Burning the Previous Year Down in Ecuador


I was glancing at the calendar yesterday and realizing that we’re already in the home stretch of January.  In scarcely a week it will be February and 2010 will be well underway.

Here in Ecuador, where the sun rises and sets at virtually the same time all year, and the only distinguishable concept of seasonal change is the greater or lesser chance of rain, it’s easy to lose track of the passage of time.  January, April, July, October, these are all months that have, for me and most Northerners, historically meant drastically different weather, clothes, activities and sights.  But now that I’m working on three years here along the Earth’s waistline, these months are quickly becoming just names.  It’s January?  A casual walk around town today or six months from now look and feel virtually the same for me.  Every day means a chance of sunshine in the morning and a chance of rain in the afternoon.  And every day is, no matter where you live, a chance to tread thoughtlessly along your routine or a chance to do something new.

There are those individuals and groups of people who believe, much as I do, that every day is sacred, and that holidays aren’t really any holier than any other day.  I reflect on that even more here, where today is as much like it was on this precise day of 2008 as it is to a day in March, or June, or August.  Our concept of a calendar is the only thing, after all, that lends some sense of familiarity to July 21 of this year to the day of my birth, 32 years ago.  If we didn’t play Leap Year tricks with the month of February to balance the calendar with the Earth’s actual revolution around the Sun, by now my birthday would have slipped into a time more like the beginning of August, and by the end of my life, my birthday would be inching towards autumn.

Despite all of that thought, or perhaps due to it, I have come to love one particular Ecuadorian holiday more and more, each year that I observe it.  Because, in an irreverently ceremonial way that for me knocks the wind out of any codgy or self-important significance, Ecuadorians take everything from the past, put it on display for a few hours, lump it all into a paint-and-paper-mache pile, and at precisely midnight on New Year’s Eve, burn it.

Bueno.  As you can see, this moment was clearly not midnight.  And, upon closer examination of the effigies here being burned, they are not paper mache.  I guess the New Year is also a good excuse to get rid of some old clothes.  This particular scene took place on the terrace of CEDEI, my place of work.  Through the smoke you can see a man from accounting, his face belying the general sentiment one feels upon watching things burn.  We all enjoy that, somehow, deep down.
In the background you can see the ring of 8 chilean pines growing at the center of Parque Calderón, and to the right, the blue domes of the new cathedral and the symbol of Cuenca.
While these effigies burn, everyone exchanges New Year’s greetings.  One of the things I respect the most about Ecuadorians is how inclusively they treat one another.  Upon entering or leaving a circle of friends, acquaintances and unknowns, each person will make a point to shake hands or kiss the cheek of every man, woman or child present.  That’s true even in a party with dozens of people, which can take some dedication, and several minutes to do.  Not ideal if you’re trying to make a quiet exit, I suppose.  And which also leads us to the riddle:
If 9 Ecuadorians are saying goodbye and each going their separate ways, how many individual hand shakes/ cheek kisses take place?  That is to say, each person says goodbye to every other person, once and only once.  The first correct answer wins you the prize of your choice, within the limitations of my personal income, and international shipping.
While we’re on the subject of my CEDEI New Year’s experience, lets take a moment to look at what New Year’s traditions mean in Ecuador.  You might be wondering, for example, what the significance of these effigies is all about.  In the case of the CEDEI party, there were two effigies, each of which represented one of my coworkers.
Here is Eduardo, with his respective effigy.  Can you see the resemblance?
These effigies represent the old year, and by extension, the year to come.  Those individuals and events, both beloved and despised, get equal treatment.  When a hated figure gets burned, all the negativity of surrounding it goes up in smoke, and we all symbolically choose to forget and let go of it, with the hopes of a different unfolding of events in the coming year.  Likewise, a loved one is burned in order to erase any negativity from the previous year for that person, as a blessing and toast for the new year.
Many people make their own effigies, fashioning humanesque figures out of old clothes, balled up newspaper and cheap plastic masks.  That was the case here at CEDEI, and as you will see, with my wife’s family.  But as with any celebration, there are those who make a business of it.
Stacks of pre-fab, $1 masks, with bodies stacked up behind ranging in prices, starting at $1.  So for as little as $2 you can get your effigy right on the roadside, with a mask loosely resembling your preferred victim/honored guest, ready to burn.  (As a side note, my observations have revealed that the masks are usually removed just before the effigy is set on fire.)
But, if you’re really dedicated to the occasion and want to burn something more memorable, there are much more costly effigies to be bought, upwards of $200 in value.  Here are a few images of the higher end effigies on the market:

