Photo: Alice Carmona
Photo: Alice Carmona

Bailar con fe: Folkloric Devotional Practice in a Bolivian Immigrant Community

This article explores “folkloric devotional practice,” the intersection of religion and folklore, in Bolivian immigrant dance practice in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Focusing on both how dancers prepare for performances of la morenada in a local patron saint fiesta as well as a particular dancer’s interpretation of her experiences, it demonstrates how the legitimacy of enacting religion provides a means by which to challenge multiple material and symbolic exclusions from national Argentine society. Through preparation, dancers also negotiate new relationships and assess the proper ways that gendered roles should be performed. The intimacies and intense feelings that emerge through practice inform how individuals interpret exclusion and the suffering of dislocation while also constructing new belongings and elaborating their individual agency.

La gente viene [a la fiesta patronal] por fe. Para decirte una cosa, mirá, acá tuvimos peregrinos que vinieron de San Nicolás. Estuvieron, no sé, si 30 peregrinos acá alojados en la parte de atrás de la capilla. Vinieron el día sábado, participaron de la misa, de la víspera, y se fueron el día lunes a las cinco y media, seis de la mañana.
People come [to the fiesta for the local patron saint] because of their faith. Let me tell you something, look, we had pilgrims here who came from San Nicolás. There were, I don’t know, 30 of them staying in the back of the chapel. They came Saturday, went to mass, to the vispera, and left Monday at five-thirty, six in the morning.
–Tomás,­[1] lay organizer of a Bolivian patron saint fiesta in Buenos Aires
Mire, yo le voy a ser sincera porque hay mucha gente que baila [en la fiesta] por bailar y que solamente es folklorista, mucha gente. En mi caso, soy folklorista, pero siempre el objetivo es la Virgen. Mucha gente dice la fe, la fe, pero después la fe no sé dónde se la meten [se ríe].
Look, I’m going to be honest because there are many people who dance [at the fiesta] for the sake of dancing, who are only folkloristas, many people. In my case, I’m a folklorist, but my main purpose is [worshipping] the Virgin. Many people say faith, it’s their faith, but later I don’t know where they stick it [laughs].
–Aida, dancer in a Bolivian religious-folkloric fraternity
Lo que yo creo [es que] es de muy buena fe, esto de pasar delante de la Virgen, danzando y ofreciéndole su danza. Me parece que eso forma parte del folklore religioso, pero que se mezcla con lo otro, que es todo esto de aprovechar [de] la alegría como para, qué sé yo, divertirme de otro modo, ¿no?
What I think is that it’s done in good faith, this passing in front of the Virgin, dancing and offering your dance. It seems to me like it forms part of religious folklore, but that the two get mixed, which is all of this taking advantage of happiness in order to, I don’t know, to have fun in another way, right?
–Alonzo, Argentine priest in a largely Bolivian parish

These three quotes draw attention to the complex relationship between the religious and folkloric elements in Bolivian fraternity dance practice. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, members of the world’s largest community of Bolivian immigrants perform la morenada, la diablada, and other dances in patron saint fiestas. Over the last 20 years, such performance has been re-signified as folkloric—an integral expression of the Bolivian national cultural patrimony (see Abercrombie 2004, Goldstein 1998, Guss 2006, Himpele 2003). However, tensions emerge out of the co-existence of folkloric and devotional expression within the same practice—as is demonstrated in the above comments about the ‘mixing’ of faith and folklore. Despite having developed together historically, both facets of this practice are frequently represented as distinct elements—one communitarian and the other commercial, one millenary and the other invented, one metaphysical and the other corporeal—rather than as interrelated aspects of a multivalent process. This separation results from more than just local politics: a convergence of diverse yet interrelated historical factors inform the processes by which the opposition between the ‘religious’ and the ‘folkloric’ makes sense.

What can be gained by considering the intersection of religious and folkloric meaning expressed through practice? In this article I argue that analyzing “folkloric devotional practice” as it occurs in Bolivian immigrant dance fraternities sheds light upon the complex processes by which immigrant communities and subjectivities are emerging. Exploring when religion and folklore comfortably co-exist in practice and when they are at odds helps us understand the complexity of cultural production within communities often conceptualized as homogeneous and delimited. It also provides a means by which to grasp the contemporary emergence of community identifications around intensely felt experiences, identifications with the potential to both reinforce and undermine reigning representations and power relationships.
The conceptualization of ‘folkloric devotional practice’ brings with it two potential problems, both of which, however, can be strategically confronted and can lend it value. Like notions of syncretic religious practice, ‘folkloric devotional practice’ implies deviations from a norm, practices associated with marginal groups (a ‘folk’) and with their resistance or domination by larger institutional orders. This highlights structures of power, how and where the politics of religious worship and of folkloric practice converge and act upon socially vulnerable groups. However, it is necessary to complement the potential reductionism of this perspective with a consideration of agency and experience: considering how the practice is lived as intense experience. Then we might better understand the practice’s relationship to agency, that is, its power to generate shared feelings and a sense of group-ness that prompt action.

