Thanks to support from the Hemispheric Institute, we are now proudly able to present this site dedicated to the research, participation and continuation of fiestas, religious manifestations, and carnivals of devils dances in the Americas. We understand this playfully nefarious figure of the devil as metaphorical to the fiesta event itself. Its specialty: turning the politic, altering the stakes and injecting humor, danger and devotion. 

As it appears in cartoons, on billboards, in songs and speeches the devil holds political weight alongside religious beliefs invoking war, fears and the social and political cache of demonization. Religious manifestations and fiestas that are sketched in this site throughout the American hemisphere help to untangle and nuance the charge of the devil figure itself, situating it historically, and drawing common throughlines from the systems of production, communities and beliefs that surround these performances.

There is no doubt that the devil figure is symbolic, spectacular and political, but what makes these devils festiveis, quite simply, the roles they play in fiestas, carnivals and other celebratory contexts. At times, they parody threats to church, state, or other institutions. Sometimes, they are allowed periods of free play before being reined in by existing authorities; at other times, they sustain a resistant challenge to official order. Almost always by adding a comic note to their masquerade, they render the monstrous familiar, even if also at times frightening. Under whatever auspices they appear, and however they differ in style or appearance, festive devils not only present challenges to existing order. Devil performances emerge from and affirm an alternative order or cosmology that configures both the nature and the function of festivity and of the carnivalesque.

The project of festive devils aims to better understand this popular figure by providing links and resources to its actual manifestation in various locales throughout the Americas. Comparisons can be drawn from this material such as between the devils of the Pacific coast in Mexico that perform El Juego de los Diablos and that of the Caribbean Vejigantes of, say, Loiza (Puerto Rico) or the northwest coast Dancing Devils of Venezuela. These phenomena are not isolated within national boundaries. Instead, they mark the diasporas that formed them such as Afro-descendent communities throughout the Caribbean that have networked and transfered traditions over centuries. In the Andes, another kind of devil emerges, one with grand, golden head-pieces, long, curved and unwieldy horns and regal attire. In carnival performances and popular fiestas like Burning Man in the United States or Trinidad Carnival, other devil figures become visible. Some wear suits and ties, some dress in rags, are painted blue, red, black and other colors; and, at times they represent real dangers, fire and the power of elemental destruction.

This pantheon of festive devils leads us to largely unrecognized histories and part of our work as scholars, activists and practitioners is to embolden these lines of historical and present knowledge. The focus on festive devils embraces contradictions and daily tensions and routines that surround their production. We're not interested in structurally or categorically containing the devil figure. We believe they are highly symbolic and very often carry with them the charges of 'evil' and 'play' along with honor, faith and collective action that diffuse the binary of good and evil.

We also believe that there are modes of production underlining each of these manifestations that equally contribute to the interpretation of festive devil performances. For example, there are the 'lone devils' like the devil of Cumaná (Venezuela) that appeared for forty years every year during carnival and town fiestas painted in black with ferocious fangs and bat-like wings. The devil of Cumaná worked from a kind of psyche-theatrical clown model, one whose method serviced to 'entertain' and the demand was made even higher for diabolic extravagance. Even with assistants and children making their devil wings to follow along, this production differs from, say, the collective performances of the Diablos Danzantes just a few hundred kilometers down the coast. There, in the devil dances of Naiguatá, or further west along the coast of Aragua, the festive devil is performed as a communal religious manifestation—one conducted by multiple participants each contributing to major aspects of the event with processions through various altars, costuming of several hundred dancers, rehearsals, and group choreographies often attracting thousands of devotees. Events such as these affirm a communal bond by its producers that, like the Cumaná devil, draws in participants and observers to a particular regional history and tradition. However in this case, the collective stands as the benefactor and progenitor often reasserting communal values and systems of hierarchy that parallel and sometimes invert regional political systems. Whether performed as the lone devil or the collective devil dances, these repeated systems of production replant the seeds of culture and societal values.

Several initiatives among the working group on festive devils have sought to better recognize what these performances tell. There is a book project underway featuring approximately a dozen essays that explore the relationship between these performances and issues such as markets and commodities, race, gender and ethnicity, transnationalisms and religion. There are also events in which scholars and practitioners may meet and collaborate. This web site is one such initiative first proposed in 2009 at the Hemispheric Encuentro in Bogotá. Thanks to funding from the Hemispheric Institute in 2010, and a research fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, we are now able to debut this portion of our project. 

As you view this site, we invite you to comment and share experience you may have of devils in popular fiesta. The blog is open to participants who sign in as a member of the site and represents one of the many ways to broaden the discussion among organizers, festival attendees, dancers, producers, scholars and artists. The calendar page is designed to provide a forum for members of the festive devils research group, as well as for the general public interested in attending performance events. Event organizers may post their events and comments on the calendar page and/or in the blog. The map and profile sections of this site refer to general resource information that covers only some of the festive devil occasions in the American hemisphere. There are hundreds if not thousands that take place throughout the world. What we do hope is that within the areas with which we are familiar, we may begin to take seriously a repertoire of performance, and a vital figure within it, as crucial to understanding the human condition.

 

-Angela Marino
 Web Site Editor



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