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LA VIRGEN DE LAS MERCEDES FESTIVAL
Marimba
Two-day La Virgen de las Mercedes festival [known locally as the Fiesta de la Mamá Negra] in Latacunga, Ecuador.
Officially a Roman Catholic religious celebration, as you would expect, local alcohol bars are closed on the first night of the festival. The second day begins with a traditional mass; it is easy to believe you are in Rome itself. Immediately after mass, a statue of the Holy Virgin is carried through the streets. Locals throw garlands at the statue in hopes of receiving blessing and good favor. Then, just as the day before, cross-gender dressing and masked-costume street dancing form the bulk of the activities. The public parade of sacrificed, butchered pigs, adorned with other dead animals as well as packets of cigarettes and bottles of wine and liquor are also to be seen. Men wear these ritual, pagan offerings to the spirits like a back pack as they accompany the dancers and musicians through the streets.

This festival is probably the best known of all Quichua celebrations - it is certainly the best known indigenous Indian peoples' festival in Ecuador. Venturing outside Ecuador's major cities, one comes across more sober, yet equally traditional Quichua festivals.

In the afternoon, once school has ended, the villagers reconvene for light-hearted fun and games that carry yet symbolic meaning. Women pair up - are even roped together - in a sort of "mad hatters'" competition. The aim is to see which duo, combined, can wear the most number of hats! Of course the significance is not in the winner so much as it is in the symbolic message carried by participating in the contest, which is that any one villager will help shoulder the burden of the others.
A group competition, the aim is to tie all the ponchos together into a single "string" of ponchos faster than they achieved at the previous festival.
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