Another problem is that the notion of ‘folkloric devotional practice’ begs a chicken-and-egg type debate: when did devotional practice become folkloricized or vice versa? Instead of searching in vain for a pre-existing, non-culturally circumscribed devotional practice we should consider the moments in history when a notion of a practice as folklore became salient and how this meaningfulness has been sustained. Previous studies have considered how Bolivian folkloric dance transformed in related national and local contexts from a marker of local community to an expression of national belonging. In this article I focus on the latter point—how religious and folkloric meaning are mutually sustained in mundane contexts—by studying folkloric-religious morenada dance practice.

Through participation in morenada dance fraternities, Bolivian immigrants in Buenos Aires encounter resources with which to interpret life experiences: their interactions with local and national power structures; the creation of new local hierarchies and values; and the continually evolving sense of self and group. To make this point I will focus not on a singular, spectacular moment, such as the performance that takes place during a folkloric entrada (procession), but rather on a preparatory event and on a dancer’s narration of her own experience. In focusing on an instructional event (in the case below, a velada or prayer vigil held in preparation for a fiesta) I build upon Schechner’s (1985) theorization of performance. He stresses process—the ways actors learn, rehearse, elaborate, perform, and evaluate performance—instead of one, singular, spectacular event as generative of the intensity and force of performance, its transformative potential, and effect on consciousness. After considering the velada as an on-going devotional practice that, engaging folkloric expression, helps shape local hierarchies and create relationships to ‘external’ entities, I describe one dancer’s narrated progression from an admirer of folklore to a devotee who dances “for the Virgin.” Her participation story demonstrates how morenada dance participation, religious belief, and folkloric practice lent meaning to the various developments in her life and to her transformation into a more independent, agentive subject.

Bolivians in Buenos Aires

Bolivian immigrants, once temporary migrants situated in remote work camps, have moved to the ‘center’ of Argentina—its cities—where they are establishing deep social and economic ties. However, it is difficult to ascertain the demographic characteristics of the collectivity: more recent surveys vary in structure, scope, and methodology, making generalizations problematic, and there are inherent difficulties in obtaining accurate data for undocumented populations (Maguid 1997). Unofficial estimates in the press and by social welfare groups cite one to two million Bolivian residents in Argentina overall. Most Bolivians work in the informal sector, accepting jobs with low wages, poor benefits, little job security, and few opportunities for advancement. Despite becoming increasingly active in industrial and service work in urban areas, Bolivians in the Buenos Aires metro area are still largely imagined as agricultural workers, or as a popular stereotype has it, as “vendedores de ajo y limón” (Benencia and Karasik 1995).

Such stereotypes form part of a larger landscape of material barriers and symbolic violence. In Argentina, a European, non-mestizo, non-Indio, and non-African identity became a crucial cornerstone in the creation of a sense of nationhood and of national culture. Relatively small self-identified indigenous and Afro-Argentinean populations and a massive influx of European immigrants during the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries made it easier to formulate a national identity shaped around European cultural forms and the idea of racial whiteness. Other South American immigrants and Argentineans whose mixed heritage is still physically evident have traditionally resided in the interior—far from the gaze of Buenos Aires elites (Caggiano 2005, Margulis and Urresti et al 1998).

In the federal capital of Buenos Aires, ideas about Bolivian-ness are usually conflated with imaginings of indian-ness: dark skin and straight dark hair, a short stature, and a relatively more rounded physique (hence the depreciative ‘bolita’)—the antithesis of popular ideas about ‘desirable’ bodies. ‘Bolivian traits,’ in other words, index homogenous and largely negatively-valued traits, such as being callado and sumiso. Previous to Argentina’s 2001 financial collapse, many politicians and media outlets blamed Bolivians and other South American immigrants for increasing unemployment, crime, sickness, and other social ills; a phenomena that coincided with an upsurge of violence against Bolivian workers (Grimson 1999). Subsequent to the crisis, Bolivian immigrants have more commonly been represented as a community that exists entirely on the precarious margins of Argentine society.

Fraternities and la morenada: Religion, Tradition and the Presentation of Self

The folkloric dance la morenada is increasingly prominent in immigrant and native Bolivian patron saint celebrations. In Buenos Aires, such events are important visible displays of Bolivian cultural forms and provide spaces of encounter for immigrants scattered, hidden, or otherwise socially restricted in the processes of migration and settlement.

La morenada and other folkloric dances are performed by dance fraternities whose tradition as an institution dates back to Spain and to the initial reorganization of Latin American colonial society. Over time, participants in the Americas invested them with their own meanings, exceeding and defying those prescribed by peninsular political and ecclesiastic authorities. During the mid- to late-twentieth century, fiesta practice intersected with Bolivian governmental projects aimed at incorporating “popular cultural expressions such as music and dance as components of a national cultural patrimony” (Goldstein 1998: 117). Practices and material goods that represented a national patrimony were increasingly imagined as the product of folk culture, “defined by the customs of the countryside, which give the nation its distinctiveness and its collective identity” (ibid.: 120). Urban popular fiestas were among the events that underwent a reorientation with their inclusion in the corpus of practices that could signify the nation. Large-scale religious and folkloric events formerly repudiated as “lower” class, anti-modern, and/or “Indio” were increasingly—albeit unevenly—dominated by middle and upper-class participants, while the spectacles themselves were largely re-signified as representative of an authentic national past (see Abercrombie 2004).

