A Feast of Color

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on April 17, 2010

The small shop is unavoidable. It occupies the inner corner of the Jimenez Alley – not far from Pepe’s and Coca Travels – and it can be reached from Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz streets. Most of its merchandise is visible from the street. Well, almost so, the altitude sun causes colors to fade away, enjoying the masks from the street is impossible. Only from inside the incredible merchandise can be fully appreciated. Mama Coca sells Carnival masks, designed and modelled by the owner. Due to the nature of the work, it is possible to contact Cecilia and her husband Eddy Valdez also when the shop is closed at the phone (workshop: 2282188 shop: 2319816 cel: 72078639) or at the email tienda.mamacoca@gmail.com.

Downscaled masks, typical masks, unusual models belonging to remote areas, and even coca masks, which give the shop its name. They aren’t ordered in any peculiar fashion and the visitor is encouraged to explore – and even touch – the attractive items while getting useful information from Cecilia, the owner. Some of the masks are typical of La Paz and represent local deities. Inca styled masks and finger-sized ones reminding of Alasitas. Beginning January 24th, Alasitas is a miniatures shopping festival in honor of the abundance idol called the Ekeko. Locals believe that by offering him miniatures of goods they want in real life, they will get the real versions during the year. Fake money, cars and houses are the most popular items for sale. In this case the shop offers "Alasitas" versions of the most popular Carnival masks, allowing taking them abroad easily. These masks make awesome souvenirs; however, the larger ones are quite bulky. Luckily, the shop can pack them properly and send them around the world. Due to the materials used -sheep wool metals wood - and the fact that these masks are hollow structures, they are very light, sending them is inexpensive. The shop also constructs masks according to the customers’ specifications.

The best way of putting the masks in a logical context is understanding that the Bolivian Carnival is a reenactment of different periods of its history, religion and of popular myths. Usually in February, the Carnival in La Paz is celebrated by groups dancing the "Morenada" or the "Diablada" along the main streets. In Catholic societies, Carnival is celebrated before Lent and is seen as an opportunity to celebrate with parades and masquerading, while disposing of the rich food and drink before the Lent period. Usually, a syncretism with ancient rites and customs can be seen in the parades. Bolivia is not different; its parades show residues of ancient cults and of events related to colonial times’ slavery. Each dancing group usually represents a given group of union workers. The flag they carry states the exact union they represent (all the flags are the same, only the union’s name changes). The dancers belong to that union and had paid a significant amount of their income in order to participate; participation is considered prestigious.

Most groups dance the Diablada and Morenada, but also other dances – like the Caporal and Llamerada can be enjoyed. In all these dances the music is monotonous and is produced with noisy brass instruments. Every mask depicts a different role in the dance and thus they occupied very specific positions in the dancing caravan. The best way of differentiate among the dances is looking at the dresses.

The Morenada commemorates dances related to the black slaves brought from Africa to work in Potosi's silver mines, and it can be identified by the masks of black men, always with bulging eyes and a large tongue hanging outside the mouth. The first reflects the altitude, while the second makes allusion to the forced labor they faced. These dancers are called "morenos" (dark men); the female dancers next to them are called "chinas morenas" (dark Chinese women – "Chinese" can be used a friendly referral to a woman, due to the slanted eyes of the denizens). In reality, most slaves died within a few months of their arrival at the mines. The Caporal is a related dance featuring the people that supervised the slaves work. The men use elaborated customs with hanging bells attached to the trousers, which allow the dancers only slow, pendulum-like moves. The dancing women use peculiar customs: hats belonging to 19th century London, long-sleeved, colored blouses, high-heeled boots often reaching well above the knees and skirts that seem to end before they begin.

The Diablada is derived from a local cult to the Devil and features the most elaborated customs. The dance leader is the "Angel Miguel," while behind him is a horde of scary devils. The devil masks are especially elaborated, featuring blue eyes – a reminder of the Spaniard conquerors – long, convoluted horns and serpents, lizards and other creepy creatures on their top. The "Oso" (bear) makes sure all the devils dance along the right path, while the "Condor" moves around the group announcing the arrival of the parade to the spectators. The Llamerada honors the llama herders, the men in this dance can be seen with little llama dolls on their shoulders.

All this is spectacular, but that’s not all. Cecilia – the owner and main artist – has also developed a range of masks belonging to Andean Spirits. These include the sun, the moon, the wind, fire and water, and – expectedly – the coca mask.

Mama Coca
872, Jimenez Street
La Paz


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