The phrase caught me off guard and I cut a glance at Tony, wondering where he’d scored his latest descriptive term. “Yeah, that’s 9:30 p.m. here in Cuenca,” he announced. I got a pretty good laugh from his humor as it struck close to home for both Edie, myself and other friends. I chuckled recalling that I hadn’t been awake at the hour of twelve-midnight, to celebrate “Ringing In the New” for several years.
Even last year, celebrating the holiday with other friends in Baños Agua Santa, we had been back at our hotel prior to midnight.
This year was unfolding differently partly because of the crowd we were celebrating with. I innately knew midnight and after was the time-table expectation for participation when we received a kind invitation from good friends to enjoy festivities in their new home. I thought, “Well good, here’s a chance for me to do some night-time street photography of general partying and the burning of the monigotes.” Little did I know what my camera and I had been missing.
In brief, the monigote means dummy or mannequin constructed by stuffing a full set of clothes with polyester fill and fireworks. A mask of someone you do not like is often attached to the head area of the dummy. These are often political figures but many are also shaped and painted to resemble a person, ex-friend or lover who you dislike. Near midnight, the gaudy but sometimes elaborate creations are set afire, often by dousing them with tequila prior to applying flame.
It’s quite a sight, I can report, as your enemies, political and otherwise, literally go up in smoke. How satisfying is that bound to be? But, the clincher is this. As these mannequins burn, all the bad deeds and words associated with the people depicted by the monigotes, are supposedly vanquished forever. The smoke of the burning dummies carries away all the evil the people they represent have, leaving you with a fresh slate for the New Year with all bad memories eradicated in a gesture of fire and smoke! “Wow,” I thought, “Yeah, he-he, if only that really worked.” I’m always entertained by these types traditions.
Well, the clock struck twelve to find my friends and I in the streets of El Centro, Cuenca. It was kind of spooky, in a way, as the smoldering fires burned on sidewalks and in the streets. The night air reeked of sulphur from detonated fireworks mixed with the stench of burning polyester fill contained in the mannequins. Clouds of smoke lingered in the breezeless night sky forming odd shapes illuminated by street-lamps and traffic signals. The whole scene assumed an air of the surreal.
As I came up Calle Tarqui, interested in the activities underway at its intersection with Gran Colombia, music pumped, bodies bumped and acrid smoke hung heavy in the air amidst piles of burning monigotes. The smell of alcohol was prevalent as people sloshed their beverages of choice to and fro, dancing away the night in the closed city streets. People shouted strange words from an obscure stage. Shadows played along the cobblestones as metal-halide lights cast a ghostly yellow-glow across the scene. My lens slashed into the scene, cutting it down to the size I’m showing you here. I concentrated it all into one frame, leaving all types of things to explore within the shot.
The photograph is titled, “Ringing In the New.”
Then, I turned back the way I had come, approaching my group of five friends standing at the corner of Bolivar and Tarqui. As I came toward them, I made another photograph as they watched over a pile of burning effigies. The mannequin on top was adorned with a mask of a recent but now ex-president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. Flames leapt jauntily from his torso, I suspect there were a lot of negative things to get out of this mannequin. This photograph is titled, “No Mas.”
Before re-joining my friends, I was drawn to yet another brightly burning effigy on the opposite side of the street. It popped and whizzed as various pyrotechnics detonated within the polyester filled body. I knelt to make a composition that included three ominous figures dressed in black who were looking on from up the street. But then, while pressing the shutter, I almost dropped my camera as the dummy released some of those “evil ways,” functioning in it’s prescribed manner. It was shocking to say the least and I was completely taken aback by the manifestation. The head of the monigote had already burned off, it was completely gone as was most of the neck. In a single instant, a fiery phantom had seemingly been exorcised from the burning body of the dummy. I thought I saw it happen, I was pretty sure I did.
Later when I opened my RAW files for review and editing, the unmistakeable proof was before me. In the instant I saw the frame, the burning of the monigotes took on a new level of meaning. Where there had once been smiles at the odd customs of a new land, now stood fear and doubt. The obvious is terrifying and I thought twice about sharing my frame. Take a look, you’ll see why these figures are burned, the spirits of the wicked are born on the winds as the fiery head begins to leave the body. This photograph is titled, “Cabeza de Fuego” or simply enough and in English, “Firehead.”
I’ve seen all I need to. I’m closing my portfolio, “Burning of the Monigotes.” It will never contain any additional photographs and will always be limited to these three. I’m never shooting on New Year’s Eve again here in Ecuador. Something might try to swallow my soul. From here on out, it’s “Gringo Midnight” for me!