Intangible Cultural Heritage Site since 2001, the Devils of Oruro take place south of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Even if it is true that the devil has Catholic influences, it is nevertheless rooted in pre-colonial indigenous traditions of the Uru Uru (hence the name of Oruro). Its origins go back to Wari (god of the Uru Uru) who lives underground and who is a manifestation of the fire god associated to volcanic activity. This god is also related to the “uncle of mine,” to whom the miners traditionally respected and feared because he both protects and endangers the lives of miners, as well as hides treasures while allowing miners to find the best veins. This god is called “uncle” perhaps by modifying the Castilian word “god,” and perhaps because the miners consider him as part of the mining family. In the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Augustinians who brought a strong devotion to Virgin Mary, particularly to Virgen de la Candelaria, a religious syncretism developed which enthroned the Virgin not in order to neglect the worship of Wari but to affirm it and seek to assure its continuity into new forms and new religious and social dynamics. Not surprisingly, the Virgen de la Candelaria Oruro is known as the Virgin of the Tunnel.

The veneration of the Virgin of the Tunnel has developed hand in hand with stories that tell of the noble deeds of the Virgin during the colony. One of them claims that a group of miners trapped in a mine invoked her and miraculously a gap of air and light opened. Another story was told by the priest Eleuterio Villarroel. It says that the Virgin helped to save the brave and daring Chiru Chiru, who was a thief who helped the poor. According to these stories, each Saturday of the carnival (just before Ash Wednesday) the city dresses up and dances to honor the Virgin. The Dance of Devils basically represents the struggle between good and evil using Christian figures of the Archangel Michael who fights against the evil forces of Lucifer, as it was indicated in the report submitted by Ladislao Monte Alegre in 1818.

The main characters have grown over the years. By the nineteenth century there was the Angel (a white-faced character, who dresses in a white silk blouse, short skirt, and holds a sword and a shield), Lucifer (the fallen angel), the Chinas and the Devils. In the twentieth century Satan was added who is second in command of the evil forces and responsible for directing the choreography. The Chinas were divided into Chinas Supay (Lucifer's inseparable companions, whose task is to offend the Angel, and which name, Supay, comes from the god who tried to eliminate the Uru Uru by sending the Condor), and the Chinas Diablas (carriers of the sin). Some other characters have appeared: the Condor, the Jukumaris (mythological beings who abduct maidens), the bears (an evolved version of the Jukumari), and 'death.' In the early years of this century, the Naupan, the Virtues and the Temptations have appeared as well.

Dance is usually accompanied by various types of music, among them the March of the Orders, the Diablada (the Devils' dance properly speaking), the Mecapaqueña, the Eastern Carnival, the Cueca, and the Cacharpaya. According to Julia Elena Fortun, dance choreography has several versions but nevertheless it usually consists of seven movements one of which is known as the 'ovillo' that consists of a spiral made of dancing devils around Lucifer and Satan (who are lifted on their shoulders to make speeches or tell a story, dialogue, or be applauded), and the star, which represents the devils' rebellion against the Angel and their defeat by the Angel who enters victorious and triumphantly addresses the public.[i]

It is worth noticing that the Diablada is not only a dance but also a ritual. As John Caudio Lechin has indicated, the devils dance seems to challenge the angel who guides them, yet yield to be taken to the churchyard of the Virgin of the Tunnel temple where they will be inevitably defeated. This is how, after dancing, jumping and seducing, the tired and drunk dancer goes to the atrium. Throughout the dance, "from the very confines of his body [the dancer] has not stopped babbling: I have to beat my body so the Virgin wins. My body is the body of the Devil, China Supays's body ... it is only by wearing it down, by fatigue and alcohol, by the excess, and by Virgin and the cross's guide, I can defeat them and make them expiate the penalties they have inflicted on me."[iii] This is how, exhausted but having defeated the evil, guilty perpetrator and abusive body, the dancer takes off the mask as if in a beheading of the devil and triumphantly holds the mask in hands while walking to the altar where he shows obedience, ends his effort, and makes amends with this enduring struggle.

Regarding the dress, the devils of Oruro initially carried a handkerchief in hand, a skirt of 5 leaves, a swath-like money belt, a scarf across the back, canvas boots, wig and a devil mask adorned with snakes, toads and lizards. Later some changes were included, among them two handkerchiefs on the back (in each side), other colors in the boots, a spur and a scarf embroidered with animals that is worn on the right wrist. People have been interested in introducing pre-Columbian images in an attempt to emphasize that, although the dance is of colonial origin, there are figures and symbols that date back to pre-Columbian times.

It would be insufficient to speak of the Devil of Oruro without attending to the devil's masks. They are made of plaster, beautifully decorated and constructed with an internal lighting system to show them off at night. It is said that Paria, a town near Oruro, was the place where people responsible for making the masks lived, who inherited and passed Spanish and indigenous craft practices. In particular, it is said that it was there where Santiago Nicolás, the best known mask makers in the region, learned and developed the most beautiful masks between 1885 and 1920. By 1930, according to data collected by Ulpian López, these masks did only represent the elders of the community who used  to  predict the time and would indicate the time to plant. Yet, it was the miners who wanted masks to represent the Uncle of the mine. Over time, people asked to include elements of the Wari's myth, resulting in masks as they are currently known. Hence the mask and the handkerchief on the right hand that some believe signifies the plagues that Wari sent against the Uru Uru: lizards, snakes, ants, and frogs. Oruro's masks collect different traditions and are a clear example of cultural syncretism. For this very reason, it is important to underline that these changes in the masks that took place in the early twentieth century, according to López, was developed along with the influence of a handcraft Asian tradition brought by workers who arrived to work in the mines of Oruro. It might be how the lizard became a dragon.

The Devils of Oruro have adopted elements of other regions and other celebrations and have also expanded in various regions of the Americas. This hybridization has resulted from, and fueled, a dispute between Peru and Bolivia on the origin of the Devils of Oruro. Southern Peru and northern Chile are places where what is now known as the Devils of Oruro are practiced most prolifically. Oruro's Devils have also spread through the creation of masquerades in countries such as Argentina, USA and Austria.

 

 

[i] Fortún, Julia Elena (1961). “Actual coreografía del baile de los diablos” En: La danza de los diablos. La Paz, Bolivia: Ministerio de Educación y Bellas Artes.

[ii] Lechín, Juan. “El sinuoso, el culpable, el agresor y el abusivo.” Arcadia. No. 2 Marzo 2006. Pág. 12

 

Interview: Claure, Javier. “Bordadores y mascareros de Oruro. Entrevista  a Fernando Flórez. (http://www.margencero.com/articulos/new02/carnaval_oruro.html)

 

 

 

2011 Devils of the Americas. Some rights reserved.

 

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