The winter masked traditions that I have been covering for the past few years in Portugal and Spain have taken me to many provinces and villages, each with their own unique rites of passing from winter to spring. This year took me to two villages in southern Avila province West of Madrid in the Autonomous Region of Castilla y Leon. Geographically this region, in the Sierra the Gredos mountains, hosts many unique traditions found in its numerous villages located on the mountainsides and valleys of this range. Roman settlement and influence has definitely been recorded here, but many traditions can be traced even further back to early Celtic tribal settlement. Thus it is no surprise that many seasonal solstice traditions with a basis in pre-Christian or pagan beliefs have been passed on through the centuries and have been co-opted, adapted, and shaped into the immaterial culture that we recognize today. In the middle twentieth century (1939-1975), during the repressive Franco dictatorship, a strict orthodox Catholicism dominated the country. As a result, many of these traditions were prohibited, not solely for their pagan origins and antithetical representation to the Church dogma, but because many villages used masks, painted or covered their faces – something the fascist dictatorship would not allow for fear of subversive activity.
Reawakenings in Pedro Bernardo, Ávila
On March 1st of this year I was invited to take part in a panel of photographers, folklorists, and anthropologists in the beautiful mountain town of Pedro Bernardo in Avila province to speak about the ethnographic value of the town’s winter mask tradition. The Asociación Sociocultural Siempreviva, an organization with the objective of promoting and preserving both the material and immaterial patrimony of the region and town of Pedro Bernardo among its many other local civic objectives, invited me to take part in their incredible effort to recuperate a lost village tradition, the masked Machurrero personage of their village carnival. Like so many villages that maintained these winter rites and carnivals during the Franco years, this mask tradition had been prohibited. Working with the town hall government the Asociación Sociocultural Siempreviva has been working hard to reconstruct and revive their mascarado – mask tradition. In 2013 the Association, led by its chief organizer Pedro Granado Garcia, conducted a qualitative ethnographic study in the town to aid them in their recovery of the tradition. In addition to putting their carnival into a greater regional and ethnohistorical context, they also searched to find any material remnants of the carnival in the village (i.e. masks and costumes) as well as conducted several interviews with older community members who remembered the carnival before it was banned. The Machurrero personage, according to testimonies, was found to wear a wooden mask covered with a black head scarf, black boots and a Spanish military uniform. Similar to many traditional carnivals in the peninsula, Machurreros used cencerrros – cow bells tied around their waists and were also armed with a long mimbre – willow tree switch tied to an inflated pig’s bladder. With the results of this study and the invaluable assistance of many townsfolk, the Association was able to reconstruct this tradition after decades of being nearly lost and forgotten.
Flyer for Machurreros Panel
Being the first time for the Machurreros masked carnival characters after so many years, the mood was quite celebratory. The planners, participants, friends and family all convened in the very traditional home of Antonia Blázquez and Ramiro Bardera Navas for a shared meal of a variety of Pedro Bernardo and regional hearty dishes such as the Patata al Caldero (a delicious stewy potato dish) or oveja a la brasa (a very tender grilled mutton). Adding to the already pre-carnaval atmosphere, some of the townspeople brought their instruments and played wonderful Paso Doble rhythms and the traditional Jota de Avila. After we gorged ourselves on delicious succulent meats and drank copious amounts of the fine local wine (From prior experience at other “pre-game” festivities over the years I showed some restraint on everything except for that Patata al Caldero dish! Wow!) the Machurreros went upstairs to don their masks and put on their costumes. The mood in the preparation rooms was one of outward excitement but I also detected an inner joy of pride of this revival as great meticulous care was given to the fastening of each uniform button and tie of the black head scarves over each mask.
As the Machurreros poured onto the narrow streets of Pedro Bernardo for the first time in over 70 years, waving their mimbres and shaking their cencerros, I truly witnessed a reawakening in the town. The bells of the Machurreros not only filled the streets with the sound of carnival, but signaled the revival of an ancient local consciousness – a collective memory. As they ran through the streets, a middle-aged woman gazed and remarked with both delight and unequivocal recognition, “I remember them! My grandfather told me stories about them!” A true reawakening indeed.