It is in this complex historical convergence that we see a rise in the role of morenada fraternities and dancers as dominant fiesta protagonists. In the case of the main popular fiesta held annually in La Paz, morenada fraternities

Would expand to include hundreds of dancers, each with two brass bands of 60 musicians apiece. They would appeal to the new urban Indian [….] a more prosperous and independent entrepreneur with middle class aspirations. With its costly membership and lavish costumes, the Morenada quickly became a way to display one’s economic status. No dance would equal its prestige. (Guss 2006: 316)

This characterization of la morenada as expressive of prestige and status might seem contradictory with respect to the way most participants describe its imagery. The interpretation most widely circulated among dancers, although not unopposed, is that it represents the march of African slaves from Bolivia’s sub-tropical Yungas zone to the altiplano and especially to the mines of Potosí. Take this explanation offered in a Bolivian immigrant newspaper:

El origen de la morenada se remonta al empleo de esclavos negros que eran comprados por los mineros para reemplazar a los mitayos indígenas que morían por millones en los socavones del Potosí Colonial. Pero el hambre, la sed, el frío, la alta presión arterial, la insuficiencia de oxígeno, el rigor del látigo y las marchas forzadas presagiaban una muerte segura… La riqueza que exponen los trajes parecen contradecir estas expresiones de sufrimiento, pero esta riqueza no era propiedad de los que cargaban sino de quienes eran sus dueños. Atuendos, exóticos, llenos de filigranas, bordados en oro y plata, piedras preciosas, hilos traídos de Milán, como una muestra del valor con que fueron comprados estos esclavos. (Renacer 2002: 23).
The origin of the morenada goes back to the use of black [African] slaves who were bought by miners to replace the indigenous mitayos[2] who died by the millions in the mineshafts of colonial Potosí. But hunger, thirst, the cold, high blood pressure, insufficient oxygen, the rigor of the whip and of forced marches were portents of a sure death… The richness displayed on [morenada] outfits seems to contradict such expressions of suffering, but the riches did not belong to those who carried the loads but rather to those who owned them. [They are] exotic outfits, highly ornamented, trimmed in gold and silver, with precious stones and material brought from Milan, like a show of the wealth with which the slaves were purchased.

Another common interpretation proposes that the dance represents the slave and master parodied from the Aymara perspective. This is but one of many ways of making sense of images such as the mask of the moreno turrilito.

Photo: Alicia Carmona, October 2004.
Turrilitos. Fiesta de la Señora de Copacabana. Barrio General San Martín (Charrúa) Capital Federal, Argentina.

Photo: Alicia Carmona, October 2004.

Bulging eyes and a swollen tongue hanging from a gaping mouth—an exaggerated look that the dancers explain as showing the effects of thirst and altitude upon the un-acclimatized African body. More simple morenos wear suit jackets or ponchos over slacks and shirts with fedora-style hats that display their morenada’s colors. However, all morenos carry matracas: a decorated figure often chosen to represent an aspect of the group’s identity that is spun on a handle, making a loud but controlled rasping noise. Morenos must master using this device in unison—a group gesture that aurally marks the rhythm of their movements while visually delineating the borders of sub-groups. Their dance features steps taken several paces forward and then several back again, with dancers’ backs hunching and arching in a rocking movement. The movements, dancers explained to me, characterize the laborious march of the overburdened slaves, while their matracas mimic the sounds of the chains the slaves dragged behind them, trac, trac, trac. More elaborate outfits include reyes morenos (kings with capes and crowns) and the even more expensive overseers or chachis. The clothes themselves indicate hierarchy both symbolically, via their representation of colonial figures, and literally, made apparent by the expense of the various outfits. In Buenos Aires, achachis and reyes morenos cost well over US $100 to rent for one fiesta (and considerably more to buy) making these most representative of social and economic prowess.

Women’s costumes also cost well over US $100 and were more often purchased than rented. Female dancers are still largely considered “adornments,” recent add-ons that beautify the spectacle but that are not essential to its meaning (Albó and Preiswerk 1986). In Capital, groups of women dancing as cholas particularly stood out.

Photo: Alicia Carmona, October 2004.
Women dancing as cholas paceñas. Fiesta de la Señora de Copacabana. Barrio General San Martín (Charrúa) Capital Federal, Argentina.

Photo: Alicia Carmona, October 2004.

