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
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