|For a few days out of each year the quiet, colonial backwater town of Paucartambo comes to life. It is suddenly overfilled with thousands of visitors, spectators who come to see and be a part of one of South America’s most vibrant and fascinating fiestas.
For five days, ( starting on the 15th of July), thousands of devotees hold festivals in honor of the Virgen del Carmen, known locally as Mamacha Carmen, patron saint of the mestizo population. Dance groups, all magnificently masked and costumed in accordance with their respective customs, accompany the Mamacha in a huge parade, gaily dancing down the city streets. Behind them the entire population of the town gathers quietly, forming itself into a pious mass bearing candles, flowers and other offerings. It is a colorful mix of Andean pre-Columbian ceremonies and Catholic religion in which many ancient gods and rites are honored.
The Virgin del Carmen (the virgin of Mount Carmel) is a particular apparition of the Mother of Jesus. Images of the Virgin always show her dressed in brown and tan, wearing a flat crown, and holding the Infant Jesus; both of them hold scapulars in their hands. It is said that all those who die while wearing the blessed scapular of the Lady will be saved from the fires of Hell, no matter how great their sins.
The Spanish introduced the custom of paying homage to the Virgin. The festival comes from the Old World, where the Virgin was honored in seaports as Stella Maris. The tradition has its origins in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elias retreated to a cave in Mount Carmel in Israel. Many centuries later, hermits following in Elijah’s footsteps asked for the protection of the Virgin of Carmen. Mariners and fishermen everywhere soon adopted her as their patron saint.
There is a legend that tells of how the festival first came to Paucartambo: long ago, every year during the first days of July, a wealthy woman called Felipa Begolla would always come to Paucartambo to trade goods. She would come with her mule train laden with goods from her homeland, which she exchanged for Paucartambo’s produce.
One year on July 16th, while she was unpacking her bundles, Felipa found the head of a beautiful woman radiating rays of light lying among the pots and pans. When she tried to cry out, she found that she could not speak, and when she tried to run she was unable to move. Then the lovely head spoke to her, calming her fears and telling her that her name was Carmen.
Felipa put the head on a fine silver dish that she had been carrying with her to trade and, as the head glowedbrilliantly, a crowd of muleteers and neighbors gathered around it. A carpenter was commissioned to carve a wooden body for the head and, mounted on an elaborate litter, the Virgin was carried to the local church where her miraculous image was placed on one side of the main altar.
On July 16th, now the main day of the fiesta, the Virgin, beautifully adorned, is borne aloft in a fantastic procession through the streets to bless those present and scare away demons. Some of the dancers –the Saqras- in a representation of the never-ending battle between the forces of good and evil, daringly perform gymnastic feats on the housetops, showing off their colorful Inca and colonial garb while they try to seduce the Virgin, crying out as if in pain and trying to avoid her impassive stare. Afterwards, a symbolic battle is staged amongst the devout dancers and the demons, with the traditional victory of the faithful.
On the 17th, a feast is held that includes the dead. All the people of the town go to the cemetery to visit their dead relatives and friends. They carry food and drink to celebrate beside the graves.
Preparations for the fiesta begin weeks before July 14th, since, on that day and the ones that follow it, everybody is dedicated to celebrating and honoring their patron and do not have time to work.
In particular, the 16 groups of dancers, or comparsas, are kept quite busy learning and rehearsing their strict choreography over the few weeks before the celebration.
They all represent semi-mythical characters, derived from Peruvian historical folktales and legends, such as malaria victims, Ukukus (half man half bear), condor-men and warlike jungle Indians. On horseback or on foot they reel through the streets throughout the fiesta.
A few examples of the different comparsas (participants) are:
The Saqras, which are Euro-Andean devils that dress in vivid rainbow-colored costumes and elaborate animal masks. They occupy the rooftops and balconies of the town during the processions in which the Virgin is carried through the streets, vying with her for the crowd’s attention.
The Auca Chilenos represent painful memories left by the Chilean army during the War of the Pacific.
The dancers of the Capaq Negro group, one of the most elegant groups present, honor the memory of the slaves who worked in the silver mines and cotton fields during the colonial period. They dance and sing to a slow, stately rhythm.
The mischievous Maqtas seem to be everywhere at once. These anarchic tricksters are the ones who maintain order during the festivities, policing both the participants and the crowds of spectators, ensuring that whenever the Virgin is present, hats are removed and that there is a brief pause; otherwise the flow of beer is practically never-ending.