Kings for Three Days: The Play of Race and Gender in an Afro-Ecuadorian Festival

Kings for Three Days: The Play of Race and Gender in an Afro-Ecuadorian Festival

by Jean Muteba Rahier

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With its rich mix of cultures, European influences, colonial tensions, and migration from bordering nations, Ecuador has long drawn the interest of ethnographers, historians, and political scientists. In this book, Jean Muteba Rahier delivers a highly detailed, thought-provoking examination of the racial, sexual, and social complexities of Afro-Ecuadorian culture, as revealed through the annual Festival of the Kings. During the Festival, the people of various villages and towns of Esmeraldas--Ecuador's province most associated with blackness--engage in celebratory and parodic portrayals, often donning masks, cross-dressing, and disguising themselves as blacks, indigenous people, and whites, in an obvious critique of local, provincial, and national white, white-mestizo, and light-mulatto elites. Rahier shows that this festival, as performed in different locations, reveals each time a specific location's perspective on the larger struggles over identity, class, and gender relations in the racial-spacial order of Esmeraldas, and of the Ecuadorian nation in general.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079016
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 05/01/2013
Series: Interp Culture New Millennium Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jean Muteba Rahier is an associate professor of anthropology and the director of the African & African Diaspora Studies Program at Florida International University. He is the coeditor of Global Circuits of Blackness: Interrogating the African Diaspora.

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Kings for Three Days

The Play of Race and Gender in an Afro-Ecuadorian Festival



Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03751-1



Setting Up the Stage Contextualizing the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings

My approach consists of viewing festivities as nonstatic texts always embedded in ever changing or evolving sociocultural, economic, and political realities. Thus, my concern here is not the discovery of the origin of the various aspects of the Festival in order to identify more or less "pure" and "authentic" forms, or to interpret the festival as if the only way to read the content of African diasporic festive performances would be to evaluate the intensity of their "africanisms," or as if whatever expression of African diasporic, political resistance in a festive celebration should always and automatically involve Africa or so-called "African culture" (used in the singular). Rather, walking away from the placelessness of Herskovits's model and of the rigidity of his understanding of "culture" (see Rahier 1999e, xiii–xxvi), I propose to relocate the Festival's "texts" within the webs of social relations and social practices that constitute its "contexts." In doing so, I emphasize the importance of "place" and "space" for the study of carnival and carnivalesque festivities, with the declared objective to remind performance studies and cultural studies scholars alike (Browning 1998; Harris 2003) that it might not be quite right to take into consideration exclusively the transnational dimensions of festivities to the detriment of local contexts when trying to make sense of performances and representations. For a while already, academic fashion has turned on the (mostly urban) global and transnational. In this particular scholarly moment I want to argue that specific places—even if rural—remain tremendously important for our analyses, despite the existence of otherwise fascinating and complex transnational processes that constitute what is often called "globalization," and which also impact rural places and rural realities. To make sense of festivities, a multidimensional approach that takes into consideration the local, regional, national, and transnational must be elected.

Joseph Roach (1996), for instance, is one of these cultural studies scholars I want to take distance from here. His work has been inspired by, among other things, the reflections of Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic (1993), as Roach analyzes a series of performances taken from the history of London, New Orleans, and other locations. In his otherwise interesting and intellectually surprising and enriching work, he downplays the importance that specific "places" have within regional, national, and transnational "spaces" by defining his master concept of "circum-Atlantic world" as "the geohistorical locale [in the singular] for my thesis about memory and substitution ..." (emphasis added) (Roach 1996, 4). Too often, his analyses enthusiastically jump over places and times, from London to New Orleans and elsewhere, and from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. His deciphering of the symbolism of the various performances under scrutiny (New Orleans Mardi Gras; Mardi Gras or Black "Indians"; French, Australian, and American nineteenth-century paintings; Iroquois' visit of the Royal Court in London; London cemeteries) seem to have no other goal but to justify his "circum-Atlantic approach" instead of making sense of the performances and objects themselves. With this book, I want to face Roach and object that analyses of such complex sociocultural events as carnivalesque festivities may not erase the participants' experiences and agencies. Any macro-level comparisons of festivities taking place in very different parts of the world should be grounded in serious ethnographic research and embrace local particularities. Indeed, festivities are "multilocal" and, thus, they must be approached within their specific space/ time contexts.

In paying careful attention to the local contexts of two Afro-Esmeraldian villages—Santo Domingo de Ónzole and La Tola—in my analyses of the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings, my intention is not to assert that La Tola and Santo Domingo present realities completely closed to, or definitely separated from, what is going on in the rest of the country and the world. On the contrary, I am well aware of the sometimes intense circulation of peoples and goods that has characterized the history of the northern sector of the province of Esmeraldas, linking it to national and international markets through processes of globalization.

This book is an attempt to analyze the festive perspectives grounded on specific cultural traditions that folks who have been living in the periphery of national and transnational centers, and on the margin of full citizenship, have on the world and on their place within it. Indeed, as I think this book demonstrates, interesting processes—which are not necessarily unrelated to global forces—do take place in "rural areas" and deserve detailed and contextualized analyses.

