Carnaval in Guadalajara and Leon Provinces

Carnaval this year took me to the autonomous regions of Castilla y Leon and Castilla La Mancha. Keeping with the theme of traditional Iberian festivals of pre-Christian origin, I visited the villages of Almiruete in Guadalajara province and Llamas de la Ribera in the province of Leon. As in other posts I’ve made, the origins of these festivals are pagan and were originally focused on frightening away the evil spirits of winter to prepare for a fertile spring of good crops, healthy livestock, and fecund men and women. Today they are wonderful traditions that have survived Christian liturgical cooptation, an oppressive dictatorship, and now globalization. More importantly, they are an important yearly gathering time for the villagers and their descendants to celebrate and revel in their cultural uniqueness.


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After traveling for nearly 4 hours on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, half of which was through icy mountain passes, I arrived in the village of Almiruete nestled at the base of a mountain peak. It was a village dusted with a recent light snow and dotted with old homes made of stone – some with the traditional rooftops of black slate. A cold mountain village, Almiruete’s numerous chimneys billowed out white smoke adding to the atmosphere of the festival that was to come. Upon arrival I spoke to some of the villagers about the Botargas and Mascaritas celebration. I was told that the masked ones descend from the mountaintop above the town dressed in all of their bells and regalia walking down one of the numerous footpaths that enter the village. As per tradition, no one knows which path they will choose each year, but by the sound of their cencerros (bells) one would be able to locate them and possibly greet them as they shimmied down the path. The frightening, rambunctious, male masked revelers, the botargas, enter the village and make their presence known by their loud bells and eerie-looking masks. After parading through the whole village, the botargas enter specific homes and exit with their carnaval partners, the female mascaritas. The now united couples file through the village several times and then begin to carry blooming cattails and shake them. These cattail seeds soon fill the air like snowflakes. The amount of sneezing and eye rubbing from the non-mask wearing public as a result of this was quite the spectacle! This tradition, I was told by Daniel the chief organizer, represents the concept of fertility – the fertilization of the village and its people. After making several rounds through the village the male botargas and female mascaritas converge on the main plaza with the public where a very large bonfire is lit to warm the village. The revelers begin to remove their masks and don colorfully adorned hats – black hats with white roses for the men and white hats with brightly colored ribbons for the women. As the cattail seeds begin to float and settle to the ground, musicians start to play the traditional village music. Where the public had initially been only spectators, they now begin to mix and dance with each other and the botargas and mascaritas. A feast of sausages and meats accompanied with wine is slowly grilled and prepared while the villagers dance to the band playing traditional music. Unity, fertility, hope, and pride are common themes embodied in this incredible winter festival. The photos and recordings are of the people and places mentioned in this post.

Recording of the the ram’s horn beginning the Botargas’ descent down the mountain path into Almiruete 

Recording of the traditional Carnaval music of Almiruete, Guadalajara



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Following the exciting celebration in Guadalajara on Saturday my journey took me to a small village northwest of the city of Leon in the province of the same name. A fertile, irrigated land of rolling hills the town of Llamas de la Ribera stood in stark contrast to the cold snowy mountain village of the previous day. Upon arriving in the village I entered the main bar on the town square at lunchtime and felt literally like the lone dusty traveler entering the tavern in an isolated frontier town in a Western. Eyebrows raised and heads looked up from their drinking glasses and turned and followed me as I walked up to the bar and asked for a whisk… glass of red Bierzo wine! (This is Spain not Tombstone after all!)  Any suspicions about me, the stranger, slowly began to fade when I asked a local man about the festivities and when they would start. Many townspeople were concerned about the weather as a winter storm front was threatening rain, sleet, and snow. Including blinding sun, we had all three of the other types of precipitation that day! This did not dim the spirits of the townspeople however. The celebration would proceed. I was told by several townsmen at the bar to go the house of an Antonio Suarez to learn more about the festival. My education about the village and this incredible festival began at the house of the Suarez Fuertes family. Taken by a señor to the house, he knocked on the very large oaken door and a Suarez family relative kindly invited me in. We crossed a very large open air interior patio where I sat down in the kitchen at an enormous table. The long table was full of people finishing lunch and getting ready to start the day’s main event. A cacophony of voices, dishes and silverware clanking whirred around me. Family members and friends offered me coffee and traditional carnaval desserts and warmly asked me about my origins and interests in their traditions. I had arrived at just the time when they were preparing to get dressed in their incredibly varied and traditional costumes and masks.

The Suarez Fuertes family opened a unique, personal and intimate window on the family traditions and pride that go into the preparation for the Llamas de la Ribera Carnaval.  According to the book, Máscara Ibérica by Hélder Ferreira and Bernardo Calvo (2009), the Carnaval of Llamas de la Ribera has two basic groups of revelers (among which exists a plethora of characters): those who wear white linen shirts and pants and are adorned with an enormous, tall and colorful mask and headdress combination that resembles flowers sprouting from the earth, called the guirrios. The guirrios are joined by the madamas and madamos – women and men that wear the elegant traditional dresses and jewelry of the Leon region. It must be noted that the madamos (the men dressed in traditional woman’s dress) often wear a veil and carry a cane or castanets which they use to chase young female members of the attending public. The second group, called the antruejos (or carnival revelers) comprises the rest of numerous masked characters. Among these masked characters are the Caretón (big masked one), La Gallina (the chicken) a.k.a. “tocahuevos” (egg [testicle] toucher), the goat horned, El Diablo (Devil), and the pretty/ugly La Rosita, a wearer of a large mask made of a tree trunk resembling a witch with painted “pretty eyes” and an exposed desiccated animal tongue. All these personages follow the pre-Christian themes of frightening the evil spirits of winter with the ancient belief of renewing the fertility of the land, its livestock, and its people. As the festivities continued, snow started to fall and everyone quickly moved from the plaza to the town sports hall. Despite the inclement weather, the spirits were not dampened. It was inside the hall, that I had an unexpected surprise. The community had invited the famous and respected ethnographer, Concha Casado Lobato to honor her with an award. A true daughter of Leon, she has dedicated her life to documenting and preserving the numerous cultural traditions of the province of Leon, including the Antruejo de Llamas de la Ribera. It was a wonderful and inspirational ending to a marvelous Carnaval season. I would like to sincerely thank Antonio Suarez Fuertes and his entire family for their kindness and inclusivity in such an incredible day of celebration. The recordings and photos are of the people and places mentioned in this post.

Recording of the traditional Carnaval music of Llamas de la Ribera. Listen for the Castanets!

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