Core pieces include a pollera or skirt with various layers of enaguas (petticoats); an embroidered, bejeweled manta (shawl); and a bowler-style hat. This dress marks her intermediate identity—not fully campesina, nor fully of the Western-identifying white elite. Cholas swing their skirts in a magnificent coordinated symmetry, choreography that, like that of their male counterparts, is punctuated by the spinning of matracas.

Exorbitant expenses, lavish public spectacles, and displays of individual wealth are features often associated with morenada dance and dancers. The lyrics of one popular morenada song include the verse: “Si tú quieres bailar morenada, tienes que tener platita, platita para bailar.” However, with shifting imagery, space for a range of actors to add meaning, and varied performative contexts, we should be wary of any easy explanations for what morenada practice means. Himpele (2003: 222) points out that in morenada dance, “Women, as well as men, accumulate, reveal, and rearrange multiple subject positions through a collage of layers that participate in and evoke multiple contexts and histories.” People described their participation in many ways: most frequently as a way of honoring, worshiping, or petitioning a patron saint, but also as an experiment, or as a diversion gently compelled by family, friends, or co-workers. There were also dancers who considered themselves “folkloristas” — a term often applied to or adopted by long-term participants who could talk quite eloquently about the dance’s meanings and symbolism. Also, ”scholarly” descriptions should not replace the dancers’ own interpretations, which were sometimes fairly ambivalent, as they saw little need to parse out a more academic significance.

La Velada: Preparing Spirit and Mind

Veladas are, roughly, night vigils, group prayer services held by a fraternity in adoration of their patron saint. Among the Buenos Aires morenada fraternities they were held with varying frequency depending upon members’ time commitments and organizational skills. At the very least, one would be held at the start of the principal rehearsal season and another shortly before its end, that is, before the fiesta of the Vírgen de Copacabana in Charrúa, considered the symbolic home of the Bolivian collectivity in Argentina.

One velada I attended started with the entry of two female figures into the backroom of a small neighborhood bakery. The female half of a fraternity’s pasantes (sponsors, a role which rotated annually) carried the icon of their patron, one of many representations of the Virgin Mary. Gently wrapped in an embroidered cloth, the figure was placed in a glass case, in front of which was a short table for devotional candles. Following the Virgin in a procession of sorts was the male pasante, then some of the group’s founders and finally many—but not all—of the morenada’s dancers. I only later discovered where the others were: outside, around the bakery’s entrance, chatting, smoking, or just hanging out. Like everything else, the velada was an event that mattered differently to different people.

The two pasantes were, to me, surprisingly young to take on a commitment which would entail spending several thousand US dollars on a social reception and other provisions related to the worship of their patron. They would have to call upon the resources and collaboration of many family and friends whose help would make them compadres, obliging them to reciprocate if asked to do so later on. But like many others in the fraternity, the young couple worked in a clothing taller, a sweatshop, and were thus petitioning the Virgin’s help to open their own. Taller owners and workers were increasingly dominant actors in Bolivian immigrant institutions and the social relationships that formed between them were essential for maintaining their livelihoods. But the talleres were also deeply embedded in informal, illicit productive activities, and so those involved were inherently restricted socio-political actors in the wider Argentine public sphere.

Those now inside the back room took seats on benches set up along the perimeter. The pasantes came up and kneeled in front of the icon, followed by other fraternity members who touched her hands, her face, or her dress. When all who wanted had approached, the group was led in prayer by a lay Catholic minister who belonged to a special Bolivian immigrant ministry. This ministry had at its core the provision of spiritual and material resources to families who otherwise lacked access to power structures and a public voice. But it had also proven crucial in the realm of folklore, as much immigrant folkloric performance occurs within the context of religious ritual, and therefore in immigrant efforts to contest their wider material and symbolic exclusions.

How was this the case? Rebecca Tolen (1998: 24) comments, “Contemporary states privilege, even seem to demand, certain types of ethnic performance.” In Argentina, the work of continually re-creating a national identity gets partially done through cultural displays such as ferias de colectividades, during which immigrant collectivities stage folkloric performances in a display of what constitutes Argentina’s unity-in diversity: the crisol de razas. Bolivian folkloric dances now frequently form part of such spectacle, although this presence alone does not guarantee equal access to the same symbolic capital (Caggiano 2005). Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that the velada developed into a pedagogic event.

The pasantes lit incense and devotees were again invited to approach, venerate, and make petitions to the Virgin, a practice that was linked to their formation of a “promesa” (“promise”) a three-year commitment or pledge dancers make to the Virgin. After these individual interactions with the Virgen, however, the morenada’s director took the floor, changing the nature of the meeting. A television and VCR were brought to the front of the room and those who had stepped outside gradually made their way back in. The draw was the showing of a professionally produced video of the group’s performance at Charrúa the previous year. The images prompted nostalgic reminiscences among those gathered together, but most interesting to me was the commentary. During the rehearsal season, dancers displayed deep concern over the execution of their steps or the quality of clothes, and frequently reflected back upon negative or problematic aspects of the previous year’s fiesta: broken shoes, a lost adornment, their unfavorable placement in the entrada, a slow or un-organized procession, etc. However, during the viewing of the video, comments dealt with more positive experiences. More comment-worthy than mishaps were the subtle bodily expressions of joy or concentration that were caught by the photographer: the rhythmic bobbing of a sombrero-capped head, swaying hips, a smile on the lips of a normally stoic face, reticent members singing along to the music, acknowledging the camera with their eyes.

