Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and the Ch’utillos Festival started early with a parade around Potosi at 9am with the statue of San Bartolomé accompanied by the town’s mayor and other dignitaries, cue lots of incense and confetti. Afterwards, the festival really came to life with bands and big groups of dancers taking over the streets, many of them dressed to thrill in spectacular costumes and masks of historical figures or mystical creatures.
One of the groups at the start of the day depicted African slaves, who were brought to Potosi to work in the silver mines – literally millions of Africans died alongside indigenous Andean peoples in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. This is unique to the Ch’utillos Festival and highlights one of the less well-known aspects of Spanish colonialism in Latin America.
While the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is much better understood in North America and Brazil, the descendents of African slaves still live in Bolivia, mainly in the tropical lowlands. There didn’t appear to be any African descendents in the parade, so, local people ‘black up’ to portray Africans. Seen from a contemporary European perspective, this could make for uncomfortable viewing, but it is good that this aspect of Potosi’s history isn’t forgotten.
Several thousand people participate in the festival, and thousands more line the streets eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and cheering the performers on. Wave after wave of dancers and bands sweep up and down the streets, but the atmosphere is always fun, informal and relaxed. The performers take several hours to complete the full route, and it must be hard work performing under the harsh Potosi sun, dancing up and down hills at 4000 metres altitude – especially in some of the big, heavy and hot costumes people wear.
A bit like marathon runners, performers need to take a lot fluids on board. Unlike a marathon, most of these fluids seem to be alcoholic – although there is that one marathon in France where you receive a glass of local wine and something delicious to nibble at each mile marker. This was a bit like that.
One of the most impressive aspects of Ch’utillos is the array of extraordinary masks warn by the performers, variously depicting historical figures or terrifying mythical creatures.
Like the previous day, being Gringo has its price, and once again I was dragged unwillingly into the parade, to dance and provide more hilarious entertainment for the crowds – actually, not that unwillingly. My tormentor…
At least this time I was rewarded with a kiss for providing the comic turn …
I’m not sure what the origins of some of the costumes are, but typically the costumes worn by women tend to be more revealing than those worn by men – no surprises there, I suppose – although no less dramatic.
Although a typical sight in La Paz and on the Altiplano of Bolivia, the bowler hat wearing Aymara women known as Chollas are not typical of the Potosi region. I’d guess this group came from La Paz to perform. Their rattles are in the shape of trucks, and they’re each grasping a can of Potosina beer, in fact they had two people accompanying them with cases of beer – thirsty work this dancing lark.
The array of masks at Ch’utillos really was extraordinary – although some came a bit too close to being Gandalf.
A fun weekend was had by all, except that when I returned to Sucre I realised someone had slashed my coat pocket and stolen my phone…es la vida, as some might say. That aside, Potosi’s Chu’utillos festival was great fun, so to sign off I’ll leave you with a big thumbs up from Potosi…