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Urqupiña Travels: A meditation on the Virgin Mary, displacement, and agency

Urqupiña, the name of the Marian advocation of Quillacollo, Bolivia, is Quechua and translates as “She is already up on the hill.” It is the phrase a young shepherdess used to tell her people about the whereabouts of the miraculous lady with whom she had convened. According to the legend, she thus inaugurated this specific Marian shrine. Departing from Mary of Urqupiña's primordial being already up there, this article is a free mediation on the themes of mobility/displacement and agency as they relate to a Marian image in several contexts. While this text exclusively follows Mary of Urqupiña through some of the contexts of her existence, it aims to provide some associative suggestions for a consideration of the specific material, spatial, and temporal conditions that define the modes of displacement and participation in social practice that are characteristic for Marian images more generally.


Every year in mid-August, Virgin Mary of Urqupiña, full of grace, goes on a journey. By contemporary standards, it is a small journey. It is something like a day trip. But Mary, in spite of her youthful looks, is an old-fashioned lady who does not seem to savor much the perks of modern transportation. She likes to be carried around on a litter. Or if she travels in an automobile, she stands on top of it, in the midst of her bed of expensive drapery, flowers and silverware, thus making it impossible for the driver to move her any quicker than the litter carriers would have. Virgin Mary likes pedestrian speed. She also likes to travel with an entourage. And a big one at that. She prefers her entourage to walk, and to walk next to her, or below her to be precise.

She likes to swim in a sea of people, which might explain her proclivity for the slow traveling speeds, as well as the short distances she covers. And she likes to receive these people at the end of her travel, one by one, to give them a blessing and listen to their wishes, which she occasionally, miraculously, even somewhat predictably, grants.

Virgin Mary of Urqupiña’s trip takes place on August 16, the last of three consecutive days of festivities in her honor.[1]August 15, the main day of her festival, is dedicated in the Catholic world to the commemoration of the Assumption of the Mother of God, which is why Mary of Urqupiña is also called María Asunta, or Mary of the Assumption. Yet, contrary to what one might expect, she does not travel to Heaven. Not yet perhaps. She might have suspended that travel, just to stay a little longer with the people who entreat her to stay with them and help them with their lives. But perhaps, she is also already up there. After all, she has an astonishing ability to multiply, to spread, to expand her range, to be already there: home, making a place for the pilgrims to arrive, the travelers on their path to faith and God.

“Urqupiña” is Bolivian Quechua and translates as “She is already on the hill.” Such was the expression used by the young shepherdess of Quillacollo, a town in the Andean valley system of Cochabamba, Bolivia, when she was asked by her people about the whereabouts of that glorious and extraneous lady who revealed herself to the young girl. “She is already on the hill.” The hill lies slightly outside of Quillacollo. Some say it was a huaca, an old site of worship for the local, indigenous population before Mary made it her home. There is, to my knowledge, no definite archaeological or archival evidence for such a claim. But in the proximities of the hill, the silos are still visible which the Incas built to store the grain they produced in the region. During the times of the Incas, the valleys of Cochabamba were a focal point for the mit'a, the Incan system of displacing people throughout the empire for the sake of organizing their agricultural production (Larson 1998: 28-31). And at the archaeological museum of Cochabamba, there is ample material evidence that the Incan mit'a was preceded by a very long tradition of people seasonally moving in and out of the region to sow and harvest the corn the valley system of Cochabamba had to offer. The valleys of Cochabamba, it seems, are a node within paths of migration since time immemorial.

In our days, they certainly are, if mainly for people leaving the region. The population of the valleys decreases steeply during the southern winter, which is when seasonal migrants go to Argentina to work as farm hands. In the 1970s and 80s, in the time of an expanding coca economy, the valleys were one of the main regions of origin from which the coca growing, tropical Chapare was colonized. And for a few years now, the coca growers, as well as the valley’s peasants, have been moving through the city of Cochabamba in a steady stream, if only temporarily and to carry their modest wealth to “Urqupiña Travels” and other travel agencies. They convert their wealth into a “tourist package” to Europe—a package that includes a flight, hotel reservations, and a crash course in how to behave credibly like a tourist, for instance to the Marian sanctuaries of France and Spain. The inhabitants of the Cochabamba region are known as a traveling folk. And wherever they go—in recent years, mostly to Spain, but also to Argentina, to the United States, to Brazil, to Sweden, among other places—they organize small versions of the festival of Urqupiña.

