La Plata – It was time yesterday for another festival of a Virgin. Not being Catholic, all these virgins are quite confusing to me. I knew there were saints for every day of the year, multiple saints per day in many cases. I’m learning that there are Virgins for basically every community out there. The explanation, as best I understand it, is that because there were multiple local indigenous cultures 500 years ago when the Spanish arrived, they adapted their local customs differently to fit in with the teachings of the Catholic church (and avoid being exterminated). Today, half a millenium later, these different “histories” of the Virgin and other Catholic traditions, are all that these communities have left of their original rituals and customs – and they’re fiercely “patriotic” on the local level about defending their own version of events, to the level of causing rifts in families that have members from different towns.
So yesterday was the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Puerta, who is the local favorite for those from around the Trujillo, Peru area where Henry and most of his family are from. This is one of the major celebrations of the year as there is a large expat community from Trujillo living in La Plata. The festival, which is predominately just a religious festival, back “home” involves several days worth of a procession that covers every street in the city. In La Plata they have a parade permit for a few hours one afternoon, so they make do. It begins with an hour long mass (most of which I spent outside enjoying the day, it was interesting for a few minutes, but that’s about it), followed by a roughly half hour long ritual to bring the Virgin out of “la Puerta,” the door, most of which involves a group of dancers in blackface, burlap sacks, and chains (representing the pre-mestizo culture that was darker skinned and enslaved by the Spanish) entreating the Virgin to come out of the door of the cathedral. Lots of incense and smoke, lots of dancing and chanting, followed by major cheering and applause on the steps of the cathedral.
This is followed by a three-hour long procession around the cathedral – it’s one square block, but they keep it at a snail’s pace, and stop at each corner to have a bit of prayer service. Various dancers in colorful costume dance and sing along the way. At the end, with the Virgin looking on, there’s about a 15 minute dance fest (that Henry and Elizabeth led) in front of the cathedral, followed by a semi-repeat of the ritual to entice the Virgin back through the door and replace her in her nook inside. Then everyone goes home.
Food and drink were minimal (apparently the city declined to grant permits for either because of past problems with trash on the streets), but we managed to grab a couple of homemade tamales from a surreptitious vendor on the side of the cathedral, and a choripan (grilled chorizo sausage on a bun with your choice of sauces – one of the more common street foods here) from a legit cafe in the plaza across from the procession.