Carnival 101: Oruro, Bolivia!

These are excerpts pertaining Bolivia, from an interesting book about the history of the Carnival in the World [if you want to read the whole paper, please use the link provided at the end, thank you]:

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This teacher curriculum guide was developed in conjunction with the traveling exhibition ¡CARNAVAL!, that was produced at the Museum of International Folk Art in collaboration with the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

¡CARNAVAL! highlights living Carnival traditions in eight different cities and towns in Europe and the Americas where this festival is an important part of community life today. In Europe these sites range from the small rural village of Laza, Spain to the larger cities of Venice, Italy, and Basel, Switzerland. Two of the selected sites in the Americas, Oruro, Bolivia, and Tlaxcala, Mexico, are Indian/mestizo communities where aspects of indigenous religious beliefs and ritual have been merged with European Carnival festivities. Three other sites, Recife and Olinda, Brazil, Port of Spain,Trinidad and Tobago, and New Orleans, U.S.A., are larger metropolitan cities where a variety of cultural traditions, deriving from European, African, Native American, and other ethnic groups from around the world, are brought together, reflecting the make-up of societies throughout the Americas today.

Teachers can integrate the study of Carnival traditions into their classroom curriculum as an entry point to begin the study of different cultures, or to complement other areas of study regarding those cultures. Developing one’s own Carnival with

students will enable them to identify with the different groups presented in the project as well as explore issues of individual and group identity, artistry and self-expression.

This introductory section gives an overview of the selected communities, goals and objectives, brief summaries of the history of Carnival and Carnival today, essential ques- tions for discussion that can be adapted for specific sites, and National Content Standards for Fine Arts, Music, Dance, Theatre, Social Studies, and Language Arts.

The following eight sections of the guide examine the celebration of Carnival in different communities in Europe and the Americas, including the history of Carnival and masquer- ade traditions for each site. Questions for classroom discus- sion are included, in addition to the sections of Vocabulary, Interdisciplinary Connections and Resources.

The final component of the guide, Carnival Activities, includes suggestions for planning and presenting Carnival processions, masked balls and individual and group projects. Directions are included for making a variety of objects related to Carnival: masks, costumes, giant puppets, floats, illuminated lanterns, simple musical instruments, and banners. Also included are recipes for traditional Carnival foods, suggested music and dance activities, and directions for writing satire.


Carnival in Eight Communities Today

For all participants – rich or poor, young or old – Carnival provides the opportunity to play – leave the everyday world, become someone else, and behave in unusual ways. Imagine you are taking part in a Carnival celebration. In Laza, Spain, you might throw dirt and ants at your neighbors, in Venice, Italy, you become an 18th-century count, while in Basel, Switzerland, you wear a masquerade protesting the spread of mad-cow disease.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in Recife and Olinda, Brazil, you are the queen of a royal court, in Tlaxcala, Mexico, you burlesque as a French dandy, or in Oruro, Bolivia you take on the guise of a dancing devil. In Port of Spain,Trinidad and Tobago, you strut down the street as a fancy sailor, while in New Orleans, USA, you blacken your face, put on a grass skirt, and throw coconuts to the crowds.

This guide provides windows into eight communities in Europe and the Americas where Carnival is a high point of the annual cycle. We see people who have dedicated much of their lives to planning, creating, practicing, and carrying out the festivities. Through their masquerades and performances we learn about the history and cultural traditions of the various regions. For many revelers it is a time to make fun of others and express social and political criticism. We observe Carnival participants as they relieve tensions and bring a sense of renewal to themselves and their communities. At the same time we gain a better understanding of the importance and function of Carnival play.

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Watercolor by Melchor María Mercado
La Paz, Bolivia, 1859
Photograph courtesy of Peter McFarren, Quipus Cultural Foundation, La Paz

After Bolivia gained its independence from Spain in 1825, native Andean people were freer to participate in Carnival celebrations. Indians living in urban centers, such as La Paz, adopted European-style clothing for everyday and festival dress. Others from rural communities joined Carnival festivities playing Andean pan- pipes and wearing traditional costumes, such as the large feathered condor outfit shown here.

Origin of Carnival

Carnival, Carnaval, Carnevale – What is the origin of these words and the rowdy festivals associated with them? The earliest mention of a Carnival celebration is recorded in a 12th-century Roman account of the pope and upper class Roman citizens watching a parade through the city, followed by the killing of steers and other animals.The purpose was to play and eat meat before Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Catholic Lent – the forty-day fast leading up to Easter.The Latin term carnem-levare – to remove oneself from flesh or meat – was used to refer to the festival.