They organize a celebration of the Virgin of Urqupiña, one may surmise, to find a little bit of home and comfort, of emotional certainty, in the places to which they migrate. They try to reproduce as best they can the same sequence of religious rites, the same spatial arrangements, and the same paths of religious displacement which define the festival and convert the town of Quillacollo into a site of religious importance and a focus for memories of home. They set up an altar for the Virgin, their image of the Virgin, their replica of the image of Quillacollo. They pray to the image and take it on a procession, even if a small one. They often organize some confraternities of folkloric dancers who perform in honor of the Virgin, just as they do in Quillacollo. And at the end of the dance, Mary, the replica image, bestowed with miraculous powers through complex relations of identity-in-difference first with Mary of Urqupiña and then with the Mother of Christ, listens solemnly to their supplications.

Mary of Urqupiña, the one from Quillacollo, is, of course, nothing else than an advocation of the Mother of God, the universal one, whose natural mode of displacement is that of multiplication, rather than travel. Typically, the Virgin reveals herself at a given place in an apparition, or sometimes her image is found. And where she materializes, she generally converts the space into a sanctuary, a fiercely local place whose name then comes to be known throughout the Catholic world as the name of one of her advocations and a site to which the pilgrims go to visit her at her home: Mount Carmel, Guadalupe, Lourdes, Częstochowa, and also―unnamed but referenced in the name of the advocation―the hill in Quillacollo on which Virgin Mary already is.

But transformation into a sacred place is not what the Bolivian migrants can hope for with regard to their own whereabouts. After all, their Virgin did not just turn up in one of those moments of unannounced apparition through which the Mother of God claims spaces as if she had always already inhabited them. On the migrants' altar, the Virgin bears the memory of her displacement. She is just a copy of the one in Quillacollo, and most likely, she has been bought at a market stall just outside the temple of that town. Or rather, she has been acquired in an unspeakable transaction, because, as anthropologist Marta Giorgis learned from Bolivians who hold a festival of Urqupiña in the Argentinian town of Córdoba, the Virgin is not supposed to be an object that can be bought and sold, but an agentive counterpart in a ritual economy in which the worshipers offer their faith and endearment in exchange for her miraculous interventions (Giorgis 2004: 33).[2] For her very existence as the sort of agentive being as which she is revered, the memory of her displacement—the story of how precisely she separated from the Image of Quillacollo and followed the migrants with whom she now can be found—would seem to be a problem.

In Quillacollo, however, Mary's journey takes her from her everyday abode in the Cathedral San Ildefonso back to the hill from which she came and on which, according to her name, she already is. To people from Quillacollo, the hill is the “Calvary,” the site of Christ's Crucifixion, even though, other than through its name, it does not make reference to Jesus Christ's ordeal and sacrifice for the purification of our sins. There are none of the representations of the stations of the Via Crucis which one would normally expect on a Calvary hill. It is first and foremost Mary's hill, the place where she first arrived and which, one may surmise, she was using as some sort of a launching ramp to her home when that young shepherdess told her people that Mary was already there, already ready to go where she had to go, and at the same time there to stay with the people of Quillacollo. Mary travels back to the site where she already was when she first came. She travels in commemoration of that very first act of defiance of space and time through which she came to be where she is. She revisits the site of her miraculous act of making herself a home, a site which stands, at the same time, as a memorial to her son's sacrifice for our sins. Being in time and space, not as a worldly traveler or even a migrant, but through religious procession and multiplication, Mary, blessed by God's grace which she passes on to her fellow humans, leads the pilgrims home. She leads them to her home, where she receives them individually to hear their pleas and to grant them—miraculously, if somewhat predictably.


