To the casual observer, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan appears to follow the typical Paraguayan paradigm for parties and holidays--loud Paraguayan polka music, lines of people dancing, drinking and playing card games, and traditional foods such as sopa Paraguaya, chipa guazú and asado. On second glance, and especially as the evening gets moving, things seem to take a surprising and curious turn. By the time young masked men can be seen jumping through flaming hoops made from forest vines, a little voice inside one’s head can be heard in the midst of the hooting and hollering (the classic and aptly dubbed ‘campo calls’)--”What in the world is going on here?”
Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country. The festival of San Juan, like many other Paraguayan holiday’s, is Catholic in origin (celebrating Saint John, one of Jesus' twelve disciples in the biblical New Testament). In this country, however, the story does not end there as the unique cultural history of Paraguay comes into dramatic play. While Paraguay may be mostly Catholic and a part of the largely Christian Latin America, it also stands alone for its thriving and ubiquitous Guaraní Indian tradition. The precise reasons for this strong indigenous tradition, especially while most other such traditions in Latin America were wiped out during the conquest, is a history in and of itself. For now, it is suffice to say that modern Paraguayan culture is a strange mix, a sort of hybrid that is neither fully Latin American or fully indigenous. The Guaraní language is still the first language of most Paraguayans and is even more widespread than Spanish. In regards to holidays and celebrations, the situation is much the same.
From an anthropologist’s standpoint, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan represents a textbook example of how ideologies and beliefs interact when cultures clash. The nominally Catholic festival has been combined with ancient Guaraní celebrations that venerate fire and the fluidity of gender roles. In reality, the only really Catholic elements to this festival are the name and the typical mass and/or prayer session that occurs the morning of. I have had the privilege of seeing this festival twice this year and in different parts of the country; what follows will be a mixed summary of the events that transpired at both.
The main event of the festival involves characters called the cambâ, played by teenage boys dressed up in masks (traditionally of local wood, but also commonly of cloth or face paint) and wearing costumes made of dried banana leaves. While these boys perform a sort of exaggerated dance around the outside of a circle, young girls (roughly the same age), dance in the middle around a fire wielding torches of dried grass. One by one, the masked cambâ rush into the center to grab one of the girls while the girls attempt to ward them off with their flaming torches (this is, of course, incredibly dangerous given the open fire and dried banana leaf costumes). The exact performance of this ceremony varies slightly, but the idea is usually the same--fire, masked men, and animated dancing.
The cambâ then engage in a variety of other activities involving fire and a sort of slap-stick comedy routine. For example, before the festival, a large post about 5 meters tall is sunken into the ground, topped with an array of traditional Paraguayan food. This post is then greased up with pig fat. In an intentionally comical manner, the cambâ compete to scale this post. After their humorous conquest of the post, a pair of boys draped in a dried cow skin, donning a cow skull with flaming horns in their front, charge at the group of triumphant cambâ. The masked men then run in feigned fear, only to return moments later to taunt the fake bull.
A series of other events will then occur. A hoop made of forest vines (called ŷ’sŷ’po in Guaraní) is doused in gasoline and then lit on fire. The cambâ proceed to dive through this loop with varying success. Another common part of the festival is called tata pelota in Guaraní or pelota del fuego in Spanish--in English this translates to ball of fire. A ball is wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags and is then lit on fire. This ball is used in a game of soccer between the cambâ. Needless to say, all of these practices tend to be fairly dangerous, however, I should mention that the dried, banana-leaf costumes are not worn everywhere and many of these events take place with the cambâ wearing masks and regular clothing only.
The last part of the festival is something that could only otherwise be described as a sort of Paraguayan drag-show. The very cambâ who before were playing with fire, demonstrating their comical masculinity by taunting a bull and stealing women, change into female costumes, stuffing their buttocks and chest with cloth to represent exaggerated parts of the female body. What commences is then a dance where the male cambâ imitate female dance moves (which takes the form of “grinding” in our modern age) with other male cambâs. Again the idea here is comedy, a sort of mockery between the sexes that is equally as irreverent to males as it is to females. The fluidity between the genders and the gender roles represented here is especially fascinating given the overt machismo typical of Latin American cultures.
In short, that is the festival of San Juan. As you can surely see, I would hardly call it an entirely Christian tradition (but then again, I haven’t been to church in awhile). The reality is that such phenomenon, such a mixing of religious belief systems is more the norm than the exception in the world. This type of hybridization occurs almost invariably along with colonization and conquest and cultural interaction. Perhaps it is particularly evident here in Paraguay because of the strength and prevalence of the indigenous culture, but less obvious examples can be seen almost anywhere if one has the mind or eye to look for it. From an academic perspective, it is extremely interesting; from a personal perspective, it is a really good time--nothing like dancing Paraguayan polka with my Guaraní neighbors into the wee hours of the morning.