PhD Candidate, Anthropology Department
New York University
Dancing Before the Virgin: Religious Confraternities and
Modernity in Northern Chilean Mining Communities
Every year up to two hundred thousand people gather in the interior desert pampa of Northern Chile to pay homage to the Virgin of Mt. Carmel (La Virgen del Carmen de la Tirana) in La Tirana. That town, too small even for municipal offices, is believed to have been the site of the miraculous apparition of the Virgin early in the sixteenth century. Now, each year, nearly three hundred confraternities of religious dancers and musicians gather from as far away as Santiago, dancing hours on end until they gain access to the chapel and perform in the virginís presence. Each group wears costumes and carries props indicative of a theme, including gypsies, Amazonian "indians," "chinos," and devils. Apart from the performers, tens of thousands of people form sprawling encampments around the town to attend the festival, fulfill promises to the virgin and participate as consumers or vendors, in large official and unofficial markets.
For some sectors of Chilean society, the continued vitality of popular religious festivals like the annual Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen every July in La Tirana represents a threat to the nationís process of modernization. Critiques stem from various discourses contrasting rural with urban, traditional with modern, and rationalism with religion. Some view the festivals, and the confraternities that participate in them, as cultural residues of the indigenous traditions of Bolivia and Peru from which the Norte Grande, the two northernmost regions of Chileís present territory, was annexed only a century ago. Others see them as an anomaly to the regionís reputation as a site of British, American, and now Australian enclave-type industrialization that began in the mid-nineteenth century with the nitrate boom. Other critics imagine the countryside to the north and south of Santiago to be full of indios and huasos, imagined categories of indigenous peasants and backwoods cowboys, while they attribute the hypertrophied capital with all that is cosmopolitan, European, and modern. While contesting these assumptions, I ask, could performances of popular religiosity by confraternities in the Norte Grande of Chile in fact be a product of modernityóconceived in the unique social petri-dish of late nineteenth-century nitrate mines?
Taking a fresh look at the nitrate mining era and the communities it
fostered, I reexamine this period through the lens of historical
anthropology to understand the growth of some forms of popular religiosity
in the context of an enclave economy while using the medium of photography
to document and explore the performances of contemporary confraternities
and other participants in the festival. Avoiding sweeping generalizations
about this mass festival, I focus my attention on a single confraternity,
Hijos de Díos y María, based in the port city of
1999, I photographed the groupís rehearsals and preparation and
accompanied their pilgrimage to La Tirana, camping with them there. This
work is relevant to scholars of performance in that participation in
festivals such as La Tirana by religious societies is performance in more
than one sense. First, the engagements of participants in dancing and
singing, and the theatrical aspects of costume and props, are
comprehensible as performative genres. However, confraternities also
perform ideas and values, enacting and representing their roles in the
social life of the nation, and their subjectivities. Like all such
large-scale festivals, La Tirana involves the performance of social life
and history along with the expressive and ritual aspects of the event.
This work will serve to shed light on an important chapter of Chilean
history and to relocate the workers and families of mining communities as
central protagonists in Chileís modernization. My approach will build on
scholarship in various disciplines on work and workers, performance,
ritual, popular religiosity, enclave economies, nationalism, modernity,
cultures in the Andes, and the wealth of historical work on mining and
syndicalism in Chile.