Ask the average Quiteño to explain what Fiestas de Quito are all about, and you will invariably hear them say it is not what it use to be. For better and worse, the celebrations that commemorate the Spanish foundation of our city have taken a nose dive, and despite the Municipality’s efforts to paint the town in red and blue, the general population sees the fiestas come and go with little more than apathy.
Today’s Fiestas de Quito are the result of more than a decade of campaigns, marches, legal battles and a strenuous deliberation on how to change Quiteños’ social conscience. For those of you who were lucky enough to miss it, the following is a quick catch-up of the facts that have deflated the voice of our ¡Viva Quito!.
The ground was still smoking when Sebastián de Benalcázar ceremoniously founded the city of San Francisco de Quito 481 years ago. A day before the Spaniards’ arrival, Mr Rumiñahui, who was in fact in charge of the already existing city of Quito, had to make the hardest and last decision of his life: to fight and lose his city to the conquistadores, or to burn it down and thus leave nothing for his enemies to ravage. Fast forward four hundred and some years, it could be a little confusing for a Quiteño to take the 6 of December as a celebratory date; after all, this was a most difficult day in the history of a city that existed long before the arrival of the Spanish and furthermore that continued to grow and prosper after it was declared independent from the Spanish colonies. Here, then, we arrive to problem number one of Fiestas de Quito. What are we celebrating? The debate on this particular subject is ongoing, and if ever there is an abandonment of our December civic celebrations, this will probably be the defining factor.
Following on from the love-hate for Spanish inheritance, here comes the bull. This is arguably the biggest, bloodiest, and most exhausting fight of Fiestas de Quito. Twenty years ago, no one would have questioned the importance of bull fighting as the centerpiece of Fiestas de Quito. People of all socio-economic backgrounds got into their best urban cowboy outfits and headed for the nearest plaza de toros. Those who found it grim simply closed their eyes. Boys wanted to be toreros when they grew up, and girls wanted to receive a rose from a torero.
Eventually, people started to notice the poor bull, and that’s when it all began to change. In 2007 a group of anti-bullfight Quiteños got together around a statue of a big bull there used to be at the intersection of Eloy Alfaro and Amazonas, and decided to make their voices heard. The following year the group got much bigger, the march they conducted was much more significant, and the campaign entitled “La Tortura: ni arte ni cultura” (the torture: not art and not culture) spread upon the masses that had, until then, been closing their eyes at bull fights. By 2010 Fiestas de Quito had become the platform on which Quiteños drew a line. On one side were the taurinos, on the other the antitaurinos. The controversy grew to such proportions that in 2011 there was a national poll that asked the population whether they wanted to ban spectacles that culminated in the death of an animal in their local area. In Quito, 57% of the population voted to pass this law, but just when the antitaurinos were about to hang their hats, the Municipality of Quito clung on to a technicality of the question and decided to allow bull fights to continue so long as the animals were not killed in the arena. As such, there are, to this day, bull fights during Fiestas de Quito, but they have lost all respect, as most Quiteños agreed that was not what they voted for and they would not support such a cheat. There are still groups who are marching against bull fighting in Quito today, which is, well, less than festive.
Problem number three: alcohol. In 2000 there were between 60 and 70 deaths in the city during Fiestas de Quito, alongside 500 wounded. These numbers had been steadily rising over the last few years of the millenium. Many of the deaths had to do with alcohol poisoning and accidents that involved inebriated people, plenty of whom were young adults and teenagers. One private high school, Liceo International, began a campaign in 2001 with the slogan “Vivamos la Fiesta en Paz” (let’s have the party in peace), which promoted enjoying the festivities without drinking. This was not an easy message to get through. When Fiestas de Quito arrived every year, one could hear a tout say ¡Qué viva Quito!, to which people all around responded ¡Qué viva!, then the tout would return with ¡Qué chupe Quito! (chupar is a slang verb that means to drink), and the group would follow ¡Qué chupe!, the tout then asked ¿Hasta dónde? (up until what point?) and the crowd would yell ¡Hasta las huevas, carajo! The “que chupe Quito” was a wide-spread idea in the consciousness of Quiteños; no one could envision Fiestas de Quito without a disproportionate intake of alcohol.
Still, the school campaign gained strength as more schools joined in. By 2010 there were 150 schools participating in the campaign. Today there are over 300 schools who support and encourage the “Vivamos la Fiesta en Paz” campaign, giving away stickers, bracelets, t-shirts, etc. Now this is certainly not a problem, it is most probably a solution to something that was getting out of hand, especially considering that the numbers of dead and wounded have gone down. However, to many Quiteños it serves as a reminder that we need moderation, not just self-imposed, but socially-imposed moderation. As a society, it seems, we could not be given free rein, because we simply run amok. That is a hard realization to face, and we have stickers, and bracelets and t-shirts to remind us, which is less than festive.
As if all of these things were not enough to kill the party spirit, regulations of health and safety barged in and made us all put on our seat belts. Well, not quite seat belts, more like made us get off the roof of the vehicle. Since 1993, which, I admit, was not that long ago, Quito’s choice of transport for the festivities was the traditional chiva bus. This was a bus of high clearance, with rows of wooden seats on which no one sat because all the passengers, along with a full town band, would get on the roof of the vehicle to sing, dance, drink, and duck every incoming tree branch and electric cable. Originally, these buses were meant as a fun transportation from point A to point B, but the ride was so much fun that it became a party in itself. People loved screaming out lyrics of the Chullita Quiteño to passers-by, yelling out ¡Qué viva Quito!, and generally causing happy havoc, if there is such a thing.
In 2007 a law passed prohibiting passengers to ride on the roof of chivas. The band was still allowed to play on the roof, but everyone else had to make use of the wooden seats. So there we all were, stuck in the middle of the Quito evening traffic, sitting on these uncomfortable benches, a low ceiling above us, and a band on our heads. Thankfully, Mr Diego Artundeaga, owner of a float of chivas called La Chiva de mi Pueblo, re-designed his vehicles and thus came the chivateca: a bus with no seats, a couple of dance polls, and a dj to replace the traditional band. You can still hop on a wooden bench chiva nowadays, but really, why would you?
Finally, there is one thing that has remained constant throughout all of these changes, and it is perhaps the one thing that has kept Quiteños from giving up all together on Fiestas de Quito: the official program of events put on by the Municipality. Concerts, exhibitions, fairs, contests, shows and museums all try to rescue tradition year after year. Quiteños are, above all, traditionalists. We like things the way they were, and as such we are struggling to come to terms with the fact that Fiestas de Quito are not what they use to be. For better and worse.