When this video was finished, they played a video of a recent urban fiesta in Bolivia. The scene viewed was similar to that of Charrúa but on a much larger scale: fraternities with hundreds of members and multiple bands, palcos filled with tens of thousands of spectators, wider streets cleared more completely for the spectacle. However, the morenada fraternities drew the most commentary. This time, only a few of the older and more experienced members commented, describing to those gathered the general nature of the event: “better groups at the front”, “this morenada’s well known”, “that’s one of the best bands.” Ideas about traits and their adherence to dancers’ bodies were later developed and refined during rehearsals, such as how young female dancers should exaggerate the coyness and desirability of the china morena,[3] how men should relate the weary march of morenos, how older women should perform the synchronized swirl of the chola’s pollera, etc. Members commented on new dance steps and styles of dress, searching for fashions they could incorporate into their own performances later that year. Not all comments voiced admiration: those present also pointed out unconvincing performances, and one china morena’s on-camera fall provoked chuckles and gasps: “Lo hizo mal!” The sense was one of comparing what they did in Charrúa with the “real” thing, an ideal many of those present had only ever seen on video.

When the two videos had finished, the gathering ended, in a way coming full circle. With all members now gathered, the lay minister, who had been waiting for the video to finish, led the group in prayer. With a final blessing conferred, the velada was brought to a close.

The velada anticipated a spectacular moment that had yet to come. It was a seemingly singular religious event which in fact involved many different elements—devotional, folkloric, social, and institutional—and inserted participants into a wide range of possible identifications, networks, and systems of meaning. The affective, emotional elements such as joy (of nostalgic reminiscence, of joint creative production) and satisfaction (of displaying social ascent or of vindicating a national identification), together with the emotive force of music and movement, heightened the experience and its meaningfulness to the individuals who participated.

To elaborate this point further, in this section that follows, I explore how one dancer understands and interprets her experiences of participation through narrative, constructing it as a core component of a personal transformation.

Julia’s Story: Nada que ver con lo que yo era (Nothing like I was before)

Julia’s long, angular face, her tiny frame, and serious eyes belied the lightness of step for which she had become known within folkloric dance fraternities. When she spoke about how and why she started dancing, she described a scenario in which participation in a religious-folkloric fraternity was central to her transformation from isolated, passive, and hidden to agentive, social, and visible.

Julia was born in Potosí to a single mother, and the two moved to Oruro when Julia was 17 in search of wage labor opportunities. It was there that she became acquainted with the urban folkloric dances featured in that city’s now-famous Carnaval, and she made plans to join a diablada dance fraternity with a friend. When she described this to me, she also related a description of the person she was ‘before’:

… [S]e puede hablar directamente con la persona que se encarga de organizar el grupo. Pero yo en aquel entonces era demasiado tímida, entonces no me animaba a nada. Y cuando este amigo me dijo, “¿Por qué no te animas? Yo te hago entrar.” Entonces, me había decidido.
…You can just talk directly to the person in charge of the group. But back then I was too shy, I didn’t dare to do anything. And when this friend said, “Why don’t you go for it? I’ll get you in.” Then, I had decided.

The previous self she described throughout our interview was a shy, dependant person who had trouble not only speaking but also acting, or rather, propelling herself into action (“animarse,” a verb which can also imply mustering the courage to try something). Not surprisingly, therefore, her plans were put on hold when her mother and uncle decided she would accompany him to Buenos Aires to “try their luck” (“probar suerte”) in the job market. Once there, Julia found work almost immediately as a domestic servant. Still, she had trouble adjusting to the new environment, experiencing loneliness, cross cultural misunderstandings, and a failed marriage.

Eventually, however, she was propelled into action by a cousin who persuaded her to join a fraternity that danced tinkus. Tinkus can be described as an urban representation or imagination of rural campesinos from the Potosí region. Ideally dancers perform in handspun outfits with sandals, or just barefoot, to the panpipe music. Movements are considered more “rough” and less refined, or as Julia later described them, “más bruto,”—with, for example, fast hopping movements or short steps often with the head down and the shoulders somewhat arched over. Julia described the beginning of her participation in this fraternity as finding her “vocación”, a starting point from which emerged new ways of behaving, a new sense of self-confidence, and ultimately a new self—one she jokingly described as “una loca suelta” — bolder, more agentive, and comfortable among a mixed group of youngsters (Argentine and Bolivian, male and female).