Most scholars who have worked on festivities have, in fact, focused on the performance of a festivity in one given location. From the data they gathered using a number of research methods and techniques, including participant observation, they then generalize their findings to the festivity as it would exist in the entire cultural area in which their chosen location is seated: a province, a transnational cultural area, a continent, a transcontinental circuit. I contend that they, operating in this fashion, erase the possibility of local variations and originality in the performance of the festivity in focus; they show that they are unaware of the very hard fact that festivities are multilocal. One given festivity is performed differently and might carry completely different meanings in different micro-contexts and at different times, within one single cultural area or region.

The notion of "multilocality" as understood here opens up the door to the possibility of the existence of profound differences among the performances of one specific festivity in a given cultural area's different locations. This is what my research on the Festival in two Esmeraldian villages illustrates.

I follow the work of David Guss (2000) and Olga Nájera-Ramirez (1997) when they state that festive behaviors and their symbolisms are always multivocal, in the sense that they always involve a series of negotiations among the different perspectives held by the various agents involved. As I show in the following chapters, the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings provides sites for multiple voices to be heard, to negotiate, and eventually to clash in a general humoristic ambiance (in Santo Domingo) or in relatively tense situations (in La Tola). The specificity of each one of the two village contexts explains why the principal focus of the Play tends to be on race relations in La Tola, while gender relations have prevailed as a master theme in Santo Domingo de Ónzole.

Brief History of the Catholic Epiphany

There is no doubt that there are some connections between the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings and the history of the celebration of the Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. The very name of the Festival, Fiesta de los Reyes, or Fiesta de los Santos Reyes, as well as the days of celebration or play—January 6, 7, and 8—are unambiguous about its origin. While undertaking my fields-work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found no one disguised as any of the three Kings in the village of Santo Domingo de Ónzole; the Play in La Tola, by contrast, always begins on January 6 with a performance that represents the scene of the adoration of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. Moreover, as I explain below, during my fieldwork of December 2002–January 2003 I was surprised at the insistence of an older woman of Santo Domingo to have young boys from the village disguise themselves as the three Kings because, as she repeated, she wanted the celebration to be "more truthful to the Catholic tradition." In any case, the very fact that the three "racial groups" of the province, the whites (and white-mestizos), the indigenous people (Chachi), and the blacks (Afro-Esmeraldians) are represented during the three days of festivity clearly indicate—even in the absence of any presence of the Kings—a connection to the Catholic Epiphany.

As a result of both the tolerance (or even encouragement) from the power in place and of the activism of Catholic missionaries, the celebrations of the Epiphany in the Americas during the colonial period very often reinterpreted the racial identity of the three Kings according to the "racial composition" of the local populations: whites, Indigenes, and blacks (see Moreno 1997, 52). These celebrations also integrated and continue to integrate—and this is the very argument developed in this book—a number of local peculiarities due to local socioeconomic, cultural, and political processes. These local peculiarities explain the great diversity of the forms taken by the celebrations of the Catholic Epiphany or Festival of the Kings around the globe and call for an informed appreciation of local contexts in any analysis of the festivity. Obviously, the folklore of the Catholic Epiphany is very diverse. One may not assume that these varied folklores will all reproduce identically nothing more than an official story of the three Kings imagined in, let's say, Ancient Rome. The differences between the play in Santo Domingo de Ónzole and La Tola, two villages situated in the same province, illustrate the point.

The Afro-Esmeraldian Play of the Cowls is a direct product of a folklore most certainly developed by missionaries. As such, it could fall within one of the two types of what Roger Bastide called le folklore nègre: a folklore invented by Europeans for their slaves (Bastide 1972, 49), and which clearly evokes processes of creolization.

The word "epiphany" is derived from the Greek epiphaneia, which stands for the action to show oneself, the appearance, the coming out, the physical revelation of a God, the manifestation of the divine power, the emergence of a thing. As a Christian festivity, Epiphany has been linked to the commemoration of three different events (Vacandard 1912, 49; Botte 1932, 82–83; Van Assche 1974, 11–20): the adoration of the Magi (see Trexler 1997), the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River (see McDonnel 1996), and the miracle of the transformation of water into wine at Cana. The first, adoration of the Magi, is mostly associated with the Occident and is found in areas under the influence of the Roman Church, while the other two are characteristic of Oriental churches.

The Oriental Epiphany was originally the celebration of the Incarnation, of the Nativity. For some historians, it began in Alexandria; for others it originated in Syria or Palestine. It was opposed, just like Christmas in the Occident, to a pagan celebration that commemorated the birth of a God—either Aion, Dionysos, Onisis—which was identified with the sun and which appeared to have been connected with an ancient date of the winter solstice (see Botte 1932, 9–12). For Robert Van Assche, the Epiphany has the same origin as Christmas. The difference in dates (December 25 and January 6), he says, would be due to astronomers' errors (1974, 4–6). That celebration spread throughout the Orient and even penetrated part of the Occident. It is quite probable that Rome was inspired by it when it created Christmas (Botte 1932, 82).

