Saint Worship and Citizenship in Bolivia – An Ethnographic Approach to Democracy and Civil Society at the Festival of Urqupiña

Tobias Reu,

Bielefeld University

This article is based on extensive ethnographic research and provides an examination of the relationship between saint worship and the practice of democracy in a Bolivian association of religious and folkloric groups. The confraternities, as the groups are called, perform at patron saint festivals, and their sociality rests on the ritual office of the pasante, or festival sponsor. The office of the pasante is an important part of their economic structure, but also a metaphor that organizes notions of status and leadership more generally. At the same time, the confraternities are fully invested in democracy as a set of institutions and procedures. Examining the example of the exchanges and negotiations surrounding the beer provided by the local brewery in support of the festival, this article argues that the democracy practiced in these faith-based civil society organizations is culturally inflected by the metaphor of the pasante. It suggests that this particular fusion of regimes of leadership may explain some peculiarities in the relation between the Bolivian civil society and its political authorities.

1. Introduction

The Bolivian streets typically provide the scene for two distinct types of events organized by collective actors from within the civil society: On the one hand, trade unions, peasant federations, neighborhood committees, and a variety of similar organizations rally frequently to protest the actions of the government or request political solutions to problems and needs; on the other hand, an expansive network of saint festivals provides the occasion for lay religious fraternidades (confraternities) to live their devotion through lavish folkloric parades.[1] Although the motivations, aesthetics, and political intentions of the rallies and the folkloric saint day parades are very distinct, there are noteworthy relations between these two types of events. First of all, both are sufficiently pervasive to play a simultaneous role in the lives of many Bolivians, who may be dancers in a folkloric confraternity and members of social organizations of the other types mentioned above.[2] Secondly, there is a noticeable migration of forms and contents across the two different contexts. Quite frequently, the folkloric confraternities find themselves in situations of conflict with the state, to which they react through rallies, road blockades, and other medidas de presión (means of pressure) from the standard repertoire of Bolivian social protest.[3] At the same time, Bolivian social organizations, which generally organize themselves in explicit reference to the tenets and procedures of democratic governance, tend to base their democratic practice on peculiar notions of personal leadership. As this paper suggests, these notions may be related to practices inscribed in present-day folkloric confraternities and their traditions, which are rooted in Spanish colonial ways of organizing society and spreading the Christian faith.[4]

This text is based on participant observation and approaches the relation between faith-based social organization and political subjectivities in Bolivia through an ethnographic description of the contiguous activities of folkloric saint worship and democratic self-governance in a major Bolivian saint festival. It portrays habits of democracy as observed in the efforts of self-organization internal to the confraternities of folkloric dancers participating in the event, but also in the ways in which these efforts project outward into the realm of municipal politics. The site for the following exploration is the Asociación de Fraternidades FolkóricasVirgen de Urqupiña” (Association of Folkloric Confraternities “Virgin of Urqupiña”) of the Bolivian town of Quillacollo. The Asociación, as I will call the organization throughout this text, consists of approximately fifty member confraternities that perform folkloric dances in a day-long procession to the nationally revered statue of the Virgin Mary of Urqupiña. The pageant is simultaneously a public spectacle attracting tens of thousands of visitors and a spiritual pilgrimage of repentance and supplication. It is part of a network of hundreds of similar events of varying sizes, and it relates back to historic formats of saint worship and patronal festivals in the colonial Andes.

The Asociación and its member confraternities are very explicit in their adherence to the procedures of democratic governance. At the same time, their associational life is driven by characteristic notions of leadership and authority, and by an economy that invests these notions with considerable material values. Among these material values is the beer provided by the local brewery in support of the saint festival, which, once in the hands of the dancers, ceases to be a mere commercial product and enters the domain of ritual sponsorship. In this text, I argue that the vernacular notions of leadership and authority rehearsed within the Asociación are, on the one hand, inflected by the popular religious context of saint worship, and particularly by the highly personal ritual office of the pasante (festival sponsor). On the other hand, these notions are of vital significance for an understanding of the themes and methods with which the folkloric dancers approach the state for material assistance and to defend themselves against what they perceive as endemic administrative overreach.

After a brief discussion of the theoretical context of my exploration, I will situate the festival of Urqupiña within the ample field of saint worship and folkloric spectacle in Bolivia. The next sections provide a description of ritual sponsorship and the office of the pasante as one of its core elements, and a brief analysis of the institutions and procedures of democracy as they are practiced within the Asociación. Following this juxtaposition of ritual office and the avowedly democratic practice of governance, I will use the example of the manifold-entangled beer sponsorship to describe how these distinct regimes of leadership intersect to produce a specific style of addressing public authorities as providers of goods and services. This text concludes with a brief outlook regarding the relevance of my findings for the Bolivian political process at large.