The pre-Lenten celebration grew in popularity over the next few centuries, spreading to other European cities and rural communities. Italians eventually shortened the name to Carnevale – flesh farewell – and the word was translated into Spanish and Portuguese as Carnaval, into English as Carnival, and into German as Karneval. Other terms are also used for the festival such as the English – Shrove Tide (fasting time), the German – Fasching (fasting), the Swiss-German – Fasnacht (night before fasting), and the French – Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). All of these names allude to the feast before the fast and many 16th and 17th-century celebrations included a mock battle between Carnival and Lent which symbolized this transition.



Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 8.22.37 AMOruro, a mining town in the stark altiplano region of Bolivia, 12,144 feet above sea level, was founded in 1606 by Spaniards as a base for exploiting rich mineral deposits in the surrounding hills. Aymara and Quechua people of this area were already working the local mines and became laborers for the Europeans. Spanish priests introduced Christianity, encouraging Indians to perform their traditional dances and songs for the Catholic saints’ feast day observances. By the mid-18th century carnaval became an annual event in Oruro. As Indian laborers joined the celebra- tion, city officials made efforts to control rowdiness by naming the Virgin Mary patron saint of the festival.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 8.23.56 AMAfter Bolivia gained its independence from Spain in 1825, upper class citizens of Oruro largely ignored the indigenous population and each group had its own Carnival celebration. In the 1940s, with the rise of a socialist movement in Bolivia, members of the upper class came to view the Indian lifestyle and culture as the model for an idealized society. The Indians’ processional dance dramas and masquerades were now seen as national folk- loric pageants. Upper and middle class citizens began to form their own dance groups modeled after those of the Indians and the two separate Carnival celebrations in Oruro were combined into one.Today the costumes and performance themes of the various groups reflect diverse aspects of the cultural history of the region, making Oruro’s Carnival one of the most impressive festivals in all of Bolivia. [TIN MINE IN ORURO AREA Oruro, Bolivia, 1997 Photograph by Barbara Mauldin]


A number of Oruro’s dance troupes are known as diablos or devils.The origin for this type of masquerade dates back to 1790, the year after the Virgin of the Mineshaft was named the patron of Oruro’s Carnival celebration.The Indian miners feared that their deity of the underworld, Supay, would be jealous of the attention being paid to the Virgin so they decided to honor him during the festivities as well. Since Catholic priests had told them that Supay was the devil, the miners joined the Carnival procession dressed as diablos. Over time ornamentation of the devil costumes and masks came to include fanciful images of ants, snakes, lizards, and frogs – Andean symbols related to healing and witchcraft. Costume makers have transformed traditional snake motifs into Oriental-style dragons on the intricately embroidered breastplates and capes.

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The processional dance drama known as the morenada began in 1913. It commemorates the sacrifice of enslaved Africans who worked alongside Indian laborers in the Bolivian mines and later on lowland plantations. Different characters appear in the groups including black slaves, slave drivers, and Spaniards, each with their distinctive mask and costume. Dancers do a lugubrious sideways step and carry matracas (noisemakers), which imitate the men dragging chains bound to their legs.

Caporales take their name from the corporals or foremen who brutally oversaw the gangs of African and Indian laborers during the colonial period. The aggressive, highly choreographed performance of the male and female dancers reinforces this role, using music derived from Afro-Bolivian percussion rhythms. The beat is accentuated by strings of bells worn on the men’s legs, a practice also borrowed from Afro-Bolivian traditions. The majority of young men and women who belong to the caporales groups come from upper class families and can afford to hire costume designers and seamstresses to produce new outfits each year. These groups take their dance performances seriously, practicing all year round to try to outshine the other troupes participating in the Oruro procession.

Tinku refers to an ancient type of ritual battle still carried out among some Bolivian Indian communities in the regions of Norte de Potosí and Sur de Oruro.Their energetic dance steps are meant to imitate some of the traditional moves used in the ritual battle.The female tinku Carnival costume is based on festival clothing worn by young Indian women living in communities in
the central region of highland Bolivia.The tinku men’s costume includes a goathide helmet, traditionally worn in the Indian communities to protect participants’ heads during the fighting.

Pujllay, a Quechua word for play, is the name of a large festival that takes place in mid-March in the Indian community of Tarabuco, located near Sucre in the southern part of Bolivia. The beautiful festival clothing and traditional dances associ- ated with the pujllay festival have been adopted by some of the Oruro Carnival groups who create an impressive sight as they move down the procession route. A few performers also play four-foot long wooden flutes.

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 Carnival Events

The indigenous people of highland Bolivia were mining the hillsides for hundreds of years before Spaniards came into the region. They believed that one of their deities, Supay, lived underground watching and controlling activities that took place there. The spirit’s attitude depended on proper respect, so workers made offerings to him in the mineshafts. When Catholic priests discovered this devotion to Supay they called him the devil and put horns on his images, but miners continued to wor- ship this spirit throughout the colonial period and still do today. In the mines around Oruro, the Friday before Carnival is a par- ticularly important time to honor Supay and miners gather to sacrifice a llama and place offerings around his shrines.

