It’s January, which means the devil is in the details for the Diablada de Píllaro festival

Jan 14, 2023 | 1 comment

A devil mask rests on a table inside the workshop of the Minga Tunguipamba, a collective of rural performers, as dancers put the finishing touches on their masks and costumes ahead of the Diablada de Píllaro. (All photos: ©Yader Guzman)

By Sarah Durn

Nestled in Ecuador’s High Andes, more than 9,000 feet above sea level, beside apple orchards and potato fields, is the small city of Píllaro. For most of the year, the sleepy mountain town acts as a quiet backdrop to Llanganates National Park’s stunning mountain vistas.

The devils carry chili peppers and alcohol that they attempt to put into the mouths of unsuspecting spectators. Some use taxidermied animals such as rats and skunks to hide the chili in the animal’s mouths.

But for the first six days in January every year, devils roam Píllaro’s streets. A live band, featuring trumpets and drums, announces their arrival in the town’s crowded streets. The devils tease and mock as they go, scaring away children with their hand-painted, boldly colored masks. Line dancers known as bailarines de línea follow, wearing beautiful dresses and mesh masks with delicate features.

The devils of the Minga Tunguipamba head towards the center of Píllaro on the first day of the Diablada of 2023. The devils dance, crack their whips, and yell “Banda!” — a demand for the band to keep playing.

After the parade, the devils return to their homes outside the city to eat their fill of a whole roasted pig and liberal libations. That is, until it’s time for them to march again on Píllaro.

Known as Diablada de Píllaro, this festival has a strong rebellious character. While its origins are under some debate, it’s generally believed to have started under the hacienda system, during the 16th-20th centuries, when European colonizers forced local people to work on their large estates. In one version of events, wealthy landowners in Píllaro ushered in the new year with lavish balls before taking their revelry to the streets, where Indigenous men acted as “bouncers” clearing their way. Eventually, the story goes, the local men began dressing as devils to make their job a little easier.

Bailarines, line dancers wearing mesh masks, also take part in the annual festival.

In post-colonial Ecuador, Diablada’s devil character became increasingly popular as a symbol of rebellion not only against Spanish colonizers but also against the Catholic Church. The parade also includes other characters, such as the fair-skinned, blue-eyed bailarines. In their wire mesh masks and crisp white shirts, the bailarines represent the hacienda system’s wealthy landowners. There’s also the capariche, a person historically from the lower class who was tasked with sweeping the streets for the procession.

All Diablada de Píllaro participants come from rural farming communities outside the city, another subtle expression of rebellion. Founded in 1570 by Spaniard Don Antonio de Clavijo, Píllaro was an early symbol of European expansion in the region.

Two members of the Minga Tunguipamba sit on a set of stairs while the group rests, eats, and drinks before parading back to their community beyond the city.

Today, villages surrounding Píllaro, such as Tunguipamba, form mingas — loosely translated from Quechua as a group or collective—to represent their communities loudly and boldly in the city streets during the festival, essentially asserting their right to be in Píllaro, says Colombia-based photographer Yader Guzman, who photographed the festival earlier this month.

A woman holds a fair-skinned, blue-eyed mesh mask of a bailarine de línea, or line dancer.

“Small little towns have such rich history and rich traditions that a lot of times go overlooked,” says Guzman, who added that even within Ecuador, many people have never heard of the Diablada. But for the people in and around Píllaro, everyone knows that when they hear trumpets in January it can mean only one thing — devils are coming.

The band marches along the procession route in Píllaro on the first day of the Diablada of 2023.

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Credit: Atlas Obscura