To the casual observer, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan appears to follow the typical Paraguayan paradigm for parties and holidays: loud polka music; people dancing, drinking, and playing card games; and traditional foods. On second glance, and especially as the evening gets moving, things take a surprising and curious turn. By the time young masked men can be seen jumping through flaming hoops made from forest vines, a little voice inside one’s head can be heard in the midst of the hooting and hollering: “What in the world is going on here?”
Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country. The festival of San Juan, like many other Paraguayan holidays, is Catholic in origin. It celebrates Saint John, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples in the biblical New Testament. In this country, however, the story does not end there, as the unique cultural history of Paraguay comes into dramatic play. While Paraguay may be mostly Catholic and a part of the largely Christian Latin America, it also stands alone for its thriving and ubiquitous Guaraní Indian tradition. The reason for this strong indigenous tradition, especially while most other such religious customs in Latin America were wiped out during the conquest, is a history in and of itself. Suffice it to say that modern Paraguayan culture is a strange mix, a sort of hybrid that is neither fully Latin American nor fully indigenous. The Guaraní language is still the first language of most Paraguayans and is even more widespread than Spanish. In regards to holidays and celebrations, the situation is much the same.
From an anthropologist’s standpoint, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan represents a textbook example of how ideologies and beliefs interact when cultures clash. The nominally Catholic festival has been combined with ancient Guaraní celebrations that venerate fire and the fluidity of gender roles. In reality, the only really Catholic elements of the festival are its name and the typical mass or prayer session that occurs in the morning.
I have had the privilege of seeing this festival twice this year in different parts of the country. The main event involves characters called the cambâ, played by teenage boys dressed up in masks (traditionally of local wood, but also commonly of cloth or face paint) and wearing costumes made of dried banana leaves. While these boys perform a sort of exaggerated dance around the outside of a circle, young girls dance in the middle around a fire wielding torches of dried grass. One by one, the masked cambâ rush into the center to grab one of the girls while the girls attempt to ward them off with their flaming torches. This is, of course, incredibly dangerous given the open fire and dried banana-leaf costumes. The exact performance of this ceremony varies slightly, but the idea is usually the same: fire, masked men, and animated dancing. I’ll describe more of the festival and its gender-bending aspect in my next post. —Mario Machado