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Arts & Culture

The Black And White Carnival

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Preparing for the big parade, 2008.

The largest and most impressive festival in southern Colombia begins on January 2, and lasts almost a week. Dating back to antiquity, the “Black and White Carnival” has adapted and expanded over the centuries. Initially, the local indigenous population, the agrarian Quillacingas, would dance and sing at the end of the harvest to appease and honor the pagan gods. When the Spanish colonists arrived they introduced elements of Christianity to the celebration.

Then in 1607 an uprising of black African slaves threw everyone into a panic. The slaves demanded one day a year in which they could throw off the shackles of serfdom. The Royal Prince in Madrid granted their wish, and declared January the 5th as their free day. Already the multi-cultural party was in formation.

Now, there are pre-carnival events, such as a Water Day, which means that everyone out and about risks being drenched with water, and when the maximum temperature is 55 degrees, it can be anything but pleasant. To control the water loss--and some of the chaos--the water company now sets two days aside to perform maintenance on its equipment and seals off pipeline supplies.

The fiesta proper commences on January 2nd, with a tribute parade to the Virgin Mary. The next day is reserved for children aged six to fourteen years. The recreation of the Arrival of the Casteñada Family represents the turn of the century prosperity and the participants wear appropriate outfits. January 5th is always “Blacks’ Day” and although it’s terribly un-P.C. here in the States, in Colombia there’s plenty of black makeup and paint to go around as participants shout “¡Que vivan los Negros!” Whites’ Day follows, and for this talcum powder is liberally applied to everyone, white or not. This is also the Feast Day of the Epiphany, and includes The Great Parade, with fabulous paper maché figures and floats. Good humor, appreciation of others and joie de vivre are the hallmarks of the Carnaval De Negros y Blancos.   

Hear more about festivals happening around the world each week on World Music with Deirdre Saravia, Saturday nights at 8:00 on KSTX 89.1 FM.