The photos are of the people and places mentioned in this post.
Sacrifice, Death and Renewal in Carnival – Carnaval en Navalosa, Ávila
Already well established, the carnival of Navalosa on Domingo Gordo (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) according to some villagers never truly disappeared during the Franco years. Due to the town’s remoteness in the Sierra de Gredos mountains it is not surprising that consistent enforcement of dictatorial decrees would be sparse.
Navalosa’s carnival has preparations that begin on Saturday where a group of designated young village men called quintos (a blog post could be written solely on this unique Spanish cultural phenomenon) in the early morning go near the river bank and chop down a tall poplar tree. This tree is then debranched and firmly placed in the middle of the town square called the Plaza de Mayo. Bernardo Calvo in his chapter on Navalosa in the book Mascara Iberica volume II, 2009, states that this tradition of “planting” the poplar by the young men of the quinto is a rite of passage into adulthood. Perhaps it is also symbolic of the coming of Spring – of the eventual return of life to the land as well as an emblematic totem for the carnival reveling to come.
On Sunday the following day, beginning in the early morning, the quinto appears dressed in black suits and ties, wearing black hats wrapped in colored ribbon with an image of the Virgin Mary sewn in. They cover themselves in brightly colored traditional shawls and wield canes covered in multi-colored streaming ribbons. Accompanied by a small entourage of townspeople, the quinto then proceeds to go door to door in the village to ask for and collect money and foodstuffs – particularly eggs. Interesting to note is the role of the Vaquilla, or “young bull.” This quinto member has the exclusive role of collecting the money which he places in a special embroidered pouch. He will play an even greater role in the festivities much later. After passing through the entire town, the quinto turn in all the foodstuffs and a large banquet is prepared where all the villagers take part. The numerous eggs that were collected serve as a fried accompaniment to the delicious regional dish called Revolconas, another potato dish that I had no problem going again for seconds and I confess a bit of thirds!
After a very festive lunch, the banquet hall empties as the men and women return to their homes to start the third act of the carnival, the Cucurrumachos. The Cucurrumachos I was told are the mischievous embodiment of evil while the quintos and the quintas (young women, dressed in the traditional black dress and colorful shawl typical of Avila province) represent the good. Thus ensues a “battle” of good versus evil before the coming of Spring. This unique carnival character is unmistakable and one of the most striking of mask wearers that I have seen in the peninsula. The Cucurrumachos appear dressed in a costume of baggy, old, striped tunics and blankets and have masks traditionally made of wood covered in horse or cow tails. Attached bulls’ horns or sheep horns add to the already frightening visage of the masks. They say nothing, but call attention to themselves by the numerous deafening cencerros (cow bells) attached to their waists and body. Some of the Cucurrumachos carry dead animals while others carry bovine and sheep skulls attached together by chains or affixed to their masks! Dozens of these characters come out from the houses, appear on the streets, and slowly make their way to the Plaza de Mayo. At the town square several concentric circles are formed around the poplar tree planted the day before. At the innermost circle are the quintos and quintas. Their mothers and other village women, perhaps forming a protective layer of the innocent and dressed the same way as the young quintas, form yet another circle around them. The evil Cucurrumachos form an outer circle around the “good” and throw hay or bits of shredded paper on the public forming the outermost circle. From the balcony of the town hall a woman reads a poetic chant honoring the quintos while the carnival participants move in their respective concentric circles. Signaling the end of the bizarre ritual, the announcer recites the last stanza and announces the symbolic death – or sacrifice of the Vaquilla character. Bernardo Calvo states that the sacrifice of the Vaquilla means the renewal of the village and the new agricultural year.
I feel honored to have witnessed a renewal of two kinds this year in Avila province: one a rebirth of a nearly lost tradition that survived in the collective hearts and minds of its townsfolk and the other a strong established set of rites of passage and sacrifice that honor the continued cyclical existence of its people and life itself.
The photos are of the people and places mentioned in this post.