Life’s Rich Pageant: Mama Negra Starts Saturday in Latacunga
Mama Negra, one of Ecuador’s most colorful and popular celebrations, begins this Saturday in the small town of Latacunga. The festival integrates the Spanish, Incan, Aymaran, Mayan and African cultures, and in recent years, the gay culture as well. The celebration, held on the second Saturday of November, is a fascinating event: a mixture of divergent traditions and a public celebration of civic pride.
Latacunga, approximately an hour and a half south of Quito on the Pan-American Highway, is the capital of Cotopaxi Province. The town plays host to the famous Mama Negra festival, which is also known as De la Mama Negra or Fiesta del Capitana. The holiday has deep roots in the history of Latacunga and can be traced back to the 1700s. Mama Negra, which translates to “the Black Mother,” takes place twice each year. It is renowned as one of Ecuador’s most unique cultural events.
The fiesta goes back to the time when the Spanish first colonized Latacunga for its rich mineral resources. The native inhabitants of the area were involuntarily made to convert to Catholicism. However, this conversion was not completely accepted by the locals. The indigenous, in turn, took many of their existing religious elements, like polytheism, and combined them with the new Spanish Catholicism and it all become something of hybrid religion.
In 1742, the Cotopaxi volcano erupted, setting the festival in motion. The region’s citizens petitioned the Virgin of Mercy (Virgen De la Merced) whom they had chosen as the patron of Cotopaxi. When Latacunga was spared, they began a yearly celebration in her honor. That is also the reason why Latacunga’s inhabitants call the Virgin “Abogada y Patrona del Volcan,” meaning advocate and patron of the volcano.
Traditionally, the festival was held on the last weekend of September. In the 1960s, however, the fiesta almost died out. Then the Cotopaxi governor, Guerrero, made a proposition that it be hosted bi-annually along with Latacunga’s Independence Day celebrations on November 11. The people agreed: two celebrations in one year — great! The first Mama Negra festival now takes place on September 23 – 24, but the much larger and more colorful celebration comes in November. The dates vary every year. Sometimes it coincides with Latacunga’s Independence Day and other times with days around the Day of the Dead.
The event is made up of a parade of notable icons: the Moorish King, the Angel of the Stars, the Captain of the Guard, the Sergeant, Los Huacos — representing the pre-Columbian heritage of Latacunga, and the Camisonas. This parade attracts many of Ecuador’s best performers, including musicians, dancers and marching bands, who complement the festive framework. Their joyfulness and color brings out the hospitable and kind character of the Latacunga community.
The arrival of the Mama Negra on horseback is the grand finale, and is distinguished by the horseman’s face painted in black while he holds a doll high for the revelers to see. Mama Negra herself is a combination of the Virgin and African deities.
Mama Negra bears the doll Manuelita Baltazara, which represents her daughter. This doll symbolizes unity and brotherhood among the Latacunga people. Mama Negra is decoratively costumed, and her performance is punctuated by spraying water and milk on parade goers, while wine and candy containers are tossed to the crowds.
Local restaurateurs serve up Latacunga’s most famous contribution to Ecuadorian cuisine called Chugchucaras. This is made of deep fried pork, mote (boiled hominy), empanadas, popcorn, potatoes, fried plantain, maize and topped with pork rinds. Be sure to try this endearing and mouth-watering delicacy while you are there. Adding to the fiesta atmosphere, strong homemade alcoholic drinks are also freely passed between revelers along the parade route, if you are so inclined. All in all it’s a delightful celebration that everyone should experience at least once.
The Mama Negra festival perfectly symbolizes the rich pageantry of life. A melding of many divergent cultures, traditions and religions, this unique celebration adds to the depth and wonder that is Ecuador.
Book accommodations at least a couple days in advance if you plan on staying overnight in Latacunga.
Local travel companies and tour operators may be able assist you with hiring a guide to accompany you, or an English-speaking driver, which can be very helpful if your Spanish is poor. Going it alone can be overwhelming with the big crowds.
Buses to Latacunga leave from Quito’s main bus station Quitumbe in the far south of town ($1.50, two hours) and will drop you at the bus terminal in Latacunga on the Panamericana Hwy.
By Rental Car
A good way to enjoy this festival is to rent a car in Quito and drive down to Latacunga via the scenic Panamericana Highway. Be sure to hire a vehicle from a reputable rental agency and ensure that the car is well registered with DVLA contact. Allow extra travel time for traffic congestion, which can be heavy on festival days.