In Monday’s post I described some of the antics of youthful celebrants, called cambâ, at the Paraguayan festival of San Juan. The cambâ engage in a variety of activities involving fire and a sort of slapstick comedy routine. For example, before the festival, a large post about 5 meters tall is sunk into the ground, topped with an array of traditional Paraguayan food. This post is then greased with pig fat. In an intentionally comical manner, the cambâ compete to scale this post. After their humorous conquest of the post, a pair of boys draped in a cow’s hide, donning a cow skull with flaming horns, charge at the group of triumphant cambâ. The masked men then run in feigned fear, only to return moments later to taunt the fake bull.
A series of other events will then occur. A hoop made of forest vines is doused in gasoline and set on fire. The cambâ proceed to dive through this loop with varying success. Another common part of the festival is called tata pelota in Guaraní or pelota del fuego in Spanish—in English this translates to “ball of fire.” A ball is wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, ignited, and then used in a game of soccer between the cambâ. Needless to say, all of these practices tend to be fairly dangerous, however, I should mention that the dried banana-leaf costumes are not worn everywhere and many of these events take place with the cambâ wearing masks and regular clothing only.
The last part of the festival is something that could only be described as a sort of Paraguayan drag show. The very cambâ who before were playing with fire and demonstrating their comical masculinity by taunting a bull then change their costumes into female clothing and stuff their buttocks and chests with cloth to represent exaggerated parts of the female body. What commences is a dance in which the cambâ imitate female dance moves (which takes the form of “grinding” in our modern age) with other male cambâs. Again the idea here is comedy, a sort of mockery between the sexes that is equally as irreverent to males as it is to females. The fluidity between the genders and the gender roles represented here is especially fascinating given the overt machismo typical of Latin American cultures.
In short, that is the festival of San Juan. I would hardly call it an entirely Christian tradition. The reality is that such a mixing of religious belief systems is more the norm than the exception in the world. This type of hybridization occurs almost invariably along with colonization, conquest, and cultural interaction. Perhaps it is particularly evident here in Paraguay because of the strength and prevalence of the indigenous culture, but less obvious examples can be seen almost anywhere if one has the mind or eye to look for it. From an academic perspective, it is extremely interesting; from a personal perspective, it is a really good time. There’s nothing like dancing Paraguayan polkas with my Guaraní neighbors into the wee hours of the morning. —Mario Machado