I think this is supposed to be Presidente Correa’s brother…

And so, much as we from the US roam usually-empty lots seeking the perfect, freshly cut pine tree small enough to squeeze into our living rooms for the Christmas holiday, on New Year’s Eve you’ll find Ecuadorians out looking for the perfect symbol to set on fire, come midnight.
But, as I mentioned before, many people, and often entire families and neighborhoods, prefer to fashion their own effigies.  The quality and size of these range from life-size to much, much bigger.  And, since an organization awards a prize to the best creations on display, some of these effigies become part of much larger, allegorical panoramas, on profile all afternoon.  That is, until the magical New Year’s hour when they, like all New Year’s effigies must, get lumped unceremoniously into a heap, doused with some flammable liquid, and get torched
Nancy, Tamia and I planned to spend New Year’s with her family, who would be making an effigy of their own.  But we agreed to take a detour downtown and see what kinds of displays were going up.  My curiosity had been piqued on my way home after the CEDEI burning, by sights like this:
Remembering my first New Year’s experience in downtown Cuenca, I was eager to see just how this big head would be incorporated into the larger display.  And indeed, once we made it back downtown, this tell-tale, disembodied head had found itself atop a larger-than-life body:
If you don’t recognize it, it’s now resting atop the grey-suited gentleman on the center right.  I’ll confess I wasn’t able to read between the lines very well on this presentation, but my overall experience has told me that these kinds of panoramas typically paint a tongue-in-cheek critique of Ecuador’s political scene.  Even a brief look at this small country’s politics reveals an often chaotic process of governance, and every year, much as in any country, after all, there are quite a few controversial political decisions.  All of this provides plenty of fodder for the locals to poke fun at.
In other cities, it’s often been left to graffiti artists to portray political criticism on the street in a creative way.  Here in Cuenca, I’ll admit that the quotidian street art is pretty lackluster, in general.  There are some notable exceptions, but the overwhelming majority consists usually of black paint, a one sentence message, and little or no poetry or style involved in the presentation.  But perhaps that is made up for to some extent by the explosion of creativity that unfolds in the streets on this day.
Much later in the night, Nancy, baby and I emerged once again into the city – now piled into the family Volkwagen with the rest of the Macas family – to see how some other displays had shaped up throughout the evening.  We had to drive around for awhile to find anything very interesting, something that her family lamented.  Apparently in previous years, there had been much more community involvement in their own neighborhood.  Even in my own two years of prior experience, I found this year’s presentations to be fewer and further between than the first, glorious experience I had.  I have a theory regarding that, but you’ll have to wait for the next blog to find out why.
In the meantime, I will say that we did stumble upon an interesting presentation, one that demonstrated that it isn’t just politics, but life in general, which can be the target for some of these creations:

I don’t quite know what it all means.  But here there is featured a live actor amidst the paper mache surrounds, roasting two paper mache guinea pigs.  This particular display included a number of live actors who contributed to the show, mainly in the form of a paper mache marching band.  The overall theme appeared to be a sort of traveling carnival, with a number of sideshows and 4H-style animal husbandry.  I’ll leave you to paint your own mental pictures.  I can’t give away all my photos for free, after all.

As I may have hinted at before, I like my Ecuadorian New Year’s panoramas to be on the sinister side.  After all, if you choose a negative theme to put on display, and knowing that people will experience them in the dark night, let’s really take them to the dark side.  Perhaps this is also connected to my experiences with another pagan fire ritual that I love.  Zozobra, in Santa Fe.

The last display that I stumbled upon was, in fact, just two blocks from the home of Nancy’s parents, and it might have been my favorite.  It wasn’t the most beautiful or well assembled, but it did best represent the gory sort of imagery that I’m talking about:

It also well illustrated the political overtones that any good New Year’s panorama ought to, in my opinion.  If you can’t make out the details, here is a bus, having just run down a poor, innocent (notice the white clothing) pedestrian who was just trying to use the crosswalk like any good peatón should.  For some background information, 2009 saw the arrival of “intelligent” traffic lights in Cuenca.  They are supposed to measure the quantity of traffic and vary the length of each green light accordingly.  They also feature a crosswalk signal, complete with a chirping sound for the blind.  The city also launched a campaign of painting new crosswalks along many of downtown’s main intersections, and even sent out university students to regulate the flow of motorized and foot traffic, aiming to make pedestrians cross at and only at the crosswalks, and to prevent cars from stopping in the middle of the crosswalk at a redlight, as often happens.
Predictably, nothing has really changed.  Pedestrians still cross the street wherever and whenever there is a break in the traffic.  Cars still stop in the crosswalk.  And, occasionally the crosswalk signals aren’t even in sync with the actual traffic lights, which could very well send a pedestrian out into moving traffic.
Much as happened to our poor effigy pictured above.  The sign on the dead, bloodied walker says “CHUCH,” which I intepret as Chucha! emulating the Cuencano tendency to clip the final vowel (which is, incidently, a publicly accepted expletive hailing back to an indigenous word invoking the female anatomy.)  Here I reckon the final vowel was clipped even more abruptly by the sudden end of his life.
Hanging at the top is another sign, explaining the theme of the display: “Traffic Lights. Most intelligent.  Made in China.”  Haha.  The underlying idea that I took away from the scene is that being in a hurry kills people.  In fact, in the United States, cars kill more people every year than guns do.  So this year, let’s heed the message. Take it easy, and try not to go very frequently to places we can’t walk to, my friends.
Let’s end our New Year’s story back at the Macas family home.  Nancy’s father prefers to make the effigy a family event, and so each year they get together and commemorate a family member in effigy form.  This year it was the youngest generation who was represented.  Our own daughter Tamia, and our 6 year old niece Giomara.  Tamia was a bit of an afterthought, in fact, so she took shape as two pieces of paper cut into humanesque form, stapled together, colored, and then stuffed with newspaper.  Giomara took a more typical shape of old clothes stuffed with newspaper and topped with a head made from balled-up papers.  Black yarn was glued onto the head, a face drawn on the front, and listo.
Here are the two honored guests of the evening, next to their effigies:

At the midnight hour:
And, for those who are curious, here’s how the bus -themed party down the street turned out.

Looks like fun.  Complete with a story-high blaze and what from a distance looks like pagan fire dancing. Our own celebrations were more mellow.  We each ate our twelve grapes in order to receive twelve years of good luck ahead.  We raised a toast to the new generation honored with the recent fire.
And, it wasn’t long before Nancy and I decided to make our way home with Tamia. So it was that our daughter witnessed what New Year’s is for the first time.  I’m glad that the images before her eyes were ones that might, over the years, reveal to her the same layers of meaning that they are beginning to reveal to me.  In each effigy and subsequent fire is revealed a tradition both ancient and modern, pagan and secular, non-assuming and grandiose.  It’s a symbol of human creative energy, always renewing itself by the simultaneous remembering and shedding of the past.
Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
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