2. The Ethnography of Faith Based Civil Society Organizations

Drawing on the tradition of theorizing democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville inaugurated in the early 19th century, I understand the folkloric confraternities as part of a stratum of civil society organizations that mediate the relation between citizens and the state. For some prominent scholars in the Tocquevillian tradition, such as Putnam and—for Latin America—Forment, the quantifiable existence of civic associational structures provides the main evidence upon which to base the evaluation of the state of a given democracy.[5] In contrast, my concern is not with the size of the civil society and its permeation with associational life, but with the cultural specificity of the democratic habits that Bolivians practice in the context of their civil society organizations.

Setting aside all normative considerations regarding citizen participation and good governance, this text understands democracy as a cluster of ideas and practices of collective organization that have found an almost universal dissemination. The main focus lies in the ways in which this cluster melds with local traditions of governance to engender culturally specific habits of democracy, practices of citizenship, and political subjectivities.[6] This ethnographic approach to democracy takes civil society organizations not merely as functional institutions within the democratic process, but as contexts in which people acquire knowledge and practices related to democracy. To use a theme introduced by Tocqueville’s foundational contribution, this ethnographic approach conceptualizes civil society organizations as schools of democracy. However, whereas the classic Tocquevillian reasoning suggests that structures of free association invariably promote universal and functionally identical habits of democratic cooperation, this text advocates attention to the particular and culturally inflected nature of the habits of democracy rehearsed within these schools of democracy.[7]

Bolivia’s prominent social movements are a major topic of recent literature on citizenship in this Andean country.[8] The selection of the confraternities as a site for analysis may seem somewhat marginal to this body of literature, which speaks of poverty and marginalization, of uneven access to resources and the fight for political participation. However, in their focus on religious sentiment, festive expenditure, and the performance of culture, the confraternities provide an opportunity to observe how specific habits of democracy are embedded in cultural regimes of value and prestige. Rather than understanding parading confraternities and rallying social movements as two separate and contrasting types of phenomena, this text describes the cultural effects that religious spectacles exert on the ways in which Bolivians in general position themselves vis-à-vis the state.

Within the wide field of theorizing voluntary associations, civil society, and the public sphere, faith-based civil society organizations enjoy a somewhat ambivalent status. On the one hand, Tocqueville himself attributed a significant role to (Christian) religion—and to faith-based organizations—as a moral and democratizing counter-weight to the destructive forces of individualism and a centralizing state.[9] For contemporary contexts, Wood shows how church-based organizations can provide a structure for political participation to those at the lower end of society. Ströbele-Gregor finds that Evangelical churches can bring surprisingly empowering experiences to indigenous migrants in urban Bolivia, even though Evangelical conversion often implies leaving behind indigenous cultural traditions. On the other hand, Habermas’s “antireligious assumptions” (Calhoun 36) regarding the fundamental incongruity between religious convictions and rational discourse in the public sphere resonate within skeptical academic circles, even though it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the complexities in the relationship between modernity and faith.[10] The Habermasian critical stance toward faith as a basis for democratic discourse corresponds with the suspicion that the social conservatism inherent in the message transported by many religious denominations may be detrimental to the ambitions of their constituencies to play an active role in politics and the construction of a better society.

In the case of the folkloric confraternities, there is no reason to believe that their specific form of religious practice has any effect on the propensity of its practitioners to engage worldly affairs. Even though they may lack a political sense of mission, the confraternities are by all standards avid participants in the public lives of their communities. Therefore, the question proposed by the present text is not whether these faith-based organizations expand the civil society and improve democracy, but how the symbolic and pragmatic forms contained in their collective saint worship contribute to the local cultures of politics.

3. Saint Worship and Folkloric Spectacle in Bolivia

Every year on August 14, approximately six thousand folkloric dancers and an equal number of brass band musicians converge onto the streets of Quillacollo to participate in the Fastuosa Entrada Folklórica of the Festival of Virgin Mary of Urqupiña. The occasion, whose name loosely translates as Magnificent Folkloric Pageant, marks the beginning of the core sequence of activities of the saint festival, which also comprises the procession and mass of the saint day proper, and the mass pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin on the third and final day. As much as their state of exhaustion permits, the dancers repeat their performance on the saint day, and they merge in small groups with the massive stream of festival attendants who participate in the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage, which distinguishes the festival of Urqupiña from most other saint festivals in the Andean regions of Bolivia, constitutes the main attraction of the event and culminates on the Calvario—a hill outside of Quillacollo. There, the festival participants “mine” the hill for stones and rocks representing the monetary wealth that the Virgin is hoped to bestow on the faithful, and they consecrate them alongside miniature representations of other desirable goods with the help of the parish priest, Andean ritual specialists, and often prodigious amounts of alcoholic drink.[11] The three days of the festival are preceded and succeeded by an ever expanding sequence of religious, folkloric, and commercial activities, which convert Quillacollo’s chilly August into a month of ebullient notoriety.

