"Oh Devil's Carnival
Return to us and return to life
And with your flaming tail
Come to enlighten my mind,
So I can escape this predicament,
This black and hard trance
That I will penetrate"

                  Carlos Martínez “Tantínez” legendary Devil of the Carnival


Every two years, the town of Riosucio, in the mountainous and coffee-producing region of Colombia, prepares to receive His Majesty, the Devil. Starting the Thursday before the Feast of the Kings, January 6th, and during six days, people from Riosucio join this traditionally Catholic religious fiesta in practice for over two hundred years to celebrate the arrival of the playful, "talkative" and mocking character of the Devil.

The Carnival's Devil has become a symbol of reconciliation between two peoples. It owes its history to the war waged between the The Mountain reservation and Quiebralomo reservation in the nineteenth century. The first was under indigenous control. The second was under control of Germans who brought black slaves to work in gold mines in the area.[1] The people of both reservations were ordered to move to a zone near Río Sucio (Dirty River), and thus began a dispute over the territory and a mutual exclusion that brought about the construction of two temples in two zones: one known as Temple of San Sebastián, located in the "upper" part of what is now the town of Riosucio where the whites from Quiebralomo lived, and the other known as the Temple of Our Lady of The Candelaria, in the "bottom" part of the town where indigenous lived.[2]

In 1846, both reservations came together under one administrative district, Riosucio. But this union did not actually took place as a bamboo fence was installed between both zones so noboby pass to the other zone.[3] Even today, Riosucio still has two churches and two main plazas divided by a street.

The official origin of the Carnival has been stated to be in 1912. According to people from Riosucio, the devil was born to bring both communities together. In fact, it is said that “because God could not join the communities it was the devil who did”,[4] and that is why their origins are related to the end of a lengthy dispute. It is also said that the devil was born from an image that used to be on the fence in order to threaten anyone one who intended to cross the border and trespass the territory of the other community, which gradually became an object of play and mockery.

The origins of the Carnival's Devil are diverse and are related to several discourses on the identity of people in Riosucio throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Historian Nancy Appelbaum identifies three distinct narratives that correspond to three periods in the history of the region: an indigenous narrative of mid-nineteenth century, a narrative of “racial whitening” corresponding to the first half of the twentieth century, and a narrative of “mixed race” that follows what some believe to be a more racially inclusive model of nation that started to consolidate the 1991 Constitution.[5]

Currently, people from Riosucio characterize themselves and the Devil as mestizo, and hence its 'uniqueness'. They say that, from the natives of the Mountain reservation, the devil has inherited the spirit of fun and mockery, a worked-up spirit by guarapo (an alcoholic drink made of cane) and the music. From the enslaved Africans of Quiebralomo mines, the devil inherited the rebel and playful spirit (which takes us back to those festive times when slaves dressed up and “whipped” their masters with cow bladders, a practice that still takes place in the Carnival). And from Catholic "Whites," the devil inherited the iconography, the horns, legs, and sometimes the red color.

The Devil is the central character of the Carnival of Riosucio, which has been called  (especially by the media) “Devil's Carnival,” despite the fact that many people of Riosucio consider this a misnomer. Instead, for locals, the figure of the devil is considered a catalyst for many other actos matachinescos (buffoonery acts) that are essential elements of the carnival, and among them, the Word, a device by which people establish the festive ritual.

In each of the acts of the Carnival, social criticism, censure, derision are staged by “decrees” (texts in verse) and lyrics made by cuadrillas whose origin is attributed to the gangs of miners. Six months before the festival, the Word takes dominion of the town by means of actos matachinescos, “preparatory” journeys called “Setting up of the carnival Republic”, “decrees”, and “convite” (bands of dancers that go around the town to announce the carnival two weeks before its start date).

During the six days of carnival, people from Riosucio and thousands of visitors from all over the country join the Carnival, especially since it was declared a Cultural and Intangible National Heritage. The night of the Devil's Entrance and the day of the Cuadrillas' Parade are the acts that attract the largest number of people. The Devil's Entrance is a parade that moves through the main streets of town with a large effigy of the devil and arrives to the site of the Temple of San Sebastián at the top of the mountain. There the effigy remains for the duration of Carnival. That night, the “Comité de Matachines” (Committee of buffoons) greet the Devil, welcoming him while the devil 'himself' gives a speech about the Carnival.

In the cuadrillas' parade hundreds of people from Riosucio who live year round all around the world reunite to sing carnival songs. Cuadrillas are groups made of about ten to twenty people dressed in colorful and elaborate costumes who walk throughout the town voicing various messages, some very critical and others intended to be social ridicule. Throughout that day, cuadrillas (which can, at times, number thirty or more) visit the cuadrillera houses, which are the houses that belong to the most well-known and wealthy people of the town and are located around the two plazas. They present on the "platforms" or on stages built just in front of the devil, where they sing familiar songs with improvised lyrics while dancing and showing their costumes.

These fiestas are also places for a series of non-official events such as the gathering of traditional musicians, the carnival of the Indigenous, and the Parade and Burning of the Diabla (female devil), that are distant from the institution of the Carnival, but are increasingly gaining more strength and support. The diabla is a symbol of an alternative carnival that was originally promoted by marginal sectors of Riosucio (called themselves "The gang of the 30”) that until a few years did not officially participate in the Carnival. The events of the Diabla carnival have received strong support since they decided to burn the effigy of the diabla as a symbol of protest against the Board of the Carnival in 2007.

Even if the diabla was born about thirty years ago as the mistress of the devil, and was initially a “dummy” several meters high that looked more like a Barbie-doll than a devil, it was only until “the gang of the 30” took the images of “mamacitas” (hot girls) who appear naked in yellow press and popular calendars that the diabla has assumed the form of a giant red devil with black boots, white wings, breasts exposed, long blond hair, and arms always open.

The figure of the devil has become controversial over the years, not only within the official Carnival but also within the academy, which has sought to define this phenomenon especially from a gender perspective. It is worth underlining that this new figure is the symbol of “the gang of the 30,” mostly made of men and where women, most of them prostitutes, are called “diablas.” At the beginning, the gender discourse was not intended by the gang, but over the years, members of this group have incorporated such discourse to vindicate, not really the women but the gang itself as a marginal group. The Carnival is clearly a scenario where the tradition is alive and contradictory itself, as well a it happens between the discourses that circulate within it.


-Laura Sánchez García



[1] It is worth noticing that blacks do not actually live in Riosucio, but in the nearby small towns of Supía and Marmato.

[2] Appelbaum, Nancy, “Historias rivales: narrativas de raza, lugar y nación en Riosucio”, in: Fronteras de la Historia 8, ICAHN, 2003

[3] Interview to Alberto Ospina, Carnaval's Mayor during 1970s and 2011, January 2007.

[4] ïbid.

[5] Op. Cit. Appelbaum, Nancy, p. 115

2011 Devils of the Americas. Some rights reserved.


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