Bolivians shrink their dreams to please Andean prosperity god Ekeko

January 25, 2008

An Ekeko statue, 24 Jan. 2001/David MercadoBolivians are crowding the steep cobbled streets of La Paz these days to pay homage to Ekeko, the squat mustached Andean god of abundance. They load down colourful Ekeko statues with tiny items representing prosperity, something elusive in South America’s poorest country. It’s the annual festival of Alasita, the time when Bolivians like to buy trinkets representing their wishes for the new year in the hope Ekeko will make them come true.

The festival of Alasita (“buy me” in the indigenous Aymara language) combines local Aymara traditions and Roman Catholic beliefs. In keeping with its traditional roots, a shaman often blesses the trinkets with incense, flower petals and rubbing alcohol. But many participants also climb the stairs to the Roman Catholic cathedral for the blessing of Our Lady of La Paz.

Inside, men in white robes toss holy water onto people’s purchases, creating a muddy slop on the cathedral floor. The faithful throw tiny dollar bills, or bolivianos, at a flower-covered altar to the Virgin Mary. Some of them just ask that their bags of goodies be placed close to the altar for a moment, to receive her blessing.

A shaman blesses toy money at the Alasita festival, 24 Jan 1999/David MercadoThe stalls lining the streets sell everything from teensy wads of euros to miniature diplomas for industrial engineers and gynecologists. Their tables are dotted with small pots of gold, good-luck frogs and mini-SUVs. Tiny scarecrow-like figures on display are meant to represent maids.

Two giggling young women buy rooster statues to give to one another, in the hope they’ll both find boyfriends in the coming year. “That’s the tradition, that this will come true,” said Lizzette Ramos, 18.

The toy money is also used to symbolically pay off debts. Several people hand me bills, one woman to pay for life insurance, another to repay a bank loan and a third “for her trip to the United States”. After performing the ritual, an old woman in the long braids and layered skirts typical of La Paz’s indigenous population declared: “I don’t owe anything anymore!”

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales receives hen statue at Alasita festival, 24 Jan. 2008/David MercadoBolivia’s first Indian leader, President Evo Morales, opened the main Alasita street fair on Thursday calling to the crowd: “May Ekeko give prosperity and justice to all!” An artisan gave him a statue of a hen, so he can find a partner during the coming year, and handed him another for the vice president, who is also a bachelor.

He also received a tiny version of the government’s controversial new constitution, which he hopes to implement despite stiff opposition.

Cristhiam Casazola, a 26-year-old doctor, did some shopping for his whole family, buying a basket of miniature food items and a large pot of gold, representing bounty. “I also bought some bread,” he says, “because we should never be without.”

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