Within the hierarchy of institutional offices of the Asociación de Fraternidades “Virgen de Urqupiña,” (Association of Fokloric Confraternities “Virgin of Urqupiña”) the secretary of ethnography and folklore and that of cofradía (brotherhood) are at the bottom. To be sure, everybody within the organization knows that what is being done is the staging of cultural heritage (“ethnography and folklore” in the institutional nomenclature) for purposes of Marian worship and, more specifically, for the strengthening of the fraternal bonds of the community of worshipers of the Virgin of Urqupiña (cofradía). Everybody, moreover, expects these two aspects to stand out, to be under the particularly critical scrutiny of outside observers, be they tourists, foreign anthropologists, or local newspaper commentators. Everybody acknowledges the normative imperative to produce a spectacle that beams with cultural and folkloric authenticity and a deep sense of spirituality. And this imperative corresponds quite well with their own sentiment. After all, they are proud Bolivians and faithful of the Virgin Mary.

And so they dance: 6,000 dancers, male and female, young and not so young, dressed as indigenous people from the eastern lowlands, the southern valleys, or the western highlands of Bolivia, or however Bolivian folklore imagines these peoples to dress like. They dance clad in expensive and richly embroidered costumes as Reyes Morenos (Black Kings), rather apocryphal figures hailing from local varieties of what Joseph Roach has termed circum-Atlantic performance (Roach 1996). They dance as Archangel Michael and a troop of Devils in the tradition of colonial religious and educational theater. They dance for two days in a row in a perpetual procession of more dancers and more musicians, so that it is known to the world that the people of Quillacollo are particularly faithful, particularly earnest in their lavish display of cariño, of care and affection, for the Virgin Mary of Urqupiña. They dance for national TV and tens of thousands of spectators. They arrive at the feet of the Virgin, “fraught with anxiety and a thousand sorrows,” where they prostrate themselves in reverence, to pray to God, to make their promesa (pledge), and to ask the Virgin for a little help: good health for the loved ones, and perhaps a little hand with the economy.[3]

There is no mistaking the fact that the people of the Asociación de Fraternidades are very serious about their faith and rigorous stewards of the national cultural heritage. Even so, a festival like this has to be organized. And its organization involves a lot: a lot of preparation and rehearsal, a lot of social engineering and conflict management, a lot of money, a lot of negotiating with potential sponsors, with the town authorities, and so forth. It also moves a lot. Money again, prestige, political influence. It is almost a tradition in its own right that the religious moment is preceded by months of fierce social conflict and political battles regarding aspects of its organization. Some of the town neighbors insist that the route of the folkloric parade should pass by their doorstep, because it was their fathers who first founded some of the confraternities, and ever since, the income from the sale of seats and services to spectators has been an important complement to the family economy. Sure, they would readily renounce that business opportunity if it were for the better of the festival. But since everybody knows that the money they would pass up would end up in someone else's purse—and that this someone would be so utterly undeserving—they will certainly not put up with any attempts at tinkering with the route.

Then there is the brewery which tries to acquire the exclusive right to install its vending posts along the route at a minimal cost. The town council, of course, insists in its prerogative to levy a tax for commercial use of public space. And was it not a religious festival, anyway, for which the consumption of alcoholic beverage should be ruled out entirely? But the Asociación has little income, and its dancers have to finance the entire spectacle. The costumes are not good enough for such a glorious festival if they are not new and expensive. The brass bands have to be hired, and they better be big and loud. And who is going to pay for the administrative overhead of an association of confraternities whose task it is to recruit and organize 6000 dancers? Is it not only fair that some of the cost of organization be passed on to the brewery, which is, other than the parish itself, the main beneficiary of the festival in economic terms? So, at least, was the reckoning some years ago, leading to an arrangement by virtue of which the town cedes the public space for the beer stalls to the Asociación who then negotiates a deal with the brewery. But, as of late, and not entirely unrelated to the problem with the route of the pageant, the tides are changing, and there are influential voices proposing a radical ban on alcoholic beverages for the entire festival.

In all these negotiations and organizational tasks, the Asociación has to be represented adequately. Ideally, this representation is achieved by an able board of directors, people who take on the responsibility and work for the common good and the propagation of the faith. But then, there needs to be oversight and mechanisms to keep the member confraternities aligned. For where there is money to be dealt, envy, distrust, fraud and self-enrichment are not far behind. Consequently, the structure of institutional offices of the Asociación begins with the president, the vice-president and the secretary of (exterior) relations, and then provides some instances for the mitigation and resolution of internal conflicts (secretaries of organization and conflict). Only then, at the very bottom of its organizational hierarchy, are the secretary of ethnography and folklore and the one of cofradía.

