep in the mineshaft where the miners give their offerings. Alcohol (Chicha) and coca leaves are sprinkled (challa) meticulously around the base of the shrine. A lit cigarette is placed in his boca to ensure he will protect and keep the miners safe while working deep in the earth. (Challa: a fusion of the Quechua words Ch'allay and Ch’allakuy meaning the action to tenaciously sprinkle, or to give something water.) Tio Supay was not viewed as a diablo/diabolical entity until the Spanish arrived. Just because he happened to have two horn-like appendages on top of his cabeza and chillaxed in the depths of the underworld doesn’t mean he rolled with the Prince of Darkness and the Christian pantheon.


According to the Indigenous people’s cosmology,Pachamama hungers for blood, for all her recursos that have been taken and those she will give during future harvests. The Spanish feared this tremendous feminine power and transposed her into the Virgin Mary. No hay problemo! The Conquistadors saquearon and raped anything they could: people, rituals, places, and even the Cerro Rico. The Indigenous people were forced to work in the silver mines with atrocious working conditions, proving to be fatal. Most died due to cave-ins, explosions, toxic fumes, asbestos, and mercury poisoning. Maldito. Over 45,000 tons of silver was mined and of this total, 9,000 tons were allocated for the Spanish Monarchy. Pachamama wants reparations. So does Bolivia. Though its natural resources are almost completely depleted, the mountain provides the backdrop for Carnaval’s procession. A symbolic house containing las leyendas and history of colonialism, as well as the reveared presence of Carnaval’s all-star trinity.


The Mirada


In the 12th hour, most of the peeps from my tour are beyond drunk/farreados. Seco! Seco! Seco! I make my descent down the rickety steps, which are totally covered in who knows what at this point. The incessant Challa agua bombs have little effect on me. I am covered from head to toe in all of the viscous wonders Caranval has to offer. On the coach bus back to La Paz I realized the politics of la mirada not only shape Carnaval, but are pervasive throughout the whole spectacle. The virgin watches on high, from the safety of her sancutario as the bailarines enter her domain on their knees. Tio Supay, watching from abajo, is looking up at the action and must be revelling in the vibrations emanating from the unremitting stomping on the city calles of Oruro. The Cerro Rico in Potosi, forever rooted with its sad, depleted eyes sees the entire spectacle. Pachamama’s ojos are everywhere but nowhere, similar to the estructura of a Panopticon. (Hey, Foucault!) By looking at my blue eyes, the spectators of Carnaval reduced me to my genotype, which denoted my geographic nationality, my Gringitaness. I saw, in the sea of brillante blue peepers, my familiar lineage to Europa. The colonizing gaze extends from the past to the present. La mirada está everywhere: high, low, dentro, outside. Nadie escapes the gaze at Carnaval. The double articulation of consciousness is abounding, para todos. It es difícil to neatly put into language, pero, on the micro; this is what Carnaval is really about. Dancing bodies perform the double consciousness of the Indigenous Bolivian culture, looking at themselves through the ojos of the Other. They masterfully flip the script on this issue by the pervasive use of highly ornate, exaggerated masks. They reclaim their gaze and project it back onto the spectators. Who’s the colonizer now? Its deep. On the macro, Carnaval is exceedingly sensorial: palpable but furtively intangible. In other words, all of your sentidos are ablaze, but you are not exactly sure as to what is going on.


Bakhtin, M. M. 1965. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T.

Bhabha Homi, 1994. The Location of Culture. London; New York: Routledge.


#bolivia #lapaz #lapazbolivia #carnaval #oruro #pachamama #dance #tinku #morenada #diablada #colonialpast #syncretism #doubleconsciousness #spanglish

Copyright © Melanie Anastacia Van Allen