New Renditions of Old Traditions

Kirin Gupta - Ecuador

January 9, 2012


Sharing the Celebration of the New Year

Location: Riobamba, Province of Chimborazo, Ecuador
My host brother Christopher, my host mother Nancy, and I, on New Year’s Eve, in the Park of Lights in the Center of Riobamba. A true Ecuadorian family, though Chris was surprised by the horrifying brightness of the camera’s flash here :).
Before being gutted and roasted manually in turns over an open candela (a half-indoor, half-outdoor bonfire), the guinea pigs are grown for a little under a year, fed grasses and scraps, and kept outside the house in cages to get fattened to the correct size. They are killed and skinned, here in the city of Riobamba, where I spent the holidays, for Day of the Dead, Christmas, and New Year’s Dinner. The dinner of cuy (guinea pig) is a fest of the medianoche on January 1st after the ritual burnings of the giant dolls in the streets.
The head of a pig, or cochino (which means both “dirty” and “pig” to los Serranos, the Ecuadorian mountain-dwellers), is a traditional delicacy for the New Year’s lunch, accompanied by potatoes, mote (large boiled corn kernels, nearly popped), and soup made with the juices of the meat. My extended-family-aunt, here grappling with the snout of the pig, also made the classic special sauce to accompany these dishes. It is made of liquefied onions and milk – and is surprisingly delicious.
A monigote or año viejo (doll)  represents all of the mala suerte (bad luck) of the year that has passed, welcoming the new year with a clean slate. My host brother, stepfather, and I built ours of strong wood and nails, covered in cardboard and brown paper. At midnight en punto, we set fire to our giant doll that was stuffed with  papers with our regrets and wishes, setting fire to all of our bad luck in the middle of the street.  Everyone cheering!  We also wore yellow clothes (underwear as well, by mandate of my host mother), as it is an Ecuadorian custom to wear all yellow as another tradition for good luck. 
Colombian immigrant Maria Aguilera, another aunt of mine (I have hundreds here in Ecuador) is here pictured opening up the pig to provide meat for the main dish. However, the most important part of our work with the body of the pig was to remove and clean the intestines, which we later stuffed with a special rice pilaf, and then browned and oiled over the open fire. It tastes like rice wrapped in a particularly chewy rotisserie chicken-skin. New Year’s Day is spectacularly non-vegetarian here in Riobamba, Chimborazo.
Throughout Ecuador, small, painstakingly handcrafted and painted idols of the baby Jesus are treated with cautious respect and delicadeza, and may be carried around by families in beautifully decorated lace cradles for more than a week following la Navidad (Christmas). Here, traditional indigenous dance has assimilated to include the culture of the Spanish conquistadores, and now includes a woman in a white suit, representing the Virgin Mary, holding her divine child, the messiah of Christianity.
In the traditional garb of the Andes’ indigenous, the bailadores (dancers) are led in two lines, each couple of varying ages following the leading, whistling couple in front in the set of steps to welcome the new year that is thousands of years old. The chaps and ponchos of the men are made from alpaca fur, crude and woven; the blouses of the women are hand-embroidered with the flora native to the Ecuadorian highlands. The men in masks with staffs represent otherworldly spirits, and the masks are as old a tradition as the dance itself.
Potatoes, the staple food of the Andes, are the basis of every meal, as is cassava in the jungle. To peel a single potato, my indigenous aunts on average took about 20 seconds. Yes, I timed, because it was ridiculously impressive!
My aunt/grandmother, the very strict and often serious Marcela Yumi, relaxed a bit for New Year’s. Here, in the small town of San Juan, a sector right outside Riobamba, she stands in a doorway, proper dressed in a mix of her traditional and modern clothes. She is 78, but still works hard. It’s the way of the people. I have told her that she alone is conclusive evidence that the cold does indeed keep people well-preserved, a joke that she repeated to her entire family in the lowest, softest voice I have ever heard. Conversely, she is always telling me that if I do things more slowly, I won’t burn out as fast as she warns me I will. I accept this, but have to say, “Again, mi tia, it is only that it is the way of another people.”
My Colombian-immigrant host aunt and I, with my cousin Erica, being silly as we watch a pick-up game of soccer on January 1st that progressed into the cold air of an Andean night. Every group of spectators had their own blankets; of course, hilarious and adorable Erica refused to let her coordinated New Year's outfit be interrupted by our wooly red blanket.

Ecua-Santa Dances to Latin Pop – Bright lights and a modernized, dancing Papa Noel in the Center of Riobamba, a mountain city in the province of Chimborazo.





Kirin Gupta