Colombia is a beautiful country endowed by Mother Nature with so many things, including emeralds, tropical landscape, the Andes, coffee, diverse cultures and celebrations almost as old as time, such as the Blacks and Whites Carnival.
The Blacks and Whites Carnival is a colorful and fun celebration that residents of San Juan de Pasto or just Pasto, Nariño's capital, look forward to each year. The nearly half a million residents of the city call the festival Carnaval de Negros y Blancos. Pasto also refers to the indigenous people inhabiting the region.
The celebration is fantastic and offers a lot of fun both for the local population and foreign tourists. And what's more interesting is the origin of the Blacks and Whites carnival and the things that go behind the scene in preparation for the six-day event. It's a precious festival that was declared by the Republic of Colombia's Congress on April 2002 as a National Cultural Heritage. On September 30, 2009, UNESCO proclaimed the carnival as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Pasto's Blacks and Whites Carnival
Would you believe that the Blacks and Whites Carnival is one of the oldest carnivals that South America has ever had? Its roots came from the time Spain ruled the region between 1492 and 1832.
The carnival's main events are held from January 2 to 7 every year, with a different activity scheduled for each day. The festival's highlights occur from January 4 to 6. The Blacks and Whites Carnival has four specific phases, starting from the pre-carnival activities, the Castañeda family's arrival and the specific day each for the Blacks and the Whites.
Pre-event activities for the Pasto Blacks and Whites Carnival are held in late December. There are minor parades, water dousing and other fun activities all around. Local singers and bands playing various string instruments perform a "Serenade to Pasto" after all the fun events.
Tracing its roots
Specifically, the carnival is a commemoration of the day the African slaves that were brought to Colombia were granted a free day. To celebrate the occasion and show their happiness for the free day, they staged a fun-filled celebration.
According to some historians, a slave rebellion happened in 1607 in Remedios, a town in Antioquia. It was an event that caused the authorities to panic. The black population around Popayán, Cauca remembered that event and they, too, demanded to be granted a day off, where they could be totally free. It was said that on January 5, the king of Spain conceded to the request. The African population wildly rejoiced upon hearing the news. They came out and danced to the rhythm of African drums on the streets, smearing the white walls of the city with coal.
Around 1854, the Ayerbe family introduced the celebration to Pasto. The event continued to be refined through the years that by 1887, it was almost perfect. The cultural event also reached several social spheres and people started to create masks and costumes for the celebration.
The beginning of the modern Blacks and Whites Carnival
The start of the modern version of the carnival began on January 6, 1912, which is traditionally Epiphany Day. The celebration is a manifestation of their intent to convey their happiness, friendship, playfulness and creativity. It's to share the joys that the particular time of year reminds them of.
The story goes that a brothel called the House of the Misses Robby in Calle Real, now called 25th Carrera existed. A certain Don Angel Maria Lopez Zarama, a famous tailor, used one of the brothel ladies' face powder and started to put on the white powder as well as women's perfume on the people present at the brothel while uttering "¡Vivan los Blanquitos!"
Soon, others joined in what was thought of like a game and it eventually led to them going outside to do the same things as a joke on the people coming from the King's Mass. Their slogan was also extended and included the Blacks, so the jokers repeatedly called out ¡Que vivan los Negros y que vivan los Blancos! It was the activity that became deeply ingrained in the culture of the people of Pasto.
While the celebration is held annually, several expressions and cultures were added into it, shaping the event into the complex makeup of the carnival. The development of the carnival imbibed the rituals of the agrarian culture of the Quillacingas. When it was harvest season, they danced to honor the moon. They also offered prayers to the sun, requesting that their crops be protected.
The ancient rituals merged with Spanish culture and included some religious traditions, with the festival timed to coincide with the celebration in the Virgin of Mercy's honor on September 24 and the Immaculate Conception on December 8.
Establishment of additional elements
The inclusion of the murgas (musical theater), comparsas (group of dancers, singers and musicians) and huge floats came in during the mid-1920s, as the carnival gained more attention and bigger participation of other groups.
Four key stages comprise the carnival:
- Carnavalito or Children's Festival (January 3)
- The arrival of the Castañeda Family (January 4)
- Blacks' Day (January 5)
- Whites' Day (January 6)
The Grand Parade happens on the Whites' Day, which is held on Epiphany Day, January 6. January 7 is an additional carnival day for the Finish or Remate and the Cuy's Festival wherein tourists and locals enjoy the traditional dish of the area.
It is the children's version of the celebration held by adults, with the children creating their own floats. Many of the young creative artisans displaying their artistic talents and skills will later be part later in life to the main grand parade.
2. The arrival of the Castañeda Family
There is no actual Castañeda family. They were invented by a man named Torres Arellano. Many say that the fictional family is the characterization of a family who lived in the jungle for many years but decided to return to "civilization." They traveled for a long time and reached the city on January 4. Their entourage included the father and mother, and two sons and two daughters. There were also three other people they picked up along the way as well as several laborers who were in charge of the mules that carried the family's trunks and a few animals.
3. Blacks' Day
On this day, the free day granted to the African slaves is commemorated. The day expresses their exuberance for being free without any fear of repressions. They showed their happiness by playing in the streets, painting each other black and other colors. The entire town of Pasto paints the faces and bodies of locals and other people black. Remarkable during Blacks' Day is the commemorative painting of the white walls of the city with black coal.
The day is a great display of cultural exchange and the revival of cultural traditions and celebrations, such as music, costumes, rituals, music, colors, dance, beverage and food. The day focuses on the unity and integration of the people of color with the white population in Pasto who descended from European ancestors.
4. Whites' Day
For Whites' Day, Pasto locals paint each other white, using a variety of substances, from special white cosmetics, talcum powder, foam or flour. Because this is the final day, this is also the time for the grand parade, where spectators can see the huge, colorful and grand floats decorated with a variety of allegorical characters, faces, flowers and/or animals. The parade is accompanied by dancers, musicians, bands and people in colorful and intricate costumes. The grand parade lasts for six hours.
Organizers offer prizes to winning floats, group of dancers, group of musicians and people in costumes.
A cultural expression like no other
The Pasto Blacks and Whites Carnival may look odd to some to some people who do not understand its beginning. But it is one of the most important cultural expressions of Colombia, signifying, at least for a day, the unity of people from diverse backgrounds through painting each other – making their physical differences indiscernible. Moreover, the annual festival also salutes the efforts of the organizers, the participants and especially the artisans who work almost the entire year to come up with the concept and created the masks, moving characters, mythical creatures, float designs and the variety of costumes that make the Blacks and Whites Carnival of Pasto unique.
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