In Latacunga, a city in Ecuador's highlands, the celebration of the Mama Negra or Black Mother is the most important tradition, celebrated in the month of September in honor of the Lady of Mercy.
The origins of the Mama Negra have been lost in time, and so many elements have been added to it throughout the years that it is practically impossible to determine how it began. It probably recalls the arrival of the black slaves brought by the Spanish to work on the plantations and the silver mines. The arrival of the dark skinned slaves made a significant impression on the local indigenous population who in turn dramatized their presence, linking it with a particularly violent explosion of Cotopaxi Volcano in 1742 and the pleadings for protection to the Lady of Mercy; all these events mixed and in time became a festival procession with the Mama Negra, a symbiosis of the indigenous, Spanish and African cultures, which is the heart of the Ecuadorian nation.
In essence, it is a parade with multiple characters that starts with the "guacos", dressed in white, who cleanse the way of bad spirits, and make way for the "Angel of the Star", all dressed in white and riding a white horse, he carries the star that represents the guidance and the light, and sings praises to the Lady of Mercy. Then comes the "Mama Negra", a prominent man of Latacunga's society, who is elected every year to preside the festivities. He dresses as a woman, with seven shawls of different colors; his face painted black, and carries a black doll called Balthazara (yes, like the black Magi).
Then comes the "Moorish King", richly dressed with jewelry and ornaments, wearing a cape and the scepter, as the symbol of power, followed by the "Flag Bearer", carrying the wipala, or multicolored flag that precedes the "Captain", wearing an elegant military uniform with a high feathered hat, and who is responsible for the success of the party.
There's a fluidity of movement that's in tune with the music of the brass bands, and each other; shamans, clowns and dancing groups clad in all kinds of colorful disguises follow. It's all good humored and the parade ends with a big celebration of drinking, dancing and feasting on food of the area. A favorite is a beverage made with hominy, corn flour and fruit juice, and sweetened with brown sugar, called champus.
Ecuadorians love a good party and there's nothing like a fiesta to generate the right mood. Of course, guests of all latitudes are welcome to join in and have fun.