Mama Negra is probably one of the weirdest, most interesting festivals I’ve been to, and I still don’t completely understand it. It is a festival that takes place in Latacunga, Cotopaxi (2 hours south of Quito). It happens twice a year, once in September and once in November.
Sarita and I journeyed down to Latacunga on Thurs., Nov. 8 after my class so we ended getting into Latacunga late at night. We had plans of staying with a friend’s friend, but due to circumstances out of our control we ended up meeting Renato (a friend’s friend’s friend) randomly and he offered us a place to stay in his home.
Renato is a really generous and honest guy and he let us stay in his daughter’s room since she was at her grandparent’s house. The next day we were woken up at 6 in the morning by Renato’s wife, Miriam, and she said we could go together to Quilatoa–a stunning lagoon. She said it’s close to where she works so we got ready quickly and were out the door.
Miriam told us in the car that she is a teacher in a rural indigenous community that mostly comprises of children and adolescents since their parents permanently have moved to big cities to earn for a living and send remittances to their older children who are put in charge. On the route we stopped in Pujilí and other small towns to pick up more teachers.
They are all really remarkable people who truly embody doing good for a community in need. I asked them to explain the history of Mama Negra since everything I had previously read and heard was very vague and confusing, however, their explanation didn’t clarify too much.
Essentially Mama Negra started as a festival to celebrate La Virgen de la Merced (who is the Virgin of Latacunga), but at some point in history it gradually became more and more politicized. In fact, the November Mama Negra that I went to is the “touristy” version of the “real” Mama Negra that takes place in September.
The fiesta is a huge desfile (parade) that presents five main personalities (all of whom are played by affluent and powerful Latacunga elite): La Mama Negra, El Capitán, El Rey Moro, El Abanderado & El Angel de la Estrella. The story involves a mix of legends, and interestingly enough, the Mama Negra is a Mestizo male dressed up as a black woman. Rumor has it that the Mama Negra was the first female slave to ask for liberation. They also told me a story of a black woman who would always show up to social events and take care of the children so she slowly came to be known as La Mama Negra. But there are also stories that say it is an indigenous festival, which is possible since Latacunga has never historically had a sizable Afro-descendent population.
The desfile was really crazy with people dressed up in all types of costumes (indigenous to religious to drag-queen) and passed out all types of gifts (oranges to matchboxes to condoms to alcohol). It is customary to accept any gift given to you but like an exemplary IES Abroad student I refrained from accepting any drinks. The act of being in the parade is called desfilar and people from the Latacunga community are invited by one of the main personalities and promised something at the end for participating (usually a big house party).
It was a very interesting, weird, exciting, overwhelming, lively experience. I had been looking forward to Mama Negra since last semester but the lack of historical knowledge and cultural significance kind of took me by surprise and I was hoping for a more real experience. Moreover, Latacunga itself is not the greatest city but Cotopaxi is a very beautiful province.
Here is a video of part of the desfile: Mama Negra, Latacunga 2012