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Fiesta de la Mama Negra

The Fiesta of the Mama Negra (the Black Mother), which takes place biannually in the city of Latacunga, is one of the most fascinating cultural events in Ecuador.

This public celebration of civic pride rivals Brazil’s festivals as an emblematic “melting pot” of wildly divergent cultural traditions: Spanish, Inca, Aymara, Mayan, African and, most recently, homosexuality.

The fiesta originated with the colonization of Latacunga by the Spanish for its rich mineral resources. The native inhabitants were forced to convert to Catholicism, but the conversion was not entirely pure, with the result that indigenous elements, such as a polytheistic belief in “spirits,” became part of the new religion.

The Spanish conquerors brought in additional populations from Bolivia, Guatemala and ultimately Africa as slaves, and they too, brought their own beliefs and traditions to Latacunga.

What set the holiday in motion was the eruption of the Cotopaxi volcano in 1742. The citizens of the region petitioned the Virgen de la Merced (Virgin of Mercy), who had been designated the patron of the volcano. When Latacunga was spared, an annual celebration was set in place to honor her. The festival was traditionally held during the last weekend in September. It was on the verge of dying out in the early 1960s, until Cotopaxi Governor Virgilio Guerrero proposed preserving it by hosting a dual celebration of the festival with Latacunga's official celebration of the city’s independence on November 11.

The now-official holiday had the ironic effect of reviving interest in the traditional religious celebration of the Virgen de la Merced on September 23-24, which is when the first annual Mama Negra festival takes place. However, the larger and more colorful celebrations are in November. Dates vary from year to year—sometimes coinciding with Latacunga's independence day and sometimes with the days surrounding Day of the Dead—so be sure to ask around. The event constitutes a parade of characters, such as the Angel of the Stars, the Moorish King and Los Huacos, who represent Latacunga’s pre-Columbian heritage, and the Camisonas (colorful transvestites), in a parade that attracts many, including dancers, musicians and marching bands, all leading up to the arrival of the Mama Negra, who is a combination of the Virgin with African deities. The Mama Negra, bearing dolls representing her “children,” is elaborately costumed, and performs by spraying milk and water on parade goers.

Candy and wine containers are also tossed to the crowds, and restaurateurs feature Latacunga’s most famous contribution to Ecuadorian cuisine, chugchucaras: deep fried pork, pork rinds, popcorn potatoes, maize and plantain.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Ecuador: Good Friday, Carnaval , Ceremonia de Reseña o Vísperas, Holidays and Fiestas, The Day of the Dead in Ecuador, New Year's Eve and Fiestas de Quito.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
17 Sep 2012

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