The first folkloric confraternities of the festival of Urqupiña were founded in the 1950s, and they subsequently led the transformation of the formerly rural and regional event into one that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from throughout the country and has spawned some off-shoots in international destinations of Bolivian migration.[12] The definitive rise of the festival of Urqupiña began with the foundation of the association of folkloric confraternities in the late 1970s. The Fastuosa Entrada Folklórica of Urqupiña, on whose social universe this text pivots, is an overt emulation of two even bigger events: the internationally acclaimed carnival of the highland mining town of Oruro and the very lavish Festival of Jesús del Gran Poder of La Paz. There are hundreds of saint festivals large and small, in provincial towns and every urban quarter of note, that strive to catch some of the splendor of the prominent example set by these two events by copying their structures of organization, dances, and sequence of events.[13] In the bigger, urban festivals, folkloric associations have taken over the organization of the saint day pageants to substitute rural groups of worshipers who in the past came to town to express their faith by playing music and dancing. The folkloric associations consist of confraternities that serve the double purpose of glorifying the image of the saint and organizing their dancers for the festival performance. These confraternities are sometimes rooted in merchant associations, trade unions, or specific neighborhoods, in which case they may play a larger role in the everyday social and economic lives of their constituents, or they may exist for the sole purpose of participation in a given festival.

Although its name suggests something different, the “Carnival” of Oruro is actually also a festival in honor of an image of the Virgin Mary, and it has achieved international recognition as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage. Helped by this international recognition, the Carnival of Oruro, which has grown to its present-day format in the course of the 20th century, has firmly established itself as the center piece and pivot of a peculiarly Bolivian juncture of popular Catholicism and public folkloric spectacle. At the core of the Carnival is the veneration of the Virgin of the Mineshaft—a saint image that is associated with both the Virgin of Candelaria and a local mythical figure named la Ñusta. Oruro is the historic center of the Bolivian tin mining industry, and during the Carnival, the Virgin/Ñusta shares the stage with the Tío, a devilish trickster and lord of the mineral underground.[14] The statue of the Tío resides inside the mining tunnels immediately underneath the sanctuary of the Virgin of the Mineshaft and serves as a reminder of the perils to righteousness and the social order that the post-colonial situation entails. At the end of the day-long Carnival pageant, which is characterized by remarkable levels of alcoholic and erotic indulgence, the dancers kneel before the image of the Virgin in a pious pose of repentance that dramatizes, as Abercrombie points out, a racialized allegory of conversion: The demons, sins and seductions of the Carnival evoke an unruly Andean otherness that haunts Bolivian imaginations of a national modernity built on a millennial autochthonous cultural heritage.[15]

Under its exuberant surface, the Oruro Carnival is a closely regulated affair that is organized by the local association of folkloric confraternities. The confraternities control participation in the performance, observation of religious rituals, and the propriety of folkloric expression. They provide a framework for the conspicuous consumption of those who can afford the considerable costs associated with dancing in the event, and they ensure that social distinctions are duly translated into the privilege of performing in stand-out positions within their less than egalitarian dancing formations.

This last aspect is of particular importance in the Festival of Jesús del Gran Poder, or Gran Poder for short, the second of the spectacles emulated by the organizers of saint festivals across the country. Gran Poder takes place in honor of an image of the Christ that is a minor node within the topography of Bolivian saint worship. However, its location within the main commercial area of La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, has led to its immense popularity among an expansive class of merchants with a socio-cultural background in the Aymara speaking hinterland of the city. Whereas the carnival of Oruro has grown thanks to its appeal to the urban upper and middle classes, the festival of Gran Poder remains first and foremost the event of a racially marginalized segment of society.

Among the participants of Gran Poder, many have found economic success as merchants and entrepreneurs, and they show little restraint in expending large sums of money in the festival, whose social dynamics epitomize contemporary urban ways of achieving distinction in the Andean cultural register. The festival has drawn significant scholarly interest for its function as simultaneously an expression and a catalyst of ethnic and social differentiation in La Paz, and for its significance as a venue that has enabled indigenous people to bring their claim for cultural recognition into the heart of the post-colonial city.[16] Among the Bolivian general public, the festival is known for the immense size of some of its confraternities, which easily surpass five hundred dancers, and for the amounts of beer that these consume during the event.

4. The Ritual Office of the Pasante

Within the symbolic economy of the confraternities, membership numbers and beer are currencies that combine to bestow value on the ritual office of festival sponsorship. Much of the beer enters the event as contributions made by individuals who volunteer for the office of sponsors of their confraternities. Ritual sponsorship entails the responsibility to match or outdo past holders of the office, as well as the sponsors of rival confraternities, in the provision of some pivotal elements of the folkloric act of devotion. Among these elements are hired brass band musicians, and hospitality during rehearsals and festival performance. In turn, the sponsors obtain the privilege of embroidering the confraternity banner with their names, wearing identifying sashes, and marching at the center of the dancing order, right ahead of blaring trumpets and thundering kettledrums. The conspicuous effect of the arrangement to advertise the wealth and devotion of the select hinges on the merry dance of the many, who wear uniform outfits and often masks.

