Festival at Paucartambo, religious musings

Thursday was the entrada of the festival of the Virgin Little Mother Carmen in Paucartambo. Since this is a festival attended by thousands of tourists and described on the web, I will limit my experiences to brief observations and religious musings.
Paucartambo is a little town on the banks of a big river running through the high mountains. There is a bridge over the river, built in the colonial era.
Groups of men, groups of women, and some mixed groups dress in elaborate costumes representing and making fun of the Spaniards, African slaves, indigenous people and a handful of other characters. They have bands with traditional and modern brass instruments, songs with two part harmonies, and complex dances which they parade through the streets in costume (and later again in street clothes, without masks.)
Thursday night they all parade to the Catholic church to present their songs and dances to the Virgin which sits in the church; a lovely white-skinned porcelain doll dressed in what looks like a wedding dress and surrounded by flowers and other dolls. Nested in the walls of the church are other white-skinned statues representing various saints and religious figures, many of whom seemed to me to exude a pathos I could not help linking to the homesickness of the Spanish priests who brought them there.
While we were outside watching the dances (til all hours of the morning) I asked one of the teachers about the Maranatha movement, an evangelical protestant group which had taken hold in the town of Ccotatocclla. From discussions with my compadres and their families, the chief difference with Catholicism was the prohibition of alcohol. Several people had commented to me, including a bus driver, that since the early 1990’s, fighting among the men and binge drinking had ceased and things had really gotten more prosperous and organized. However, the teacher I mentioned this to said that she had taught in the town since before the Maranatha arrived, and that they had also banned religious festivals such as the one in Paucartambo, which the townspeople used to celebrate. She said the people were told to destroy their idols and burn their costumes.
As we paraded on Friday around the town following the Virgin, I could not help remembering how my Bolivian host grandmother had told me of her sense of disillusionment with Catholicism, and her sense of liberation upon embracing Protestantism, all linked to her experience of being one of the chosen townswomen who had the responsibility of preparing the local Virgin for the annual parade. She was hoping the Virgin would be beautiful, made of beautiful and precious materials, and miraculous, but was greatly disappointed to find that the doll was actually only stuffed with straw. For her, Protestantism was a way to break with the false hopes of venerating that doll and embrace something deeper, more spiritual and hopefully more true.
On the other hand, I have friends who practice Andean religion, worshipping local mountain gods and finding liberation and a sense of identity and self-esteem in reclaiming the beliefs of their ancestors.
On still another hand (and I am running out of hands)I have a friend who once practiced that Andean religion and found it frightening. She found release from the fearful aspects of the local beliefs and warnings and curses, in a kind of enlightened Catholicism which respects her indigenous culture and language but has moved away from its religion.
So, much as in a Unitarian church, I see that what is one person’s liberation and release, is another person’s bondage and superstition.

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