One of Latin America’s most colorful -- and bizarre -- traditions is the year-end burning of the dummies. When the clock ticks over to 2013 on Monday night, an observer with a good vantage point in Cuenca will behold an other-worldly sight of thousands of burning dummies and a sky filled with smoke and fireworks. Think Danté’s hell. Think Mad Max. Think Happy New Year.
Most dummies, called año viejos because they represent the old year, are made of cloth and filled either with sawdust, ground cardboard, straw, or leaves. Others are made of paper maché. Dummy faces are masks representing everyone from presidents and city councilmen to wayward family members. Most of the masks are paper maché and hand-made, although some are manufactured plastic. The dummys' stuffing often contains firecrackers and, occasionally, Chinese rockets, which are set off during the immolations. These sacrificial offerings do not go gently into that good night.
Many of the dummies are works of art, but foreigners who want to rescue one from the pyre should choose carefully. Some dummies are filled with vegetable matter or even barnyard manure and tend to make unsavory house guests.
The dummy tradition goes back at least two centuries, but its origin is largely a mystery. Visitors to Ecuador report the practice in the early 1800s in Cuenca and, in the 1860s, in Guayaquil. Several history books report, without providing sources, that the practice combines ancient Andean ritual with Spanish rites of the 1700s, most likely connected with the Feast of St. Joseph. Although it began in Ecuador, the tradition was spread, reportedly by Catholic priests and monks, to other Latin American countries.
The meaning of the event seems simple enough: out with the old and, we can assume, in with the new. It's the symbolic catharsis and purification. For good measure, many celebrants jump over the burning or smoldering dummies three times at midnight. Each year, several of the dozens of Cuencanos who show up in emergency rooms on New Year's Eve have the misfortune of jumping into an exploding rocket. There have been reported cases of pyrotechnic enemas.
Although the burnings are practiced all over Ecuador, Cuenca has become the tradition’s epicenter among the country’s larger communities. On New Year’s Eve, the city sees dozens of neighborhood block parties, complete with bands, open bars, and roaming and noticeably unsteady troubadors accompanied by barking dogs. The highlight of the evening in every corner of the city is the burning of the dummies in the streets.
Although politicians are popular dummies and Presidents Rafael Correa and Barak Obama will burn hundreds of times during the night, some are of friends and family members of the cremators. Many burnings aren't simply acts of "good-riddance," but are conducted with hopes of cleansing bad habits. One dummy seated on the doorstep of a Calle Bolivar DVD shop wears the sign: “Please don’t burn me. I promise to get a job next year.”
According to Ecuadorian writer Juana Córdova Pozo, "This tradition is a powerful feature of our culture. For us, it is an important act of renewal. It helps us to partly erase the past, both the good and bad. We are leaving things behind that must be left behind.”
She adds: "For many, the fire is a symbolic element that has the ability
to scare off evil –- which we literally see vanishing in the smoke.”
Photo captions: Dummies, masks, and effigies ready for a roasting, for sale in Cuenca; Photo credits, top: El Mercurio; bottom three: Deke Castleman