On Saturday the main event, the Gran Entrada de Peregrinación, begins about nine in the morning and continues for sixteen hours. Catholic priests followed by altar boys swing- ing lit incense burners lead the long procession which includes miners, dignitaries, and dance sponsors carrying a glass case con- taining a statue of the Virgin of the Mineshaft. The oldest diablo dance group (conjunto) then begins the parade. More than forty groups, each accompanied by bands, dance the entire parade route uphill through town, about 35 blocks, more than three kilometers, finally arriving at the plaza in front of the church of the Virgin of the Mineshaft.

In 1789 the Catholic Virgin of Candlemass reportedly performed a miracle in a cave near one of the mineshafts in Oruro. She was then named the Virgin of the Mineshaft, protec- tor of the mineworkers, and the patron saint of Oruro. Her feast day of February 2nd fell close to the time of the annual Carnival celebration so she also became the patron of these festivities.Today participants in the Saturday procession make a promise to the Virgin to perform for three years in exchange for her blessings. Many larger dance groups also decorate automobiles with silver objects, woven cloths, and statues of the Virgin as an offering to her.

Sunday is considered to be a more casual day; the groups dance in a different order, and not everyone wears their masks. Once again, the procession ends up in the plaza where an out- door market is set up for food, games, and shopping.

On Monday of Carnival week townspeople construct a tunnel of wooden arches (arcos) on the plaza in front of the Sanctuary to the Virgin of the Mineshaft. Each arch is draped with brightly striped woven cloths and hung with silver urns, plates, cutlery, and coins, creating a colorful and shimmering passageway for people to walk through to honor the Virgin and receive her blessings.

Tuesday, called martes de challa, is a private, family affair.The day is devoted to festive family meals and the offering of ch’allas, again for businesses and homes. In addition to foods and beverages, ch’allas include confetti, colorful streamers, and mesas, flammable sheets of paper covered with objects that represent prayers and requests. People also drive their new vehicles to the plaza in front of the church and toss beer and confetti over them before the priest blesses them.

The final celebrations of Carnival take place on the following Sunday, a date based on the old Catholic calendar in which Lent begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. On this day, local residents gather on nearby hillsides which have rock formations in the shapes of snakes, lizards and toads. To bring prosperity and good luck, people decorate the rock formations with paper streamers, build tiny houses near them, and shake beer foam over them.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 8.34.16 AMVocabulary

altiplano: high plateau region of Bolivia.

api: hot purple corn drink.

caporales: Carnival dance groups based on colonial foremen in charge of slaves.

ch’allas: ritual offerings.

churros: crispy fried dough strips.

conjunto: dance group.

diablos: devil dancers who honor Supay, the Andean spirit of the mine.

entrada: opening day of Carnival.

Gran Entrada de Peregrinación: grand opening day parade/pilgrimage.

matracas: noisemakers carried by the Black Men groups.

mesas: burned offerings made of flammable sheets of paper covered with special herbs and sugar plaques and small lead pieces that represent things people want to acquire such as love, money, or cars.

mestizo: of mixed ancestry.

morenada: processional dance drama of the Black Man groups.

Pachamana: the mother goddess or earth mother of the indig- enous people of Bolivia.

pujllay: performance groups that wear costumes based on festi- val clothing of Indian groups in southern Bolivia.

quirquincho: armadillo-like animal that is the mascot of Oruro whose bodies are used as noisemakers in the processions.

Supay: Andean spirit of the underground viewed as patron of the minerals in the mountains.

tinku: performance group that carries out dances based on mock ritual battles.

Virgen del Socavon: Virgin of the Mineshaft, protector of mine workers and patron saint of Oruro and the Carnival.

Questions for Discussion

✔ The people of Bolivia are very proud of Carnival in Oruro. What events are people proud of in your state or community?

✔ The costumes in Oruro are all based on local stories or legends. What story would you like to tell through a costume?

✔ How do the devil masquerades reflect the history of Oruro? What do they represent? Do you think they are funny or scary? Why?

✔ Many children participate in Oruro’s Carnival, dressed in smaller versions of adult costumes.Why do you think they are included? What will they learn from the experience?

✔ What special foods are eaten at Oruro’s Carnival? If you have attended a pre-Lenten Carnival, what foods did you eat there?

