The Exuberant Festival of La Mama Negra

The Festival of La Mama Negra, which takes place in the town of Latacunga in Ecuador at the end of September and again during the week of 11 November, is a fascinating and colorful cultural event that embraces the widely divergent traditions and cultures of the local inhabitants’ origins – Spanish, Aymaran, Incan, Mayan and African.

Latacunga was colonized for its rich mineral resources by the Spanish and the native inhabitants were “encouraged” to convert to Catholicism. This mass conversion was not entirely pure and indigenous elements were blended into the Catholic religion. The Spanish conquerors brought along with them slaves from Bolivia, Guatemala and Africa and these slaves added their own traditions and beliefs to the melting pot of religion in the area.

The origins of the festival of La Mama Negra are a little obscure, but the general consensus is that the festival was established when the Cotopaxi volcano erupted in 1742 and it seemed that Latacunga would be destroyed. The locals of the region petitioned the Virgin of Mercy, the patron of Cotopaxi, to spare Latacunga. When the town escaped the wrath of the volcano, an annual celebration was set in place in her honor. At around the time of this volcanic eruption, African slaves were brought into the area to work in the mines. These black slaves made a huge impression on the local inhabitants, who incorporated their arrival into the festival of La Mama Negra – the Black Mother.

The Festival of La Mama Negra includes a noisy, exuberant parade of characters such as the Moorish King, the Angel of the Stars and Los Huacos who represents the area’s pre-Colombian heritage. More recent additions to the festivities are the Camisonas – colorful transvestites. Dancers, musicians and marching bands all join in the parade, which culminates in the arrival, on horseback, of La Mama Negra – a representation of the Virgin combined with African deities. La Mama Negra, in an elaborate costume and bearing dolls to represent her children, happily sprays milk and water on the spectators, supposedly for their well-being. Candy and wine containers are also tossed into the crowds, keeping the party atmosphere going into the night.

If you have plans to travel to the beautiful country of Ecuador, try and incorporate a visit to the interesting town of Latacunga at the time of the festival of La Mama Negra. You will be in for an experience you are unlikely to forget.