The office of festival sponsor, which has its roots in civil-religious forms of social organization that the Spanish colonial government instituted throughout the American possessions, finds its most elaborate contemporary form in the large and urban dancing confraternities of the Gran Poder festival. The office is known throughout Bolivia by the name of pasante.[17] The term translates literally as “the one who passes” and makes reference, according to folk etymology, to the rotating nature of the role, which is ideally performed by married couples and passed on from one member family of the community to the next one at the end of each festival. In the patronal festivals of rural towns, the office may be part of a more or less rigidly observed system of roles within the traditional social and ritual fabric. The urban confraternities of the biggest festivals sometimes participate in these provincial events at the invitation and expense of local pasantes, and the resulting scenes resemble those of the big urban pageants on a smaller scale. The pasantes walk surrounded by hired dancers and musicians whose numbers and quality of performance yield tangible evidence of the resources that the ritual sponsors have allocated to the occasion. An invariable element of the obligations that the sponsors take upon themselves consists of the provision of alcoholic drink to dancers and musicians. The processions end at the image of the patron saint and disband into social get-togethers that test the limits of the hospitality that the pasantes can afford.

In the confraternities of Urqupiña, the rotation of the office may very well fall by the wayside, and unwed, divorced or widowed men or women are often welcome to volunteer as pasantes. The levels to which pasantes are involved in group life and economy vary from confraternity to confraternity. Some of the larger groups regard themselves as offshoots of the big confraternities of Gran Poder, and they go to some length to match as closely as possible the extravagant example given in La Paz. Others are only able to enroll less than reliable benefactors, or such whose sponsorship covers mere parts of the full array of goods provided in the big confraternities. Finally, some groups will do without any form of pasantes. Yet, even confraternities that do not practice it recognize the role of the pasante as an indelible element of the ideal group organization, and as one that distinguishes the truly reputable confraternities from the less established ones.[18]

On the whole, the office of the pasante, which is conventionally held by married couples and takes a variety of different forms and dimensions, is as much about delivering a worthy and amenable festival on the day of the saint as it is about the accrual of individual prestige. It lends itself quite naturally to performances of agonistic expenditure of a type that evokes Mauss’ path breaking description of the role of the gift in human sociality.[19] Its forms and material implications are very well known among the participants in the sphere of confraternal saint worship, it is rooted in colonial systems of civil-religious offices and amplified by the conspicuous example of the confraternities of the festival of Gran Poder. As I will argue below, the highly personalized office of the pasante provides a specific cultural tinge to the democracy that the folkloric dancers of Urqupiña practice within their organizations.

5. Associational Life and the Habits of Democracy

For all that it is worth, the Asociación de Fraternidades FolkóricasVirgen de Urqupiña” dedicates a remarkable share of its overall activities to the careful observation of the precepts, rules and procedures of democratic governance. For the Asociación, democracy is not only an implied best practice toward the task of self-organization and decision-making, but a topic of near constant concern. It is, indeed, not very difficult to see how the Asociación provides a space to learn about democracy and experiment with it, to develop the habits and to acquire the procedures that belong to the concept of democracy as it circulates throughout the world.

The Asociación defines itself as a decidedly apolitical organization and refuses to take sides within the usually volatile town politics.[20] In spite of this avowed self-restraint, one of its main activities lies in negotiating with the town authorities on a set of different topics related to the saint festival and the material interests of the folkloric dancers. The instruction that the Asociación as a school of democracy offers goes beyond abstract principles and procedures of governance. By negotiating their collective interests with the mayor, the town council, and political authorities at the departmental and national level, the members of the Asociación rehearse certain attitudes toward these authorities. They also develop and expand their practical knowledge on strategies of soliciting the public administration and defending against those acts that they perceive as government overreach.

Importantly, failure and success of negotiations with the agents of the state have significant economic consequences. In the economic dimension, abstract categories of leadership acquire their material urgency, and they are linked across distinct symbolic and pragmatic contexts. A point in case is the beer that the local brewery as the main commercial sponsor of the festival used to provide until very recent years. The transfer of the sponsorship beer generally came after difficult three-way negotiations with the Asociación and the town authorities. Once in the hands of the Asociación, the beer entered the symbolic economy characterized in my brief introduction to the ritual office of the pasante above. In the following sections of the present text, I will first provide a concise description of the institutions and core features of the democracy practiced within the Asociación. I will then focus on the sponsorship beer as a material point of conjunction of democracy and ritual office as the two distinct regimes of leadership that are at play within the organization. This leads me to an analysis of how democratic practice intersects with cultural notions of personalized leadership that originate in confraternal saint worship and the office of the pasante.

