As Carnival approaches, police have issued their annual warning to Cuenca’s children and adolescents that they can be arrested if they are caught dousing unsuspecting passers-by with water. A few water balloons are already flying in Cuenca’s historic district even though Carnival weekend doesn’t officially arrive until Feb. 5, says a member of the Citizen Guard.
The guard is warning tourists and foreign residents to be on special alert, since they are popular targets.
The tradition of throwing water at friends and strangers alike, practiced mostly by school-aged children — little devils or “diablillos,” as they are known locally — goes back more than 150 years in Latin America. Since the mid-1960s, balloons have been the delivery vehicle of choice, according to a Citizen Guard press release. Buckets are also popular.
Old Timers say that we should be thankful that it’s just water that’s being thrown. In the past, it was common for children to collect chicken eggs weeks before Carinval and keep them in a warm, sunny place until the fun began. By the time they were chucked at their targets, the eggs were good and rotten. In addition to eggs, food dye, corn meal and even dog poop were loaded into projectiles.
For the fifth year in a row, the city is shutting off fountains around town to make it more difficult to fill water balloons, load buckets and throw in victims.
The Citizen Guard plan to step up street patrols in an effort to curb the practice but advises that the best protection is for pedestrians to keep an eye out for the usual suspects. They will focus on schools and historic district balconies, since balconies and upper level windows are favorite launching points.
If caught, balloon throwers can face fines of $7 and spend several hours in jail. Police also say that carrying open buckets of water or other liquids in cars and trucks is prohibited by law during the Carnival.
Last year, police made two arrests of adolescents throwing balloons but conceded that most offenders were too fast to be caught. The two arrested were released to the custody of their parents and charges were dropped.
Carnival has its roots in Italy and was originally the Catholic celebration preceding the abstintance and penance practiced for 40 days prior to Good Friday. Today, the celebration is practiced world-wide but is especially popular in Latin America although it is celebrated differently in different regions. An ancient celebration by Andean indigenous people, including water throwing, was incorporated into Spanish traditions in the 16th century.
According the Ecuadorian lore, a Quito bishop who was the victim of a water attack, threatened excommunication to perpetrators in the 1920s. The Vatican reportedly told him to chill.