Como que siempre tuve esa vocación, como que estaba dormida. Entonces el primer año me costo mucho por el tema de la vergüenza, eso de la timidez. Vos me ves y no lo vas a creer como era antes. Yo tengo un video en casa, tengo una cara de asustada, que no sabía donde meterme porque estaba con un miedo. Pero después ya paso el otro año, al otro año y los otros años ya no.
It’s like I always had this vocation, but it was sleeping inside of me. So the first year it was a bit hard because of the shame, this shyness. You see me now and you can’t believe what I was like before. I have a video at home, and I have the most frightened face, I didn’t know where to hide because I was so afraid. But then another year passed, then another, then another and then it wasn’t so bad.

Despite this experience, Julia decided she was too old to continue dancing in the group. She had always found the morenada an attractive dance: more “suave,” less tiring (cansador) and with beautiful clothes that marked one’s economic success. It is only the “new” Julia, transformed figuratively in terms of internal change, and literally, in terms of economic and geographic change, that is able to dance la morenada: “allá [en Bolivia] morenada ni lo pensé.” Julia also identified with the symbolism of the dance, as she understood it, as expressing the suffering of people brought to work in a foreign land:

Porque justamente la morenada me parece que ha nacido, acá está explicado más bien, ha nacido de la época de la esclavitud. Por eso, las caretas con las lenguas afuera. Porque, yo eso, por ejemplo, no lo sabía cuando estaba en Bolivia, eso me lo enteré acá recién, nunca en mi vida hubiera imaginado que habían traído esclavos de África para trabajar en las minas de Potosí. Y como ya Bolivia es mucha altura, entonces, los negritos, pobres, no podían trabajar, dicen, en la mina. Les agarraba el apunamiento urgente, eso, se cansaban, a eso representa la careta. Entonces los bailes en sí son de hombre, más de hombre que de mujer, la mujer más la integraron a la danza para que sea más lindo, más bonito, para que se vea. Pero en sí es de hombre. Entonces a raíz de eso todas esas formas…. Por ejemplo hoy por hoy voy a Bolivia y me agito una barbaridad, me agarra apunamiento. La primera vez que fui pensé que yo estaba enferma y por eso me sentía así. No. Nada que ver. Es que ya estoy aclimatizada acá entonces, cuando voy allá. Acá te puedo correr tres o cuatro cuadras, allá no puedo una cuadra porque me caigo. Me pongo a pensar, digo, pobrecitos estos, muchachos que lo trajeron de su país en ese entonces, los trataron como animales. Por suerte que hoy por hoy no hay. A raíz de eso nace la morenada.
Precisely because la morenada seems to me—and here it’s explained well—was born during the age of slavery. That’s why [there are] masks with the tongues hanging out. Because, I didn’t, for example, know this in Bolivia, I found out here, never in my life did I imagine that they brought slaves from Africa to work in the mines of Potosí. And since Bolivia is very high in altitude, the poor “negritos” couldn’t work, they say, in the mines. They got severe altitude sickness; this tired them, that’s what the masks represent. So the dances in themselves are men’s dances, more for men than women, women were added to make it more beautiful, nicer to look at. But in and of itself it’s a man’s dance. That’s the root of its forms… For example nowadays I go to Bolivia and I get really shaken up, I get altitude sickness. The first time I went back I thought I was sick, but that’s why I felt that way. No. That had nothing to do with it. It’s that I am acclimatized to here, so when I go there. Here I can run three or four blocks, there I can’t run one because I collapse. I start thinking, poor things, back then so many were brought from their countries, treated like animals. Luckily nowadays that doesn’t happen. La morenada was born out of that…

It is too much of a simplification to see in Julia’s empathetic words an equation of her experiences with slavery, herself with the African others she imagines, or even of folkloric dancers overall with the characteristics of those whose clothes they inhabit. Hans Buechler, a scholar of Bolivian culture and society, points out that most of the dances he observed in Bolivian Aymara fiestas were “parodies of social situations other than those with which the dancer identifies” (1980: 42). However, the imagery adds meaning to Julia’s situation, to her own suffering, and to her experiences of being uprooted and relocated.

At the same time it is difficult to reconcile Julia’s emerging agency with her seeming acceptance of the subordination of women’s performance in the morenada. Women were only included as morenada dance performers within the last few decades, with cholas previously performed by men in women’s clothing. Although women are increasingly prominent as dancers and organizers, their presence is considered secondary to the more core representation of male experience and suffering. This is one of many ways in which folklore (and the nation-ness it implies) and religion inform each other. Julia’s casual comment about the dance as “more a man’s dance” reflects both the particular themes of her own narrative and broad cultural inputs such as conceptualizations of history and of men as its central protagonists. In other words, her struggle to speak and act for herself is on-going.
Within her narration, Julia also expressed a developing religious devotion that emerged through folkloric practice and which was intertwined with her understanding of self and of her journey as a historical subject. Julia described how her awareness of faith slowly developed into an experience or feeling of faith:

Al bailar ahora lo hago con fe por la Virgen, no como lo pensaba allá en Bolivia, porque me gustaba bailar y nada más… Porque pienso que empecé a tomar conciencia. Por ahí antes era muy inconsciente, o no valorizaba, no. Va, siempre tuve fe porque la que me crío fue mi abuela más que mi mamá y ella me enseñó mucho lo que es la fe, o algo que sé de la religión es por mi abuela. Ella era muy católica y lo practicaba todo lo que es el catolicismo. Yo no lo practico pero las enseñanzas de ella me quedaron todavía. Aparte que cuando fui a bailar a los Tinkus fue que empecé más a bailar así, con más fe, pidiendo a la Virgen como, por ejemplo, pedía que mis hijos estudiaran, que a mis hijos les vaya bien. Y es como todo se me fue cumpliendo, por ahí no todo así ‘wau’ no, pero hubo un momento que mis dos hijos consiguieron trabajo, terminaron el secundario, ingresaron a la facultad. Por eso a veces digo que no sabía que la felicidad dolía, porque, y hubo un momento en que sentía un dolor acá en el pecho, me sentía tan feliz por mis hijos. Entonces, bueno, así esos tres años fue para pedido y después bailé los otros tres años para agradecer a la Virgen todo lo que me dio porque todo lo que pedí que se me fue cumpliendo…
Now I dance out of faith and for the Virgin, not like I conceived of it in Bolivia, because I like to dance and nothing else… Because I think I became more aware. Maybe before I was very unaware, or I didn’t appreciate, no. I always had faith because my grandmother raised me more than my mother did and she taught me a lot about faith, or what I know about religion I learned from my grandmother. She was very much a practicing Catholic. I don’t practice, but her teachings are still with me. Also, when I went to dance Tinkus I began to dance with more faith, asking the Virgin, for example, that my children studied, that they did well. And it’s like everything was fulfilled, not like ‘wow,’ but there was a moment when my two children found jobs, they finished high school, they started university. That’s why I say sometimes that I didn’t know that happiness hurt, because, and there was a moment at which I felt an ache in my chest, I felt so happy for my children. So I danced three years for my requests and later another three to thank the Virgin for what she gave me because all that I asked for was fulfilled…

This passage captures something of the less tangible yet powerful affective potential of such practice much more expressively than any analysis I can offer. Its devotional relevance is not universal or constant. Clearly dance has not always been meaningful to Julia as an extension of her sense of faith. But its potential to carry such meaning enhanced its relevance. It enabled Julia to make meaning out of intense, contradictory emotions that arose out of experience, such as happiness so intense that “it hurt.” Dance was one of Julia’s main vehicles for understanding and expressing (to herself and those around her) her changed self in terms of personality, physical ability, and spiritual outlook. Moreover, fraternity dance as a socially legitimate endeavor provided a space of encounter for people like Julia with experiential and cultural commonalities but whose work and life scattered them in clandestine clothing factories, in gated construction work sites, in the homes of Argentine families, or among the ever-expanding alleyways in the villas and marginal neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

The excerpts of Julia’s story should not be read as a representation of uncritical or homogenous experience. Nor should we quickly generalize the velada description before it. Folkloric fraternities in Bolivia, Argentina, and elsewhere involve continually evolving practice with new participants confronting novel contexts. As we can see, a dancer’s own relationship to practice is something that changes over time. For the sake of privacy, clarity, and brevity, I have not included in Julia’s story passages where she expresses discontent or characterizes internal diversity and conflict within the fraternity, such as complaints about organization, internal conflicts, and other critiques of dance and of fiestas.

Julia’s comments, however, demonstrate that dancers are not necessarily activists re-writing themselves into national narratives. Nor are they merely seduced by religious doctrine or operating under a false or non-discursive consciousness. Our ideas about belonging—local, national, or otherwise—are built through intimacy. Folkloric devotional practice, to be a useful device, can not only be an assessment of how nation and religion buttress each other. Considering such practice demands exploring how this work actually gets done: where the intimacies of group belonging emerge, how exclusions and inclusions are understood, how the suffering of dislocation and the complexities of gender are lived, and as importantly, when empowerment and marginalization are experienced.

Conclusion—Living the Spectacular

Morenadas generally organize and recruit members based on commonalities. Sometimes these are singular and well defined, such as a shared occupation, a common regional identification, or a shared town of residence or origin. Other groups form simply through networks of friends and family. These varied loci of commonality often change over time. In addition to such potential commonalities, in Buenos Aires, Bolivians who dance the morenada and other folkloric dances can be said to share the stigmas and stereotypes associated with ‘being Bolivian’ and with other social conditions often related to immigration status (e.g., difficulties related to a lack of documentation or of other resources). While these have the potential to intensify a sense of commonality, participants also bring with them diverse experiences of marginalization, different regional identifications (e.g., camba, colla), varied racial and political orientations (from indigenista to apolitically mestizo), not to mention differences in generation and gender.