The ideal of democracy pursued by the Asociación is ostensibly oriented toward the standard institutions of modern democratic statehood. As Bolivian law demands from all organizations applying for recognition of their status as juridical persons, the Asociación has given itself elaborate bylaws that regulate aspects of internal governance alongside a series of issues that matter for the organization of the folkloric spectacle. Among these latter issues are rules for the order in which the different groups participate in the folkloric pageant, regulations that govern the ability of dancers to change from one confraternity into another, and prohibitions of specific behaviors that count as unacceptable conduct, such as the excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages or the use of inappropriate attire. However, the greater part of the bylaws describes offices, elections, and procedures for collective decision making. As such, the bylaws document the way in which the Asociación envisions itself as a democratic institution and a miniature version of a state. As codified in this constitutional charter of sorts, the Asociación pursues separation of powers, holds free elections of an executive branch, and requires its member confraternities to do the same. The role of a parliament with legislative power is filled by the general assembly of delegates of the member confraternities, which takes final votes on all major matters and elects an executive board of directors consisting of a president, a vice-president, and approximately fifteen secretaries. Each of the secretaries is in charge of a specific aspect of the group life. There is also an independent honorary tribunal composed of three senior individuals whose moral integrity is ideally recognized across all factions and divisions. This judiciary branch resolves conflicts among individuals and confraternities, and it hears the allegations of misappropriation that are sometimes brought against functionaries of the Asociación and the individual groups.

Thus constituted to mirror the institutions of a democratic state, the associational life consists for the better part of the year of weekly assemblies of the delegates sent by the member confraternities. These assemblies are held on Thursday nights in a crowded room underneath the stage of the municipal theater and normally last for at least two hours of intense talk. As the Asociación finds itself quite frequently in the midst of major conflicts with the town authorities and depends on the ability to rally a heterogeneous membership gravitating toward divergent courses of action, these meetings are often contentious. The meetings open with a roll call to ascertain quorum, and they are recorded and transcribed in great detail into a book of minutes, to be read out and approved at the beginning of a subsequent meeting. If it is anticipated that they may be needed in court, the minutes are authenticated by a notary public. Following the reading of the minutes, and then of all written correspondence that the board of directors has sent and received on behalf of the Asociación, the board presents reports on all those activities that require acknowledgment by the delegates or a collective decision. It is not uncommon that the reports are interrupted by a more or less heated discussion or that a motion is introduced and brought to a vote. However, the board of directors typically extends its reports until well into the evening. The final point on the business order of a typical meeting is an open discussion of miscellaneous topics, which may be proposed by participants as the deliberation proceeds. In principal, the business order and procedures of a meeting of delegates of the Asociación are not unlike those of university committees, clubs, political parties, and all sorts of organizations around the world. However, the meetings tend to be very long-winded, and they stand out through the great formalism with which all details related to due and democratic process are documented.

Whereas, in practice, the board of directors does most of the talking, it is an unspoken rule that all delegates have a right to speak as long as they please, or at least until their interventions become excessively redundant. To ensure equal speaking rights, the president of the Asociación, who is also the chair of the meeting, calls on delegates in the order in which they have requested the floor. Great emphasis is placed on the deliberative nature of collective decision making, and the chair may explicitly summon the assembled delegates to voice their opinion in support of the board of directors, or else to pronounce their dissenting viewpoints. Discussions are often concluded rather informally when the chair thinks that a consensus has been reached or a clear majority opinion emerged. The chair may then paraphrase what he or she perceives to be the consensus and ask whether everybody is in agreement, or a vote by show of hands may be called. In select situations, a roll call vote is taken to ensure that only accredited delegates participate in the decision making. If the board of directors harbors doubts with regard to the loyalty of the confraternities or intends to produce a public document of unity, a written resolution is drafted and signed by all delegates in attendance.

The practice of deliberation within the Asociación is certainly not egalitarian. The board of directors sets the agenda and controls the floor for long enough to use the progressive fatigue of the attendants to push through unpopular proposals. The board also authors the meeting minutes, which include the final versions of all decisions the assembly takes, and it effectively interprets collective opinions that remain ambiguous during the actual flow of discussion. Even so, there was, in my experience, always space for strong and effective dissenting voices. The opposition was at times harsh and included allegations of fraud and hostile ousters of sitting presidents, but the assembly virtually always stuck to the principle of letting all participants speak freely and extensively. Clearly, the Asociación had established remarkably mature habits of deliberation, and many of the participants—male and female alike—participated in the process of collective decision-making with their significant oratorical skills.

