There’s probably no better example of how the Catholic faith, forced upon Bolivia at the point of a sword by the colonising Spanish, failed to fully convince or convert the indigenous population than the Alasitas Festival. Or perhaps it is an example of how pragmatic the Catholic Church can be in its approach to what is, and what isn’t, Catholicism. Or even, after 600 years of Christianity, just how enduring the indigenous religions of Bolivia have been.
Either way, what is certain is that the Alasitas Festival is a showcase for how Catholic and indigenous beliefs have been merged together to become one. In pre-Hispanic times Alasitas was celebrated to ensure a good harvest, today it has become a fine and fun example of how Bolivians express their cultural heritage.
La Fiesta de las Alasitas is Bolivia’s festival of wishing for good luck and personal gain. People buy miniature items of things they want to have in the coming year: cars, houses, businesses, food, university diplomas, clothes and money, in the form of bundles of US$ or Bolivianos. Then these miniatures are twice blessed, firstly by a traditional priest, in clouds of smoke and incense, and then by a Catholic priest inside a church.
Held across the country at different times of the year, the biggest Alasitas festival is in La Paz during January. This week though it was Sucre’s turn to have a miniature festival of miniature things centred around La Rotunda church; having never knowingly missed a good party, we decided to join in.
The festival took place up a crowded street, crammed with stalls selling miniatures of just about anything you could want in life, and a fevered buying and selling environment more akin to the January sales seemed to have taken hold of half of Sucre’s population. The air was so thick with smoke and incense, as more and more miniatures were blessed by traditional priests, that it was difficult to breath at times – evidence that business in miniatures was brisk.
First, select the miniatures, or more often a selection of miniatures, put them in a bag and the traditional priest will spray them with 200 proof alcohol.
Then your miniatures get wafted over burning charcoal and incense – try not to ignite the 200 proof alcohol.
All of this under the watchful eye of a miniature of the Virgin, although judging by the jaunty angle of her crown she may have had a nip too many of the 200 proof alcohol.
Once everything is blessed it is time to join the crush of people trying to force their way into the church for the second blessing, this time by Catholic priests.
While the traditional priests offer up prayers to Ekeko, the pre-Hispanic god of abundance and wealth, the Catholic priests offer prayers to the Virgin, and the hybridisation of two belief systems is complete. It’s a bit like writing your wish list to Santa and putting it up the chimney.
Most of the simple home made miniatures, like the house below and our bowl of food, cost 15 bolivianos (just over $2), while larger items such as airplanes and plastic trucks can cost double or triple that: a significant amount of money for many Bolivians, especially as most buy multiple items to have blessed.
I’m not sure what the box on the top right represents, perhaps the perfect body, but I’m pretty certain it shouldn’t be getting blessed in church.
Can’t wait for the really big Alasitas Festival in La Paz in January!