March, 2006

— The City of Oruro

The city of Oruro dates to 1606, built to support the silver mines in the surrounding mountains. It has seen several periods of boom and bust over the centuries as silver mining collapsed and resurged. In the early 1900s, tin mining created a new boom and Oruro prospered. The miners became an important political force, leading a revolution in 1952. By the 1980s, the price of tin collapsed and Oruro's fortunes went down again. Today, it is just a shadow of its past glory.

Oruro is built on the altiplano, right at the edge of the mountains. Although most of the city is fairly flat, the area near the Socavón rises up quite steeply (see photo #1, at left). We stayed at the International Park Hotel, built above the bus station. It is located very near to the beginning of the Carnival parade route. We arrived a few days before Carnival started, and walked much of the parade route as workmen were setting up the bleachers that line the entire distance. They even concreted over the train tracks that run through the street; the concrete is dug up again after Carnival is over.

One day we had lunch at a restaurant that was near the Labor Department central office in Oruro. The sign in front of their office is a memorial to Che Guevara, who died in 1967. Che came to Bolivia in 1966 to start a revolution that he hoped would spread to all of South America. However, he was unable to attract any support from the local people, and his revolution was a failure. He was captured by the Bolivian army and executed. Ironically, he is revered today by many Bolivians. The quotation on the sign, "Prefiero morir de pie que vivir siempre de rodillas", means "I prefer to die on my feet than live forever on my knees."

— Carnival costumes

An important part of our trip was to document the changes that are occuring in the costumes people wear during the Carnival. Over time, each group finds ways to embelish, modify, or otherwise improve their costumes and masks. Other groups follow, and the costumes change. New innovations are superceeded by newer ideas, and old ideas come back. We spent two days visiting costume and mask makers to see what they are making (photo #2). We, of course, couldn't tell what was new and different, but Cynthia would spot the slightest change from previous years. And, the craftsmen were happy to tell us what they were doing, and why. Some of the changes come from the costume makers, some from the dancers. It was all very interesting, and we could hardly wait for Carnival to begin. Here are Paul and Mary Lynn Engel taking a break in front of one of the many interesting doorways we saw along the streets of Oruro.

There is so much subtle detail in each costume. Some of the patterns have great symbolic meaning and others are just decoration. Much of the detail is so small, and so complex, that it is impossible to see as the dancers go whirling past during the Carnival parade. And yet, you would notice the lack of detail if it weren't there. Another interesting aspect of the costumes.

Santuario del Socavón

The Santuario del Socavón (Sanctuary of the Mineshaft) has a fascinating history. An abandoned mineshaft was being used by a bandit named Chiru-Chiru as his hideout. He was shot in a battle with the authorities and beld to death in the mine. As he was dying, he repented his crimes after seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. After his death, a picture of the Virgin was found painted on the wall of the mine near his body. In 1781, the church was built above the mine to honor the Virgin of the Mineshaft. The church has been much modified and added to over the centuries, and was beautifully restored in the 1990s (photo #3). The image of the Virgin is now painted on a wall behind the church altar. A large square, called the Plaza del Folklor, is located in front of the church. It is the end of the Carnival parade route, and is decorated with brightly colored drawings each year.

We bought tickets from the nuns to visit the museum that has been created within the mineshaft. We descended a long stairway at the back of the church and walked through the ancient mine. There are some exhibits of mining tools and equipment. We found the most interesting object to be El Tío de la Mina, a statue of the "Uncle" who is believed to rule the underworld and who owns the mine. These statues are found in mines throughout this part of the Andes. The Tío seems to be a combination of pre-Columbian mountain gods and the Christian idea of the devil. Although the miners don't actually call him the devil, they seek to pacifiy him to prevent bad accidents from occurring underground. They make offerings of alcohol, coca leaves, and tobacco. It is said that the miners pray to God on the surface, and to the Tío when in the mine.

Of course, once we finished walking through the mine, we had to climb back UP another long set of stairs. As you may have guessed by now, we had a hard time of it in the thin air. Working in the mines would have been impossible for us. And, in fact, the Spanish attempted to bring black slaves from lowland areas up to the mountains to work in the mines but had to give up the idea. They simply died in huge numbers as they were unable to work hard and survive at this elevation.

— Street dancers

On one of our trips through the city, we came upon a large crowd of people in traditional costumes. They completely filled the narrow streets, and water balloons were flying overhead from time to time. (photo #4). We don't know if they were practicing for the Anata Andina, or if this was their chance to dance. We followed along for a while to watch and photograph them and their costumes. The people were very passionate about their dancing and the music they were playing. They danced with abandon and great energy, while we could barely walk in the thin air.

dancer   |   group   |   musician

— The Anata Andina

Until recently, the local people would dance at the end of the Carnival parade. This often meant that their turn to dance would not come until long after midnight. So, there is now a special day set aside for them, called the Anata Andina. As with the Carnival parade, the Anata Andina ends at the Plaza del Folklor (photo #5).

Each group represents their village or region. They dress in their best clothes, dance through the streets to the plaza, and put on a dance performance there. The men play traditional music on flutes and drums and the women carry bags of produce on their backs. Many groups made traditional offerings as part of their presentation. They often had to be forced to stop dancing and make way for the next group. Jim took video of the dancing at the plaza, and Jamie took these still photos:

dancers   |   dancers   |   band   |   flute   |   bear   |   flag   |   audience   |   child

On Saturday, the main Carnival Entrada begins. The costumes are much more elaborate and fanciful and the bands are bigger and more professional. But the Anata Andina is probably a lot closer to the origins of Carnival, at least in this part of the world.

— return to the 2006 Journal Archive.