6. Intersecting Regimes of Leadership

As described in the preceding paragraphs, the Asociación adheres closely to ideals and practices of democratic decision-making. At the same time, its structures of power and leadership are embedded in the economic relations that govern the folkloric spectacle. Pivotal parts of this economy consist of funds and goods that the Asociación obtains and passes on to the member confraternities. For instance, the Asociación erects spectator stands for the pageant and distributes the returns among the groups. By the same token, the moderate wealth that the confraternities generate by way of fees and contributions paid by the dancing members depends on certain regulations that the Asociación controls. The sequence of groups within the annually changing schedule, which the board of directors elaborates, has a big impact on the ability of a given confraternity to recruit dancers and thence to refinance costs for costumes and brass band musicians. The redistribution of goods obtained by the Asociación and the economically consequential regulation of aspects of the collective affairs frame the relation between the board of directors and the member confraternities as one of giving and taking. As I argue in the following lines, the interactions as well as the goods that play a role in this context provide evidence of the degree to which the Asociación infuses its democratic practice with the notions of leadership that are epitomized by the office of the pasante.

Until the festival of 2011, the Asociación annually used to obtain large amounts of beer from the local brewery as the main corporate sponsor of the folkloric pageant. Beer breweries are among the most potent private business corporations in Bolivia, and they have an obvious interest in the saint festivals, which are major sales opportunities for their product. The breweries are traditionally among the main sponsors of all types of public events, but they have a special relationship with the folkloric confraternities, whose dancers consume large amounts of the drink, and whose colorful performance provides enticing images of joy and national cultural identity that are frequently featured in beer commercials. At the same time, newspaper commentaries, the Catholic church, and the public opinion portray the ingestion of alcoholic drinks during the folkloric parades as a nuisance that causes violence, delinquency and, in general terms, impious mayhem. The dancers themselves do not enjoy the drunken crowds that spill from the spectator stands and provide cover to pickpockets and gropers, but many of them also find it difficult to envision the festival entirely without drink. After all, the strains of carrying heavy costumes through the scorching sunlight are high. Moreover, as ethnographers and historians have abundantly illustrated, alcoholic consumption is an elementary part of the social and symbolic world created in and through Andean ritual.[21] Finally, the provision of large amounts of beer for consumption by the confraternity is a major element of the duties associated with the office of the pasante, to the effect that a prohibition of alcoholic consumption would alter the social dynamic within the groups in significant ways.

Placed in the symbolically ambivalent spot between signifying the bad and backward aspects of both Andean culture and juvenile excess and, at the same time, providing a currency in the social production of prestige through ritual office, the beer that the Asociación used to obtain from its corporate sponsor played a major role in several important contexts. It did not come cheaply, but was obtained after an annual three-way negotiation with the public authorities and the brewery. In exchange for the sponsorship, the Asociación had to petition the town authorities on behalf of the brewery for the rights to place sales stands and advertisements in the public space. These rights were made sparse by politicians who often seemed to pursue their own agendas with regard to the question who should reap the economic benefits that the folkloric spectacle generated. For about a decade and up to the present, the Asociación regarded the beer sponsorship as one of the two most important problems to be addressed in the preparation of the festival.[22] Lengthy rounds of negotiation were held and public rallies were organized to assert the right to seek a favorable deal with the brewery. Throughout the years, the beer sponsorship became an issue of considerable weight within town politics.

Sometimes with very little time left before the festival, the Asociación used to succeed in closing a deal with the brewery—a smaller one if the municipal authorities had asserted their recalcitrant stance, and a more valuable one if the events had turned more favorably. After months of weekly updates on the slow-moving negotiations and the indignities that the board of directors had taken upon itself on behalf of the confraternities, the president announced the joyful news and presented a key of distribution that recognized the same initial amount to all confraternities and discounted quantities for misconducts of various types. The Asociación received the sponsorship sum in actual bottled beer, stacked to an impressive pile for distribution to the folkloric groups. The confraternities arrived with pickup trucks and a cash deposit as security for the crates and bottles that had to be returned or paid for if broken, or they sold their share to a wholesaler waiting at the distribution site.

Whereas it always seemed to be taken for granted as the format preferred by the brewery, the logistically intricate distribution of bottled beer, as opposed to disposable cans or the cash equivalent, infused the asymmetries of democratic office with a tangible taste of ritual sponsorship. After all, the duties of a pasante conventionally also entail the distribution of large amounts of alcoholic drink. Once inside the confraternities, the beer tended to serve an equivalent role of compounding democratically elected office with the paraphernalia of festival sponsorship. Moreover, the beer related the Asociación to the outside world in a way that instantiated its two main modes of interaction with third parties: As petitioners for material benefits, and as victims of a public administration that was generally seen as withholding benefits owed to the folkloric dancers.