Lead a discussion, using the vocabulary words, about the tradi- tions and practices of Carnival in Oruro, both past and present. Students can keep journals recording their impressions of the different Carnival communities as they learn about them. Direct students to find the location of Oruro on a world map.What distinguished Oruro’s geography? Is there any relation between Oruro’s landscape and where the students live? Play the ¡CARNAVAL! video section on Oruro and display and discuss the study prints. Encourage students to ask and discuss their own questions. See the Activities Section for specific mask, costume, and noisemaker activities.

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✔ Have students develop and present a processional dance drama based on the history and culture of your state.


✔ Have students map a procession in their community.Then they can determine the actual distance that the participants will travel during the celebration.


✔ Have students listen to and reflect on Bolivian music.
✔ Locate and demonstrate playing a zampoña (zahm-PONE-

yah), an Andean panpipe made of rows of dried bamboo.

✔ Help students to make their own panpipes. Directions for making a panpipe from PVC pipe are found at the website listed below.

Social Studies

✔ Have students research the history of Bolivia and mining in the Andes.

✔ Direct students to discover the role of the Indians and the enslaved Africans under Spanish authority.

✔ Have students explore the relationships of different cultures and religions in Bolivia. Why did the same people make offer- ings to Andean gods and the Catholic Virgin Mary?

✔ Provide recipes and help students make churros to eat. Ask students to bring in festival foods with which they are familiar to share with the class.

✔ Have students conduct research to determine which cultural groups contributed to the history of their community.

✔ Check your state’s social studies standards to find connec- tions with the history of the Spanish arrival in the Americas.

Language Arts

✔ What are the Spanish names of the masqueraders? What do the names mean in English?

✔ Have students write a story from the point of view of a child participating in the procession.

Online Resources

The Bolivian Educational and Cultural Network. Music of Bolivia. 1998. (31 January 04).

Center for Andean Ethnomusicology. 2001. http://www.pucp.

Templeman, Robert W. “Panpipe Music of Bolivia.” Ethnomusicology@CCM. 2002. http://worldmusic. woodbury.htm (31 January 04).

Books for Adults

Klein, Herber t. Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Nash, June. We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Overbeck, Alicia O. “Bolivia, Land of Fiestas.” National Geographic 66, no. 5 (1934): 645-660.

Samaké, Cynthia LeCount. “Dancing for the Virgin and the Devil: ‘Carnaval’ in Oruro, Bolivia.” Barbara Mauldin, ed. ¡CARNAVAL! Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. pp. 173 – 202.

Books for Children

Chandler, Clare. Carnival. Brookfield, Connecticut:The Millbrook Press, 1997.

Music Recordings

Bolivia: Panpipes/Syrinx de Bolivie. UNESCO. 1993, 2000. compact disk 8009.

Peru & Bolivia:The Sounds of Evolving Traditions. Music Earth. 1997. compact disk 3009.

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Andes. World Music Network. 1996. compact disk 1009.

SPONSORS CARRY BANNER FOR A MORENADAS GROUP Oruro, Bolivia, 1997 – Photograph by Barbara Mauldin

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Elsbeth Vocat says:

    Reading the interesting text of CARNAVAL, I found a big mistake about the masks of the Fasnacht in my hometown: “while in Basel, Switzerland, you wear a masquerade protesting the spread of mad-cow disease.” This looks like a joke; the masquerade is traditional in Europe, and especially in Basel the “icognito” of the participants is a must. See
    The approximately 18,000 active Fasnächtler dress up in a wide variety of costumes, including a mask known as a Larve. Participants are completely covered and remain incognito during the festivities; it is considered highly inappropriate to identify oneself. Members of the various Cliques wear uniform costumes that fit a specific theme, except during Morgestraich and on Fasnacht Tuesday. Costumes can commonly represent famous persons, such as politicians, or even comic characters or animals. More traditional masks recall Napoleonic soldiers, harlequins (Harlekin) and the famous Waggis.”

    1. Great observation regarding Basel. I encourage you to write to the Museum, I looked at their web page and I believe you could write to: Aurelia Gomez, Director of Education, email:

  2. Mis conocimientos del ingles no me permiten explicar lo que significa la masquerada en el Carnaval de Basel. Los grupos de Carnaval escogen cada año un tema politica o social conocido por el público para luego satirizarlo, no se trata de protesta, sino de presentarlo de un modo humorístico. El disfraz garantiza el anonimato de la persona y le permite emitir criticas aún duras contra politicos. Esto se nota especialmente en las canciones llamados Schnitzelbank presentados al público en restaurantes etc.
    El Carnaval de Basel no es costumbre religioso, siendo la ciudad un lugar no catholico.
    He visto que tambien existe justamente la costumbre de satirización en la cultura aymara; el baile de los doctorcitos (auki auki) y la Waka Waka son ejemplos claros.

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