Now, this emphasis on business and organization to the detriment of folklore and spirituality is a reason for derision by outsiders, and regularly also for internal critique by members of the Asociación. They have no real faith, they do this just for the personal benefit and the beer they get from the brewery, people say. There is an inherent tension between what is perceived as the Virgin’s affairs and the more worldly circuits of economy and politicking which are spun around the organization of her festival and which, in fact, determine much of what goes on in Quillacollo. And it is precisely in this tension that the Virgin Mary of Urqupiña leaves the spatial confines of her sanctuary and walks out into the social and political life of her polity. As a member of that polity. And a very special member at that, an honorary citizen, a founding mother so to speak, whose intentions are not questioned and whose words―enigmatic as they are―are never contested.

Her words, deeds and intentions, though never contested, are often invoked. “The Virgin would cringe with embarrassment,” somebody says, “if she could hear your scandalous allegations.” Or, “The Virgin is not going to let me tell a lie. I am speaking nothing but the truth on this matter.” “We should be ashamed, we are not behaving in a way that is worthy of the Virgin.” And, “The Virgin does not want to see violence and debauchery at her festival.” The Virgin, by principle, speaks in the voice of righteousness and respect, of piety and modesty. Or so, at least, is the common understanding. But what precisely do righteousness and respect mean in practical terms? In a situation of conflict, which position is the pious and modest one? In a given dispute, which party is Mary siding with?

Mary of Urqupiña, the one who is already up on the hill, likes to be carried around. On big occasions on a litter or on top of a car, richly adorned with expensive drapery, flowers and silverware. But on smaller occasions, she settles with a pair of hands to carry her. Or not even her, the holy image, but one of the many replicas through which she participates in people's lives. On these occasions, she enters the fray and participates in the day-to-day issues of the polity. She travels with a group of people, perhaps a party in one of the conflicts surrounding her festival, in a little impromptu procession, to hear mass at the Cathedral. The people with whom she travels will hold her up high and explode firecrackers so that it is publicly known that the Virgin is with them. That they are her true devotees—those who, pursue their affairs through her, with her and for her, and whose wishes she occasionally, miraculously, even somewhat predictably grants.

Tobias Reu is a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at New York University. His research interests include folklore, popular religion, and the public sphere, and he has done extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Cochabamba, Bolivia. His PhD research with the association of folkloric dancers at the Bolivian festival of the Virgin of Urqupiña analyzes the forms of subjectivities and participation in the political process that emerge in the context of the saint's festival. As a spin off of his research, he has co-initiated the community website of the folkloric dancers of Urqupiña at


 [1] While preceded and followed by weeks of religious and folkloric activities, the core events of the festival of Urqupiña are the entrada folklórica (folkloric entry or parade) on August 14, the saint’s day proper with the main mass and a repetition of the entrada folklórica on August 15, and the romería (pilgrimage) of August 16.

 [2] By popular wisdom and academic analysis, Mary of Urqupiña counts as a particularly active counterpart in ritual economies entailing amounts of money large and small. See, for instance, Lagos (1993).

 [3] As the dancers arrive at the holy image, the brass bands sound a popular hymn that starts with the words “A vuestros pies, madre, llega un infeliz / cargado de angustias y de penas mil...” (“At your feet, mother, arrives a burdened sinner / fraught with anxiety and a thousand sorrows”). A minimal pledge to the Virgin consists in the promise to dance for her in three consecutive years.

Works Cited

Giorgis, Marta. 2004. La virgen prestamista: la fiesta de la Virgen de Urkupinfia en el boliviano Gran Cordoba. Buenos Aires: Editorial Antropofagia.

Lagos, Maria L. 1993. "We Have to Learn to Ask": Hegemony, Diverse Experiences, and Antagonistic Meanings in Bolivia. American Ethnologist 20, no. 1: 52-71.

Larson, Brooke. 1998. Cochabamba, 1550-1900: Colonialism and Agrarian Transformation in Bolivia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Roach, Joseph. 1996. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press.



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