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Rituals to help us out, and beliefs one professes tongue in cheek – Part II

By Ton Salman

This is part II of the blog “Rituals to help us out….” If you have not yet read part I, you can read it here.

Ekeko would by some probably be coined as “a small god”. No capital “G”. He is the “power-giver” to the magic, the sorcery that makes that small miniature objects have a faculty that radiates into the future. They are just small and at best endearing now. But they’ll come true. They’ll be real, and big, and they do not await, but rather they make the future. As far as Ekeko is concerned, some historians suggest that Eqeqo or Eqaqo originally was Tunupa, a deity that had to do with water and water provision. Others connect him to energy. Others suggest Ekeko was indeed a prehispanic deity or ‘spirit’, who had something to do with production, reproduction, fertility, and that his celebration indeed included the exchange of miniature objects representing the materialization of their significance: shelter, agricultural crops, offspring (children), and the like. Others sustain that it is not abundance, but sexual activity and fertility that he is about. In any case, most agree that he has to do with material well-being, provisions, food, good luck, prosperity, and good fortune.

His present celebration, presence, and function in the Alasitas-events seem to have, however, a somewhat wry history. In the year 1781, with the Spanish still being in charge in what today is Bolivia, and the indigenous being the serfs, the populations without rights, a massive indigenous rebellion took place. The leader was Tupac Katari, named after Tupac Amaru who was beheaded by the conquering Spanish in 1572. Tupac Katari is still a name you might hear cropping up when belligerent and fierce indigenous spokespersons in Latin America have the microphone…

Anyway, Tupac Katari with his army besieged the city of La Paz for many, many months. Food became increasingly scarce in the beleaguered city. The Governor of the city at the time was Sebastián Segurola. Serving the wife of Sebastián Segurola was Paulita Tintaya, an indigenous lass of 17, desperately in love with Isidro Choquehuanca, a worker in the fields outside La Paz. Before the siege began, Paulita with her mistress had to go to La Paz, to accompany the governor who was to lead the city’s defense. Isidro stayed behind. As a token of his love, he gave Paulita an amulet, a talisman that he had carved out himself. It was a small human figure, and he told her it was to guard their love during their separation. To underscore his wish to take care of her, as her husband in the future, he dressed the figure up, and “loaded him” with miniature small bags of food provisions. This was what Paulita took with her when she took off for La Paz, the city soon to be attacked by “the hordes” of Tupac Katari. 

After many months, La Paz was desperate and famished. But the governor’s family did not suffer as much as many others. One way or the other, apparently, Isidro managed to break through the lines, day after day. He provided Paulita with food, which he placed next to where she kept the amulet. She shared the provisions with others. Another version of the story tells that, in the corner of the room where Paulita kept her amulet, every day fair amounts of food appeared out of nothing. They were the effect of the magic, or alchemy of the amulet in the shape of this small puppet-with-his-cargo. The family survived in relatively good shape.

Finally, the siege was broken, Tupac Katari was defeated and arrested and hanged, beheaded, and quartered – just to make sure. Sebastián Segurola, in gratitude for the rescue, inaugurated a new celebration, to take place on January 24th of each year (Virgen Mary’s day), during which, after mass, miniature amulets were allowed to be sold and bought. This way, the catholic faith would at least not be completely subverted by the idolatries of the indigenous. The old, suppressed Ekeko figure now came back to life! Some historians however suggest that Isidro was ordered to carve out a new figure, now as a Spanish and not an indigenous person. Ekeko has therefore changed his looks. Look at him today: he is not indigenous, but a white/mestizo, dressed as a white man. He laughs, has his arms stretched out, and is loaded with goodies. He is portrayed in different ways, but these characteristics are standard. Often, he is pictured as a bit overweight.

So, cruelly enough, an indigenous tradition was revived and even re-launched, to celebrate the defeat of an indigenous rebellion against the Spanish repression and exploitation…. But the ritual works, because…. well, it works. Tongue in cheek maybe, but the people declaring that it functioned for them are too numerous to insist on “it is simply superstition”. Albeit that a Bolivian, with devotion buying miniature objects, to the question whether or not he was superstitious, with a smile answered: “of course not, that would bring bad luck”. This again proves that this celebration gives pleasure, and without that life would become too bleak.

Ton Salman worked at the Department until his retirement in 2018. 

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