In the Orient, the pagan festivity of January 6 also comprised another aspect: there were traditions centered on certain fountains and rivers, and people used to take water from those because it was supposed to have, on that specific day, supernatural and marvelous properties. This custom continued even after the conversion to Christianity, although it received a new interpretation: some attributed it to the anniversary of the wedding feast at Cana, while others attributed it to the baptism of Jesus.

The baptism of Jesus was first considered as his manifestation to the world, his Epiphany, by the testimony of his Father. Later, the sanctification of water took on much greater importance. After the advent of the Christmas celebration, the Epiphany became exclusively a festivity around the memory of Christ's baptism. Oriental Christian churches still perform a solemn benediction of the waters on January 6.

When the Epiphany emerged in Rome at the end of the fourth century, it was entirely dedicated to the memory of the adoration of the Magi, quite different from the Oriental Epiphany (Botte 1932, 34–39). Saint Augustine had been a pivotal figure in the propagation of the Epiphany as the celebration of the adoration of the Magi. He wrote six sermons on the Epiphany that do not deal with anything else but the Magi (see Trexler 1997). The Epiphany has a different history in the various regions of Europe where it was implanted. In Spain, for example, the two festivities, Christmas and the Epiphany, were established by 380 A.D. There, the Epiphany first began as the celebration of the adoration of the Magi, although the two other aspects of the festivity, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus and the miracle of Cana, were also adopted later in a peripheral way (Botte 1932, 53).

Matthew's is the only gospel that mentions the adoration of the Magi, without ever referring to their respective age or to the fact that they were kings. From Matthew's gospel, we could deduce that the three Magi were in fact living in the regions around Palestine. The transformation of the Magi into three kings of various ages and racial identities constitutes a Eurocentric reinterpretation of Matthew's gospel. The three Kings came to represent all the races and all the generations of the people of the world who came to pay their respect and to acknowledge the universal preeminence of the white baby God, "the only one there is."

The Roman liturgy recalls these three mysteries in the office of the Epiphany. "That is on that day that the Star guided the Magi to the crib; on that day that water was changed into wine at Cana; on that day that Christ wanted to be baptized in the Jordan River" (Vacandard 1912, 52). Although the Roman Church inscribed these three different manifestations of Christ in the rubric of the Epiphany, only one of them has dominated the celebration of January 6: the adoration of the Magi.

The Epiphany becomes "Day of the blacks"

The Spanish historian-anthropologist Isidoro Moreno has shown how both the indigenous and black brotherhoods and confraternities that existed in the regions of the Americas that were colonized by the Spaniards had their origin and direct precedent in Adalusian "ethnic confraternities" predating the conquest (Moreno 1981; 1985; 1999, 4–5). At the end of the fourteenth century, the Guadalquivir Valley area of Andalusía, which had been incorporated into the kingdom of Castile more than a century before, was a multiracial and multiethnic society with Jews, Moriscos, blacks, mulattos, and an emerging gypsy community. "The slave population was composed primarily of Moriscos and blacks, the former as a result of the capture of prisoners in periodic wars between Castile and the Nazari kingdom of Granada—which was independent until 1492—and the latter as a result of Castilian incursions onto the coast of Africa and, especially, of an active slave trade that had its center in Lisbon" (Moreno 1999, 4). At that time, during the reign of Henry III of Castile, the activities of blacks were regulated in such a way that they were granted some rights, including the right to gather on certain Sundays and feast days and to dance at the sounds of percussion instruments of "autochthonous tradition."

This concession set the precedent for those that were granted centuries later to blacks of diverse American cities and that would be preserved even during the nineteenth century in the Caribbean colonies. As the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz correctly observed, the African American cabildos of the island were assemblies or meetings centered on dance, similar to those which were organized centuries before in Seville and whose directors were, in the early years, blacks from Seville who had come with their masters to Cuba. (Moreno 1999, 4)

Excerpted from Kings for Three Days by JEAN MUTEBA RAHIER. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Setting Up the Stage: Contextualizing the Afro-Esmeraldian Festival of the Kings 13

2 The Village of Santo Domingo de Ónzole and the Period of Preparation of the Festival of the Kings: The Centrality of Sexual Dichotomy and Role Reversal 35

3 The Festival of the Kings in Santo Domingo de Ónzole 61

4 The Festival of the Kings in La Tola 98

5 Race, Sexuality, and Gender as They Relate to the Festival of the Kings 121

6 Performances and Contexts of the Play in January 2003 143

Conclusion: From the Centrality of Place in Esmeraldian Ethnography to Theoretical and Methodological Considerations for the Study of Festivities 164

Glossary of Esmeraldian Spanish Terms 175

Notes 179

References 183

Index 195

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