“…assure them that you are made from love, that you speak from love,
because that is from where you were born…
many will laugh at you, many will brand you insane,
yet when has madness ever really mattered here…
some will listen, some will stay, and you will grow into friends,
into solidarity, into the forever we dream about…so treasure your woman,
treasure your man, because you are all we have…
stand in the present, draw from the future and shoot with all the ammunition of the past.”Anthony Anaxagorou: The Master’s Revenge
The Festival of San Juan began yesterday in the Venezuelan town of Curiepe, Venezuela in the northeastern state of Miranda, popularly known as Barlevento. Popular festivals in Venezuela are a traditional form of expression through which barrio residents take the public square and surrounding blocks as a community emphasizing their common history in resistance against the slavery and oppression that brought them to the Americas. The festivals represent a combination of African traditions and colonial Catholicism initiated and mediated through African drumming and dancing announced by a shell horn across the town. The traditional dances and drums at the festival dates to the times of slavery when slaves were given three days off at Solstice. Our intent to observe the festivals here in Venezuela is grounded in our experiences using ethnography and phenomenological methods of research as a form of resistance to non-European research modes.
As we entered the town the over the past two days the local police and Federales are highly visible standing around in groups with guns strapped to shoulders, parked in official trucks, hanging around stations set in areas around the square and in apartments overlooking the square. This presence is to prevent the gang violence of past festivals where struggles occurred when gangs prevented the festival from occupying the square and took control over the proceedings. These past struggles have at times ended with shoot-outs and murders. We were informed by one of the women we interviewed that there are suspicions among Chavez supporters that the US sponsored opposition is arming these gangs and encouraging violence to damage the Chavez government thus opening the door to yet another coup attempt. Our guide informed the police of our group’s intent to observe the festival and later the police allowed us space to interview people we met at the festival.
In addition to the police uniformed presence are the uniformed presence of young people in t-shirts representing the government support for the festival handing out colorful posters and festival program booklets. The T-shirts are also worn by many barrio residents. Chavez implemented policies for funding the arts with the Project of the Organic Law of Culture in 2000 with a specific aim of preserving culture. The Chavez government uses oil revenues to support cultural forms such as the urban festivals. While the intent of the government is national cohesion of culture through support for festivals such as this one the distinct history of exclusion and the religious aspects remain important to the town’s people. This was most evident in the children who were dressed in a range of cultural costumes and were waving the red flags provided by the government to honor the saints.
In her book, “Who Can Stop the Drums? Sujatha Fernandas details how the cult of San Juan may be seen along the lines of the patron client relationship where through-out the year people make requests to the saint and then repay the saint with promises, loyalty, or the carrying of the statue of the saint on their shoulders. The relationship of the people in the political sphere represents another level of the patron client relationship. While for some of the barrio residents celebrating this year, Chavez is viewed as a benefactor protecting their interests, the opposition candidate, Mr. Rondanski, the governor in this area arrives at the church heavily surrounded by guards before the mass to promote his race in a festival highly associated with black identity.
The festival celebration represents the construction of lineages that link contemporary marginality and poverty with the oppression experienced by earlier generations. We met two maestros/ elder teachers on our visits to the festival. One revered elder who explained to us the importance of the two saints, San Juan Congo and San Juan Buatista. He led us to the home of the family that houses the effigy of the San Juan Bautista who functions as the moral arbiter of purification that Catholicism imposed on the slave and explained that traditionally by being allowed in the home housing the saint we should ask the saint to grant our prayers. In contrast, San Juan Congo is the figure of slave rebellion that helped free the slaves. The second maestro/teacher who was introduced to us by a Gambian student attending the festival, explained to us the importance of the drums in addressing the continuity of culture from Africa to the Americas and the legacy of exclusion and inequality in the Americas. The drumming and dancing, was critiqued as distinct from African traditions while a meaningful embrace of African culture by the Gambian student studying in Venezuela in the exchange program established by Chavez.
The fiesta, a historic tradition challenging the unjust exclusion from membership in cities and states, reflected issues of belonging and exclusion for each member of our research group. African-American participants expressed emotional associations with people in the barrio who looked like an uncle or a grandfather with tears in their eyes and voiced a longing for cultural traditions to be preserved in the USA as experienced at the San Juan festival. A Muslim participant who wears traditional hijab fascinated many residents who asked her who she was, why she was there and wanted photos of her and with her. As the word got out quickly that we were North Americanos,or as some called us,Yankees, a group of young boys whose ages ranged somewhere between 10 -14 initiated a political discussion with her about the bad things the USA does to their country and the importance of their country’s oil. Their knowledge of history and politics was impressive. Mexican-American students described the familiarity of the culture of the festival and said they felt at home in that regard but that the overt attention from men was very uncomfortable for them. Another participant observed the exclusion and discrimination against gays at the festival and in Venezuela generally.
The festival reminded me ofthe many Saint festivals celebrated through-out my mother’s homeland of Italy. The little church in Curiepe brought back memories of the church in the town square of San Pietro Magisano, Italy and even more so, of beloved family members now deceased. The intense commitment of my Italian family to Christianity was mirrored by the town’s people crowding into the church and evoked longings for community and cultural traditions never found in the USA. The community I long for is that which Chavez is fighting for, community committed to a revolution grounded in social justice and community based on love and respect for the people. My prayer to the Saints today was this community for us all.