As Cuencanos celebrate the beginning of the long Carnaval weekend tonight in Paruqe Calderon, old-timers recall a time when the event was much more important in the social life of Cuenca. They also remember it not just as time for fun, but also of violence and blood-letting
“Years ago, it was a bigger here,” says Angel Garcia. “The streets all over town were full of people having fun. Today, the streets are mostly empty except for the kids having fun,” he said.
He added: “But in the old days, there you also saw a lot of fighting and violence.”
Although the city government organizes a number of events, including tonight’s party in Parque Calderon, organizers admit they have a tough job competing with the lure of the coast and larger celebrations in Quito and Guayaquil. “We don’t have the commercial incentives in Ecuador that they have in Brazil, or even Quito, where millions of dollars available for Carnaval,” said Fernando Lara, who works with the city to put on a party in his neighborhood. “There is less activity out there than there once was but people still have a lot of fun,” he said.
Garcia says that one of the biggest changes is the switch from water to spray foam as the “weapon of choice” for party goers. “It used to be water everywhere, balloons and water pistols. There is still plenty of water being thrown around but most people seem to like the foam these days,” he said.
Patricio Sanchez, a friend of Garcia’s, says he doesn’t mind seeing some of the old traditions go away. “When I was a kid there were often hidden agendas when people put on costumes so they could beat up their enemies and some did it without costumes,” he said. “I remember seeing a lot of boys and men walking down the street with blood running down their faces. That was a part of Carnaval that most people have forgotten,” he said. “I am happy to say that I don’t see that anymore.”
Although some of the blood-letting of past carnavals was inspired by personal enmities, it had its roots in ancient Andean traditions. Bathing the earth with blood to promote fertility was a sacred ritual predating the Incas, and the tradition became part of Carnaval.
Some rituals in Peru and Bolivia, as well as in Ecuador, pitted rival groups against each other, firing sling shots and throwing stones and sticks. Often, it was friend fighting friend. Combatants often wore thick leather hats to ward off in-coming missiles but took them off at close range since the objective of the fight was to shed blood on the soil. All were expected to make a contribution. Today, the tradition lives on in Peru, particularly in small communities near Cusco.
In Cuenca and surrounding towns, the blood-shedding custom was popular until the early 1970’s, Sanchez said.
Tonight’s action at Parque Calderon begins at 5 and continues until. If you go, expect to get foamed. To see all scheduled events for carnaval in the Cuenca area, click here.