In Bolivia, the Christian festival of Carnival blends western and indigenous beliefs

World Today

Many Christians around the world are marking the final days of the festival of Carnival. One town in Bolivia blends Christian traditions with its indigenous rituals,  to produce a festival that’s become a UNESCO World Heritage event.

CGTN’s Joel Richards has details.

It may not look or sound like it, but the Oruro Carnival is starting to wind down. Celebrants are gathering to make their offerings to the Virgin del Socavon, the Virgin of the Mineshaft, who protects mine workers.

Over the weekend, musicians and dancers turned out in colorful costumes for one of the region’s most unusual celebrations. This carnival is different from others held around Latin America. Festivities for the Virgin del Socavon combine elements of both the indigenous and colonial history. Participants take part in traditional Andean rituals ahead of carnival weekend.

“We venerate the Virgin, and ask that nothing bad happen to any of the dancers,” Demetrio Alcala Ramos, a member of the group, Gran Tradicional Autentica Diablada Oruro said. “We ask the Pachamama to protect us.”

Alcala has been involved with Carnival since he was four. Almost 70 now, he’s slowing down a little, but he still enjoys celebrating.

“We do not do this so people will come to watch,” he said. “It is about our faith in the Virgin.” 

Located at an altitude of 3700 meters, Oruro was once an important mining city. The excavation of copper, silver and tin led to a thriving economy. But the Spanish mine owners tried to ban indigenous rituals and beliefs.

“The Spanish arrived and saw there was a sacred site here,” historian Fabrizio Cazorla said. “They destroyed that and in its place built a Christian chapel, but the indigenous people who worked in the mines didn’t forget their old gods and beliefs. They simply combined them with the Carnival celebration that the Spanish brought over.”

The traditional indigenous festival was transformed into a Christian carnival. The legend of the Virgin who appeared at the mineshaft became the patron saint of this city.

“The Virgin is our reason for carrying on the Andean rituals,” Rolando Barrientos, president of the Morenada Central Cocani said. “That creates a certain kind of harmony. We’ve built a magic world with the Christian religion but also Andean beliefs. It’s wonderful.”

Oruro is a city with more than 250-thousand people and mining has become less important. Now, it’s tourism that helps drive the local economy. As soon as the carnival season ends, preparations begin for next year’s festivities.