As well as the sponsorship beer, the Asociación sought to petition the municipal administration or third parties at different times for a computer, a telephone line, public grants, and construction materials. The negotiations were never easy. Every time an acquisition had succeeded, a small ceremony was held that featured an address in which the president portrayed the new items as material signs of the honest and arduous effort that the board of directors had had to commit. At the same time, the Asociación saw itself frequently as the victim of a municipal administration whose overreach consisted in withholding these material benefits, or in putting obstacles into the path of negotiations with third parties. This defensive posture heightened the personalized nature of leadership within the Asociación. It was frequently used to rally the member confraternities in support of a board of directors that fought hard on behalf of the institution while exposing itself, so a common narrative, to the slanderous acts of hostile authorities.

In general terms, the beer sponsorship accentuated a practice of governance that fuses an explicit orientation toward the institutions and rules of democratic process with elements that belong to the symbolic and pragmatic context of ritual sponsorship. Parallel to the role of the pasantes in the confraternities, the directors of the Asociación emerge as personal benefactors whose accomplishments consist in acquiring goods and distributing them with some fanfare to the member groups. This personalized practice of a leadership that is practically and symbolically akin to the ritual office of festival sponsorship determines the way that the Asociación approaches the public authorities. These are addressed as providers and, quite as often, withholders of the goods that fuel its economy of distinction.

In 2012 for the first time, the Asociación announced its decision to renounce its right to select the brewery as its corporate sponsor. This new development responds to a broadly conceived government initiative targeting public drunkenness.[23] Whereas the decision to do without the brewery may or may not carry forth into future installments of the festival, the symbolic, economic, and pragmatic status of alcoholic beverages within the folkloric realm might well be in the process of a significant transformation. However, in the context of my argument, the beer sponsorship only serves to illustrate a more general point, which regards the way in which the organizations of the folkloric dancers intersect their practice of democracy with regimes of leadership that have their origins in the realm of confraternal saint worship. As beer bundles the glory of the pasante with the successful performance of democratic offices, it provides a symbol and a catalyst for the fusion of personalized notions of leadership with the close observance of democratic forms and procedures. Of course, this fusion, which does not depend on beer alone, may well respond to future shifts in the cultural, material and political relations that bring it about.

7. Conclusion

On the merit of the evidence that can be gleaned from television newscasts and a reading of the daily newspapers, there is some reason to believe that the metaphor of the pasante reaches far beyond the domain of popular Catholic saint worship and deep into Bolivian politics as a whole. Evo Morales, the first indigenous Bolivian head of state, who famously participated in his junior years as a brass band musician in the Carnival of Oruro, certainly seems to have a taste for presenting the decisions and initiatives of his government as the fruits of his personal ability to deliver material benefits to his constituencies.[24] Consider, for instance, the government program Bolivia Cambia, Evo Cumple (Bolivia Changes, Evo Fulfills his Promises), a large initiative that was initially financed through Venezuelan foreign aid and constitutes a main means of interaction between the president and the population.[25] In the context of Bolivia Cambia, Evo Cumple, Morales travels throughout the country and hands out moderately large checks to municipal governments, which have to submit specific construction projects—such as a market building or a school, street illumination or a sports field—for funding. The program produces a wealth of pictures of a president paraded around with the brass bands many towns entertain for these occasions, decked out with flower garlands and the congratulatory confetti that Bolivians rub into each other’s hair wherever there is a celebration. The images that the newspapers publish of these events look conspicuously similar to the scenes involving pasantes at the center of dancing confraternities at patron saint festivals. More importantly, there seems to be a fundamental resonance between the style of leadership pursued by the folkloric confraternities and Evo Morales’s self-representation not only as a capable administrator of the public cause, but as an individual benefactor of all the communities of which the nation is comprised.

This does not go to say that Evo Morales’s strategies of securing popular support are less democratic or even substantially different from those deployed by his predecessors. On the contrary, it suggests that, underneath the methods that Bolivian politicians use to address the civil society, which may share many traits with clientelisms and populisms in other parts of the world at large, there may be a sediment of cultural forms that explains the ease with which the imagery of the individual benefactor is mobilized even in the midst of an overall movement toward a society of democratic inclusion.

Because I believe that this is at least one of the places at which it historically originates, I have expounded on these cultural forms in a civil society organization that is based in a popular Catholic religious and folkloric activity. As a place where Bolivians are socialized into group life and forms of collective decision making, the confraternities are, in fact, not as marginal as their low political weight may suggest. However, to ascertain how big a role the figure of the ceremonial sponsor plays in the education on democracy that Bolivians give themselves in their civil society organizations, further studies across social, ethnic, religious and regional divisions would be desirable.


