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  • The Blessing on the Mall

    Every July 15 to 18, the otherwise small, sleepy town of Paucartambo, Peru, becomes a kaleidoscope of color, music, and dance for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen. One of the many dance troupes that performs in this annual religious festival is the elaborately adorned, masked Contradanza group, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to share their customs at the 2015 Folklife Festival.

    The Virgen del Carmen is one of the roles of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church and the patron saint of Paucartambo. Although the troupe would be back in Peru in time for the Fiesta, they would miss the Misa de Despierto, the Mass of Awakening, held July 1 as a way to symbolically remind parishioners of the coming festivities. Working with Folklife Festival staff, the dancers decided that the mass could be held in a local D.C. church, separated from the normally scheduled masses so that the Virgen could be honored specifically, or that a priest could perform a blessing on the National Mall.

    So, the phone calls and emails began. Peru program co-curator Olivia Cadaval emailed several Spanish-speaking Catholic churches in the area. As July 1 rapidly approached, I started making phone calls too. Luckily, and with only a few days to spare, Father Evelio Menjivar-Ayala from Our Lady Queen of the Americas near Dupont Circle replied. He was very willing to perform either a mass at Queen of the Americas or a blessing and homily at the Festival, and we decided on the latter.

    Father Evelio is originally from El Salvador and now lives in Washington, D.C. Despite differing origins, as a priest of the Catholic Church he was able to provide a homily and a blessing on site which would meet the religious responsibilities of the Paucartambo troupe. The result, a coming together of far-apart communities due to a common faith, became a theme of the homily he delivered, playing out on many different levels. The Contradanza troupe, acting as ambassadors of their culture, were bringing the spirit and music of their town not only to Festival visitors but to many Peruvians living in the United States, some of whom may have been away from their country for years. Due to promotion of the event on social media, many people came to the mass and left flowers for the Virgen.

    Father Evelio performs a homily in the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen tent at the Festival. Photo by Xóchitl Chávez
    Father Evelio performs a homily in the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen tent at the Festival. Photo by Xóchitl Chávez

    Father Evelio also included a message about Pachamama, the Mother Earth figure common to many Latin American cultures, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Pachamama is an important figure for many Peruvians, and the traditions around her tend to mingle with the traditions related to the Virgin Mary: since both are seen as sustaining life, they are venerated in a similar way.

    In addition to Father Evelio’s generous contribution, the Afro-Peruvian music group Tutuma also asked if they could venerate the Virgen by performing a dance in her honor. Coming from the coastal town of El Carmen, Peru, the Virgin of Carmen is their patron saint as well, although they normally dance in her honor December 26 and 27 as part of the Atajo de Negritos.

    In the end, the Misa de Despierto was a true coming together of communities and histories, from a local Washington, D.C., priest of Salvadorian roots to a deep Afro-Peruvian tradition, to a half-Andean, half-European fiesta attended by thousands of pilgrims and tourists, and involving many Peruvians in the United States. This is just one more example of how the Smithsonian Folklife Festival brings together diverse peoples and traditions for an improved understanding of our shared cultural heritage.

    Lauris McQuoid-Greason was a participant staff intern for the 2015 Folklife Festival. She is a master’s candidate at Virginia Tech, studying French and Spanish language and literatures. The video was produced by Victoria Gunawan, a Festival social media intern and a communications student at Eastern Mennonite University.

    Special thanks to Ronald Villasante, Xochitl Chavez, and Father Evelio Menjivar-Ayala for their help with this post.

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