Fiestas, a Spanish term whose meaning ranges from private celebrations to nationwide fetes, from saint-day parties to the commemoration of national independence. Community holidays, especially civic and religious celebrations, serve as an occasion for social interaction, political negotiation, historical lessons, and turning-the-world-upside-down mimicry. Above all, fiestas serve as an occasion for the enjoyment of family, friends, compatriots, and coreligionists. The most dramatic Latin American celebrations contain a popular element—drawn from the indigenous peoples, blacks, mixed-ethnic groups, and European tradi-tions—that often overwhelms official, sanctioned affairs. Carnival, for example, has become a Brazilian cultural expression that long ago surpassed in popularity and participants the Ash Wednesday initiation of Roman Catholicism's Lenten period.
One description of fiestas in Latin America classifies them as civic, religious, and commercial holidays. Commemoration of independence serves generally as the most significant holiday in each of the region's nations (see the following list), although it might be joined by an additional political anniversary. Two examples of the latter are the Cinco De Mayo holiday that celebrates the victory of the Mexican army over invading French troops (5 May 1867), and 26 July, which marks Fidel Castro's first (and unsuccessful) revolutionary effort in 1953 to seize power in Cuba, provided the name of his guerrilla movement, and commemorates his fellow rebels who died in the effort.
Haiti (1 January)
Dominican Republic (27 February)
Paraguay (14-15 May)
Cuba (17 May)
Venezuela (5 July)
Argentina (9 July)
Colombia (20 July)
Peru (28 July)
Bolivia (6 August)
Ecuador (10 August)
Uruguay (25 August)
Brazil (7 September)
Costa Rica (15 September)
El Salvador (15 September)
Guatemala (15 September)
Honduras (15 September)
Nicaragua (15 September)
Mexico (15-16 September)
Chile (18 September)
Panama (3 November)
Because Roman Catholicism served as one instrument of conquest and acculturation in Latin America, church holidays of this religion have the most general participation. Jewish, Protestant, and African-derived religious holidays are also celebrated throughout the region. The most impressive celebrations during the colonial years occurred on Corpus Christi and Holy Week, climaxing with Easter services. In the last century the Christmas holiday has emerged as more popular, with the suppression of many public aspects of the Corpus Christi and Holy Week festivals. In the Antilles, the circum-Caribbean region, and Brazil, Carnival has generally emerged as one of the most significant holidays. Of special importance throughout Latin America are the celebrations of the manifestations of virgins and saints. The best-known and most widely celebrated of these are the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico, on 12 December, and Santa Rosa De Lima, the first saint of South America, on 30 August. Other feasts mark the church's holy days of obligation. Such fiestas include the Feast of Christ of Esquipulas, called the Black Christ festival, in Guatemala (15 January) and the festival of Santiago (Saint James the Greater), the patron saint of Chile (25 July).
Commercial and special fiestas include those holidays created to honor special groups, such as Mother's Day and Teacher's Day. Others are attempts to revive, expand, and popularize celebrations to promote tourism. For example, Mexico's Day of the Dead fiestas in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, resulted from the deliberate plans of the national tourism department. Carnival in several Caribbean nations today has taken on the character of a spectacle intended primarily for tourists. However commercial these events, they demonstrate what government officials want outsiders to recognize as typical of their culture.
Associated with most Latin American fiestas are special customs, artifacts, foods, band music, dancing, and fireworks. Gifts have become associated with special holidays—helmets at Corpus Christi, matracas (rattles) during Holy Week, and candy skulls at the Day of the Dead. Holiday cuisine ranges from special meals (for example, chiles en nogada, a green, stuffed chile pepper in a white cream sauce with red pomegranate seeds that displays the colors of the national flag for Mexican Independence Day), to preparations for religious feasts (for example, the Virgin's Tears, made from beet juice, for Holy Week; special egg-yolk bread made for the Day of the Dead; Three Kings Bread, a kind of sweet bread eaten on 6 January that has a ring baked in it to bring good luck to the person who finds it), to special beverages for holidays (Noche Buena beer brewed only during the Christmas holidays; cuba libre, a rum-and-cola drink, for national independence day; chicha, hard cider made from apples or grapes; and wine for Chile's major holidays).
The parades and processions often display visual lessons in social prominence and hierarchy through the order of march, the inclusion of different groups, and the nature of floats. Individuals find it necessary to participate as members of a residential, occupational, ethnic, or religious group. Fiesta organization in the past reflected these same groupings, with perhaps the religious confraternities (Cofradías) dominant in the colonial years, occupational and ethnic associations slightly superior in the nineteenth century, and residential groups emerging as more important in the twentieth century. Displaying these groups during fiestas, while portraying social hierarchy, demonstrates and reaffirms the solidarity of the society.
Fiestas also mark individual rites of passage, including birth, christening, saint day, quincinera (fifteenth birthday for girls), marriage, and death. The nature of these fiestas varies from family to family and differs by religion. Nevertheless, the nature of the family holiday, its proper celebration, remains the province primarily of the leading (or centralizing) woman.
Finally, many festivals of Quechua origins have survived in South America, some depicting the conquest itself where the Inca must meet Pizarro, other festivals are of pre-Hispanic origin. Regarding the latter variety, the Inti Raimi festival is most notable since it is the second largest on the continent. This festival is the Incan festival of the sun. Despite being banned in 1572 by the Viceroy Toledo it has survived, making Cuzco once again the center (belly button) of the world. Throngs of revelers arrive in the old Incan capital from all over South America and the world. The most important day is June 24th, when the Sapa Inca calls on blessings from the sun.
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