[1] This text is based on ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation conducted in several phases between 2001 and 2007. Since then, regular communication with core members of the organization portrayed in this text has enabled me to update my findings and put them in a relation to current political events. I am indebted to the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. All shortcomings of this text are, of course, entirely my own responsibility. back to text

[2] See Lazar, and Goldstein (The Spectacular City) for ethnographic descriptions that highlight the contiguity of Bolivian forms of collective organization for political participation and for saint festivals. back to text

[3] Among these means are public declarations, rallies, road blockades, hunger strikes, and so forth. back to text

[4] On confraternities in colonial times, see Webster, and Sordo (109). Platt points to the possibility that contemporary forms of confraternal saint worship may themselves be culturally inflected by Andean traditions of social organization. With regard to this latter aspect, see also Abercrombie (Pathways of Memory and Power). back to text

[5] Forment bases his remarkable evaluation of the development of democratic traditions in Latin America on the existence of a vivid associational life in several of the states. For an encompassing discussion of the promises and perils of thinking about democracy in terms of civic associational life, see Edwards. back to text

[6] My interest in the cultural elements of locally specific habits of democracy corresponds closely with the topics and assumptions formulated by scholars engaged in the growing field of anthropology of democracy (Paley, “Toward an Anthropology of Democracy”; Paley, Democracy: Anthroplogical Approaches; Schaffer; Michelutti). back to text

[7] Tocqueville, e.g., Cohen (111–113); Putnam; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady. See Stolle (22f.) for a brief critique of the “school for democracy” theme and the assumption that the mere existence of a vivid associational life leads automatically to the promotion of certain values and habits. back to text

[8] Recent works on social movements and citizenship include Garcia Linera et al., Kohl and Farthing, Postero, and Dangl. back to text

[9] Liedhegener and Werkner (11) back to text

[10] Habermas has recently recognized the importance of religious values as a counter-weight to global capitalism but insists that they “must be translated into a secular idiom and a ‘universally accessible language,’ a task that falls not only to religious citizens but to all citizens—both religious and secular—engaged in the public use of reason.” (Mendieta and VanAntwerpen 5) back to text

[11] Calvary—the name of the hill—makes reference to the crucifixion of the Christ. However, this particular Calvary hill, which also has a name in the indigenous Quechua language, is the exclusive domain of the Virgin Mary and some non-Catholic spiritual presences. See Lagos, Weil, and Albro for insightful analyses of the manifold relations between Marian worship, social structure, and material interests in the festival of Urqupiña. back to text

[12] E.g., Giorgis. back to text

[13] See Rockefeller, and Goldstein (“Performing National Culture in a Bolivian Migrant Community”) for two examples of how the organizers of local festivals use the carnival of Oruro to improve the legitimacy of their own events. back to text

[14] The Tío is featured prominently in Taussig’s influential book on images of the devil at the South American periphery of the capitalist world economy. back to text

[15] Abercrombie (“Mothers and Mistresses of the Urban Bolivian Public Sphere”). Abercrombie’s analysis refers to the second half of the 20th century, during which state power and the Carnival were under firm control of white elites. Many things have changed since the indigenous Evo Morales was elected into the national presidency, facilitating the access of the indigenous population to the centers of cultural, social and political power. back to text

[16] The aspect of social differentiation is described in detail in Albó and Preiswerk. The achievement of recognition and visibility through the festival is the topic of Guss, and Himpele. back to text

[17] Abercrombie (Pathways of Memory and Power) provides an exhaustive analysis of Andean systems of civil-religious offices, or fiesta-cargo systems, through the times. There are several other terms that are used in this context, such as preste (some more overtly religious reference without a direct translation) or organizador (organizer, supposedly of the confraternity). However, pasante seems to have the broadest recognition across the Bolivian regions. back to text

[18] Virtually all confraternities, regardless of their ability to muster pasantes, provide secondary possibilities for individuals to distinguish themselves through special contributions. For instance, most confraternities allow stand-out rows within their dancing formations, small groups of dancers whose costumes diverge from the uniform outfits used by the main columns. These stand-out rows, which may perform at the coveted positions at the very tip of the confraternity or immediately ahead of the brass bands, are conceptually related to the groups of pasantes that typically move in the same spots. The right to dance in these stand-out positions frequently costs an extra fee, or it is bestowed on the grounds of special merits of a variety of types. back to text

[19] This not to say that the office of the pasante merits the same treatment as a total social fact that Mauss applies to the phenomena that he describes (76f.). back to text

[20] Quillacollo’s municipal politics are comprehensively analyzed in Albro (Roosters at Midnight). back to text

[21] E.g., Saignes and Salazar-Soler; Jennings and Browser. back to text

[22] The other, not less contentious topic concerned the route that the folkloric pageant took through town. Here, the Asociación wrangled with neighborhood organizations that had considerable political leverage and an economic interest in forcing the dancers to perform in streets that these found too narrow to be comfortable and safe. back to text

[23] At the time of writing these lines, the government is drafting a law that permits alcoholic consumption during public festivals only with the express permission of local governments and, one understands, on the grounds that a full prohibition would interfere with the essence of some of the marquee events of Andean indigenous culture. back to text

[24] Morales’s memories of his past as a brass band musician are a regular subject of media reports (e.g., Conde Villarreal). back to text

[25] E.g., Mayorga (34). back to text

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