I identify in morenada dance practice an emerging sense of belonging that is oriented around a sense of pride and agency, a public stance about being Bolivian that draws upon both the religious and folkloric aspects involved in the practice. This devotional orientation makes visible the relevance of Catholic ritual without presupposing any one way of being religious or Catholic, and expresses an affinity with distinct social practices and with the status implications currently associated with this dance.

The coexistence of folkloric and religious meaning within the same practice heightens its relevance to diverse subjects who, through participation, become part of a continually emerging group. By “group” I do not mean either ethnic or religious group as these are often conceived, but rather as a group that emerges out of participation and that meaningfully relates its members to varied potential axes of identification including religion, nation, ethnicity, gender, work, etc. These axes, which inform the formation of selves and groups, provide generally stable reference points, but they are also themselves the dynamic products of always transforming social relationships. Diverse subjects are incorporated into groups through their own individual interests, goals, and tastes. However, the affective experiences which emerge out of practice and charge it with meaning are also clearly relevant. Generated out of dimensions of practice such as group prayer and the public display of bodies and abilities, these heightened emotional experiences form a crucial part of group-ness, of learning what membership means. This idea brings to mind the work of Turner (1969) and others who identify ritual activity with a break between the normative and extraordinary, with the creation of a liminal in-between space where old rules and hierarchies do not apply and where a sense of togetherness unites participants in ritual time. In fact this seems like an especially good fit for describing the experiences of people such as immigrants, often represented as living in-between cultural worlds. However, I think such a maneuver obscures what I instead highlight: this practice is very much embedded in the everyday and ordinary. It relates to and builds on-going social relationships and hierarchies. It plays a role in facilitating full participation in multiple social (and political) locations (See Eade and Sallnow 1991).

In Buenos Aires, the morenadas have begun to expand into other social and physical spaces and roles, albeit without any great intentionality. For example, they have begun to replace other cultural spokespeople (more traditional folkloric ballets) on television programs and cultural fairs. Julia describes a more agentive self that resulted from her transformation into a dancer/participant. Her transformation, albeit individual, can even be seen as a process that includes the interview itself (and my telling of the interview here): the transformation was largely an empowerment of her social self, her ability to be with and among people and groups. In this sense it is a transformation that needs to be seen or related to others to be fully realized.
The affective experiences that charge these activities with meaning almost inevitably defy description; attempts to dissect them usually fare even more poorly. Feintuch (1995: 303) describes a phenomenon that seems close to that which I observed, a participatory process that allows musicians “to make a kind of connection, to feel a kind of involvement, and to engage in a form of experience that brought me closer to something [called] knowing.” This knowing, he claims, pushes participants “more deeply into the intricate and complicated web” of meanings and associations without granting anyone perfect access to a “musical world” (ibid. 302).

The co-existence of the devotional and folkloric whether in the form of signifiers, desires, or relationships contributes to the morenada’s growing appeal among fiesta participants in both Bolivia and Buenos Aires. Perhaps more than any other Bolivian folkloric dance it embodies the simultaneous expression of submission (to a patron saint) and confrontation (as it often involves an almost aggressive assertion of status and rights such as when groups spontaneously block roads to dance in the streets). Practitioners, fans, and especially their critics are generally aware of such seeming contradictions which, however, mask the synergy between folklore and religion. Historically they have often been mutually defining, albeit in partial and problematic ways. Religion is often considered a marker of ethnicity and ethnicity an indicator of religious faith. For these Bolivian immigrants, the legitimacy fraternity dance as a way of enacting religion also provided a means by which their multiple exclusions were challenged and a new sense of group identity proposed.

Alicia Carmona her PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from New York University. Her research interests include immigrant cultural production, mobility and personhood, work and leisure, and hemispheric constructions of community and diversity. A native nuryorican, she has lived in Buenos Aires since 2003, after having moved there to learn about other Latino immigrant experiences. Her thesis, titled “Bailaremos: Participation in Morenada Dance Fraternities among Bolivian Immigrants in Argentina,” deals with community and identity formation among Bolivians in Buenos Aires, (Capital Federal) Argentina.


  [1] All personal names mentioned are pseudonyms. All interviews were conducted by the author. Interview material and quotations from secondary sources are provided in their original language.

  [2] Mitayo refers to labor/laborers in the mita, a forced re-settlement of workers throughout diverse regions in both state and private service. “One of the original features of the Andean world,” it was re-shaped and exploited during the Inca and later Spanish colonial empires. See Wachtel 1982.

  [3] "China is a colloquial term for girl or women used in many parts of the Andes, without necessarily referencing any connection to China or what are considered "Chinese" traits or characteristics (chino/china)."

Works Cited

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Albó, Xavier and Matías Preiswerk. Los señores de Gran Poder. La Paz: Centro de Teología Popular. Benencia, Roberto and Gabriela Karasik (eds.). Inmigración limítrofe: Los bolivianos en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1995.

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Maguid, Alicia. 1997. “Migrantes limítrofes en el mercado de trabajo del área metropolitana de Buenos Aires, 1980-1996.” Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos, Año 12, no. 35 (1997): 31-62.

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