Promises honoring the Virgin or a patron saint; long, tireless processions; multitudes of devotees; liturgy; Canto a lo Divino ritual; Bailes Religiosos, with their colored costumes, dancing and music; faith, beliefs of people; family; countless and varied elements shaping what we know as Religious Fest. How could this cultural universe, year after year expressed in incomparable beauty all along sanctuaries in Latin America, Chile, and, of course, Atacama region, be understood and appreciated?
Looking up for some background on this, I came across Josef Pieper (German philosopher,1904-1997), who pointed out that from its origins till nowadays, the fest, “joyous par excellence”, has been linked with the sacred, for it is the transcendent dimension of human being what has been expressed in it throughout the centuries, inserting itself as an interlude and, at the same time, heightening the day-by-day life, as a creative transformation of the world by means of art, under the inspiration of sacred paradigm; as a donation, an offer of goods and belongings to be given to mankind and divinity, and as a cleansing catharsis leading to the reecounter of human beings with themselves, divinity, and the transcendent.
According to Mircea Eliade (Romanian Philosopher, 1907-1986), religions historian, Fest was originated in the collective and social living of the sacred. While religious experience generally becomes an assimilation of the sacred from the inside, collective religious experience is esentially expressed throughout dramatization. Such is the way awareness of the sacred has been expressed in the collective behavior for ages. Thus, Fest has been, throughout History, a way and an instance for communicating with la divinity by means of the sacred languages of each community.
Analyzing the history of our continent, Latinamerican identity was formed by the crossing of cultural and sacred values from early aboriginals cosmogony and the Roman Catholic religion of the Spaniards. When the latter arrived to America, they found out native Americans had their own divinities, which they worshipped in their own cults and ceremonies. In the process of conquest and conversion, early Latinamerican cultures were forced to substitute their symbols and religious rites for others: Pachamama was replaced by the image of the Virgin, and God expressed in natural phenomena matches for Christian God (Schalscha y Arteche, Social Communications, Chile 2003).
In religious fests throughout Latinamerica, a number of symbols, liturgy, collective imaginary, people’s fervor, saint patrons cult, and an intense devotion towards Virgin Mary, worshipped throughout Atacama region in more than thirty annual celebrations and more than sixty Bailes de promeseros participating in them, prove that this form of expression and cultural performance, raised in popular faith and devotion, is the most distinctive feature of our regional identity and our people’s artistic creativity, being the most important reference at the dawn on February 2, 1780, when muleteer Mariano Caro Inca found a Virgin Mary image of around Maricunga Salt Mount, a Virgen named afterwards Virgen de La Candelaria, honoring the day of the candles blessing. Since then, Atacama miners, in their multiple works, as cateador, pirquinero or peón, have been the Virgen devotees (José Cánovas).
The passage of time has witnessed how the community orders their space in time, generating fests in every region corner. Such is their importance and social relevance in the region’s inhabitants, where around 100.000 people participate, both actively and passively, before, during, and after celebrations – La Virgen de La Candelaria fest gathers around 50.000 people a year, coming from disparate areas of the region and the country. This is the point where the community organization presents a unique and unbreakable value, for it is family itself, organized, expressed, in relation with the community, in full possesion of their customs, reviving, recreating and performing their celebrations in every town of the region in every single month of the year: San Pedro in Chañaral, Huasco, and Caldera; Virgen del Tránsito, Virgen del Carmen in El Salado and Los Loros, or La Cruz de Mayo in Vallenar, are examples of the transcendence of this organization, firmly based on so-called Bailes Religiosos.