Carnaval in Oruro, Bolivia is one of South America’s largest. Its participants cram the streets with often glitzy interpretations of Andean religion entwined with Roman Catholicism, playing out at 12,000 feet above sea level. Almost 400,000 people flock to the arid city on Saturday, but the Thursday before a very different festival takes place. It’s the Entrada de Anata, devoted to the mother of time and space, the Pachamama, and in 2015, it was attended by just over 100 highland indigenous communities.
Color, spectacle and sounds are everywhere as the Anata transforms the city into an indigenous space, taken over by nearly 10,000 people from babies to 85 year olds. Hardly a western instrument is in evidence, but instead the sharp-angled notes of hundreds of tark’a flutes ring out as dancers twirl around the musicians. Flowering plants representing the coming harvest – from potatoes to quinua to herbs – sprout from the multicolored carrying cloth known as aguyos and often from hats as well.
The spectators are almost all of indigenous origins themselves. “I’m a retired street seller,” says Juanita Martínez. “I watch every year with my grandchildren. My parents came from one of these communities and it makes me proud to see our culture celebrated here in the city.”
The night before is a fair of regional foods. “We have typical dishes from all over the region,” explains Aurora Condori, one of the vendors. “They are based on llama, lamb, fish and quinua.” That night a festival princess, called the Ñusta, is chosen to lead the Anata parade the next day.
The annual celebration is organized by the FSUTCO (Federación de Trabajadores Campesinos de Oruro), which since 1979 has incorporated 150 indigenous governing organizations known as ayllus under its wing. The Federation is also the sponsor of Radio Emisoras Bolivia, the country’s oldest indigenous radio station. It first held an Anata in Oruro in 1993 to bring positive attention to indigenous culture and peoples and to counter the racism and discrimination rural peoples faced whenever they came to the city.
The Anata’s origins are far older than the 22-year-old celebration in Oruro’s streets.
“My whole village comes to show off our music and dance to the world,” says German Bustos of Sebastian Pagagdor province, one of 16 in Oruro. “It is part of our obligation to our community if we own land there.” The most famous participant is Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, who comes from Orinoca, one of the communities on parade. He makes a point of attending the festival every year.
The Anata’s origins are far older than the 22-year-old celebration in Oruro’s streets. Historically, the ritual gives thanks to the Pachamama in recognition of the close relationship between humans and nature. In pre-colonial times, and still in some rural communities, the Anata involved a ritual blessing of the early potato harvest towards the end of the rainy season. The Andes is the home to the potato, with almost 4,000 native varieties, according to the International Potato Center.
Nowadays, on the Sunday after the Oruro Anata, communities hold their own celebrations. Just outside the mining town of Huanuni 35 miles south of Oruro, six local ayllus met at the confluence of two rivers. “This place is sacred to us. We come here to honor the Pachamama,” explains an older man.
Several hundred dancers and musicians gather in their community colors, playing and dancing to another rainy weather instrument, the pinchillo, to encourage the rains to continue. Close by young men with hard helmets of stiffened cowhide engage in ritual fighting known as the Tinku.
But despite this display of tradition, things have changed. The dominant language is now Spanish, not indigenous Aymara or Quechua, and most of the younger men are dressed in jeans and running shoes, rather than homespun valeta pants and abarca sandals. The majority of the dancers and musicians are over 40 with a few younger people scattered here and there.
“We were born here,” says 58-year-old Carmen Vicente, who lives in the sprawling largely indigenous city El Alto, “and so we come back every year. To celebrate our place and remember the culture of our childhood.” Only seven families live year round in Carmen’s nearby home community, Villa Apacheta. The rest are in the city, or work in the nearby Huanuni tin mine.
The older people show a fierce determination to keep the traditions alive despite the widespread move to the cities. “We do this for future generations,” says Felix Muruchi Poma who is in his late 60s. “So that we don’t forget who we are.”
Linda Farthing is co-author of three books on Bolivia. The latest is Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change (Texas 2014).