On Cinco de Mayo, I'm remembering other Latin American fiestas. I spent December and January in Ecuador and found myself in the middle of some celebrations. It seems that all of the indulgence we put into Christmas in the United States—the candy, advertisements, onslaught of carols, ho-ho-ing Santas, ugly sweaters, boxes collecting in landslides under trees, bells and crystal—is concentrated, in Ecuador, into miniature nativity scenes and garland, ubiquitously draped and glittery, especially in the market, where it dangles over the food stalls, suggesting tasty festivity.
In Quito, where I was in the days before Christmas, stands along the road sold the necessary elements for a proper nativity: the principal players (obviously), manger, beasts of the barn, Magi, stars, houses for Bethlehem. They also sold tiny trees for landscaping, wells, clay ovens, paddocks for animals.
Every place had its own nativity scene, depicting the birthplace of Christ in dimensions appropriate for a toy army soldier or baby mouse, varying in size from a few square feet to the stretch of a ping-pong table. Some were quite ornate, the town spreading far beyond the manger. Some were watched over by a larger baby Jesus, wearing a fancy gown, looming above his earthly parents.
And then I noticed the tigers and lions, the moose, the alpacas, and started to wonder. When I saw the little man standing next to his matchbook-sized grill, I knew that though I wasn’t sure what it all meant, I wanted part of this tradition. I bought myself a chicken in a coop the size of a bar of guest soap and a two-inch tall pine tree, as well as a four-foot length of green and white garland that looked like fir covered in snow, and placed them on the desk in the room where I was staying.
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador involves paper masks attached to effigies, sometimes made of children’s clothes or papier-mâché, stuffed with newspaper or sawdust. Some masks depict professions, including nuns. Some, cartoon characters, such as Minnie Mouse or Spiderman. Some are just faces, ominously scowling or smiling or weeping. At midnight, everyone goes into the street or the parks and lights them on fire. Then, while the mask-adorned bodies burn, they jump over them.
I spent New Year’s in Loja, where I would live for the next month. Up and down the street of our neighborhood, paper corpses flared as fireworks lit the sky. There is also a tradition of buying yellow underwear for New Year’s, and at the central market in Loja, I stumbled on some stands of bright bras and panties mobbed by people, police standing nearby looking stern, in case, I guess, things got spicy. I asked my new friends in Loja about the yellow underwear, but it felt to me like their explanation was circular, or maybe I just wasn’t able to translate: “Yellow underwear because of the New Year, and you need yellow underwear to start the New Year.” So they seemed to be saying. And then there were the men with strap-on breasts asking for money in the streets. This was so much better than beer and chips in someone’s basement, watching a faraway shiny ball descend, which, come to think of it, I don’t understand, either.
There were some other small fiestas in my time there. A parade in Cuenca of children in fancy costumes riding horses draped in candy, fruit, and splayed, roasted suckling pigs, followed by elderly men and women dressed as stern angels, followed by Christ himself. Another parade in Loja where patron saint San Sebastian traveled first from his own church to the city’s cathedral, and then, after sleeping over one night, returning, again by parade, back home, where a festival of candy and sweets celebrated his short adventure.
A few days before I was leaving, broken eggs appeared on the sidewalk of downtown Loja. At first I thought someone had dropped a few dozen eggs, but they were everywhere. I asked a city worker sweeping up the shells about los huevos, and he responded simply, “Carnival.” Which would make sense, except that carnival was weeks away. No harm getting an early start throwing eggs at one another, I suppose. I was sad I’d missed the melee, though I wasn’t sure what it meant. What I do understand is that having an egg crack against one’s head means celebration, and celebrations mean that there’s something to celebrate, which is reason to celebrate, in itself.