Negros y Blancos: Black, White and Blue All Over

For a cradle Canadian, Christmas in Colombia contains not a few contrasts.  It is a bizarre mixture of piety and revelry, not to say debauchery.  My first Navidad here I spent in a little hamlet called San Salvador, the tiny population of which lives entirely off boiling down the saccharine juice of crushed sugarcane until it hardens into super sweet hockey pucks.  As in every corner of Colombia, Christmas in San Salvador started on December 16, the first day of the holy novena.  In an incredible display of devotion, the campesinos shuffled in the dark to the country chapel at 5am to sing villancicos (carols) and pray the special prayers of the novena. 

And so it went for all of the nine days.  By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, it seemed that everyone had about enough of shepherds, virgins and angels.  After a brief Mass at 6pm, children, parents and seniors fled the church for the outdoor dance floor, where they ground their bodies down to the Colombian equivalent of raunchy country music. The rivers of beer and augardiente (literally "firewater"…I need not say more) that flowed through the humble populace would have made the Nile in time if flood look like a trickling brook at the height of summer.  Well beyond daybreak Christmas morning the music and carousing continued, kept in time by the startling percussion of firecrackers nearly every bloody beat.

The Christmas contrasts are not confined to the countryside.  The city houses its fair share of seeming contradictions.  Many a Colombian child, upon learning I was from the true north strong and free, envied me bitterly for my native familiarity with snow.  The pesky white stuff is a very rare commodity in Colombia, found only on a handful of mountain top glaciers, which are rapidly retreating due to climate change.  However, the exotic nature of crystallized precipitation does not prevent the adorning of every Colombian home and business with miniature snowmen, reindeer, sleds, moose, polar bears, scarved and toqued Santas and all the other plush or plastic paraphernalia that Canadians buy from China to deck their halls.  Even the weather is globalizing.

Yesterday, however, I could have sworn I was back in the land of snowfalls.  Having recently taken up residence in Pasto, I was party (literally) to the annual carnival that shakes this Andean city on the doorstep of Ecuador.  Called Negros y Blancos ("The Blacks and the Whites"), the carnival runs the entire first week of January and invokes the astounding creativity, artistry and lunacy of the Colombian province of Nariño.  In fact, so excessive are all three of these elements that the United Nations in 2009 declared the carnival a World Heritage event. 

My first Canadian flashback occurred when the young Jesuits I was with began eying the wares of a street vender.  On a tarp on the sidewalk the fellow had displayed an extensive array of ski-goggles.  Beside the merchandise were carefully stacked the respective boxes sporting a picture of some snow-pro carving up a black diamond slope in the Rockies.  Everyone in the group, save me, bought a pair.  I couldn't see the need.  But soon I saw that on every corner waited another salesman with similar stock, and that a good percentage of the throng walked around with serious peeper protection.  

And then it hit me.  That is the foam and talc.  Like a real McCoy Canadian blizzard.  Armed with long aluminum cylinders with triggers at one end, the old, the young and the in-between pointed their weapon point blank in the goggled faces of passersby and discharged an extended blast of sweet smelling spume.  Others, in reprisal, let loose fists-full of talc that powdered the hapless human target white.  This little war, replicated tens of thousands of times over, produced a veritable squall of precipitates that left the streets of Pasto in need of a good snow plough.  The white Christmas I had missed was two weeks later making a filthy mess of me.

The unapologetic, chaotic, devil-may-care exuberance of the business reminded me that I wasn't in Canada anymore.  Our laws would never permit such license and abandon.  The trash, disorder, and potential lawsuits launched by the semi-blinded, ungoggled victims of the fun would shut the circus down before it had even pitched its tent.  Not to mention the cardiac arrest that would lay low the liquor control board upon witnessing the unmonitored sale of beer and booze in the street by every single entrepreneurial spirit in town eager to skim a few pesos off the top of the price of a case of brew.  It was a total urban free-for-all that I had yet never in my life experienced.  Only one rule applied to the game: make merry now.

In the midst of the powdery pandemonium marched a parade likely without parallel on the planet.  It so happens that the pastusos, i.e. citizens of Pasto, are culturally, perhaps genetically, endowed with astounding artistic capacities. Many dozens of them labour away the better part of the year creating sumptuous costumes and enormous floats that dwarf and gob-smack the warring spectators.  Indigenous motifs abound in florescent colours: faces half human, half puma; dream catchers; serpents and scorpions; medicine men smoking their sacred pipes.  Plus monsters and figures grotesque. 

Everything weird and fantastical streams past to the rhythm of drums and pan-flutes played by battalions of musicians disguised as condors, or tigers, or butterflies, or Guinea-pigs (considered a culinary delicacy in these parts).   The creative mastery embodied in these colossal works of art takes away one's breath.  And in those few breathless moments of their passage the floats attain a kind of fleeting immortality.  A couple of days later they are dismantled and destroyed. Then begin the dreams, designs and travails for the following carnival.

Negros y Blancos has left me with some rich spiritual cud to chew.  First of all, in a country attempting to exit several decades of internal warfare, the ludicrous, snowy battles in the street speak greatly to the powerfully pacific potential of play.  It tickles me to imagine the leftists and the rightists, the guerrilla and the government settling their deep-seated differences with oversized cans of shaving cream in lieu of machine guns.  There is a healthy catharsis here waiting to be harnessed.  Perhaps a good way to step out of the infernal situation of armed conflict in Colombia is to let all hell break loose within a national context of carnival, where there are no winners or losers since everyone goes home with foam in the face.

The second spiritual mouthful is the importance of passion.  Nothing short of passion could provoke the investment of so much time, toil and money in a beauty by nature ephemeral.  Here exists a love that doesn't count the costs.  Had my faith the same intensity and dedication as go into the marvels of this carnival, I would be a walking firebrand setting the world aflame with the love of God.  Had my soul the same depth of desire to make manifest the beauty of creation, I would be moving mountains to glorify the Creator.  The lesson is to live fully and thus praise the font of life.

Finally, as the Gospels tell us, passion can't be the end of the story.  After it comes resurrection, that is, new life, where peace and passion meet.  The ardent excesses of the carnival as currently celebrated beg for transformation.  Once composed of mud and paper maché, the titanic floats are now born of styrofoam, which means their existence is not quite as transitory as supposed.  Centuries to come, the arms and ears of these astonishing giants will still be littering the boneyard of Pasto's landfill site.  Similarly, the garbage generated and dumped in the streets during the week of festivities is enough to make cringe even the most hardened ecological conscience.  Resurrection promises us the joy of the present in a new manner free of the damage caused by our partying.  Resurrected, our passion makes peace with a world it would otherwise have burned.

And so Pasto, a city of countless churches, will forever be for me the place where reverence embraces revelry, and where each sublimates the other.  The place where for a few, wild and wintery (albeit artificially induced) days, the normally pious population spices up its whispered prayers with bellowed cries of "¡Viva Pasto carajo!, a phrase that defies direct translation but more or less equals in English "Long live Pasto,  yeah f!#%ing yeah!"

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Photos courtesy of Greg Kennedy, SJ.

Greg Kennedy, SJ is assigned to the spiritual exercises ministry at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario.

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