The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance

The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance

Maksel, Rebecca

The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance. By David M. Guss. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xi + 239, notes, bibliography, illustrations, index.)

While conducting fieldwork in the eastern hills of Venezuela, David M. Guss learned that during Holy Week various saints were taken out of the church in Catuaro and carried in long processions throughout the town. The author notes that

powerful attachments formed between the bearers and the saints, attachments filled with deep love and emotion. But the greatest devotion was claimed to be that of the men who carried La Dolorosa, the Sorrowful Mary. For them the relation was said to be protective if not ‘macho,’ one so profound as to border on the erotic (pp. 1-2).

A scandal erupted when it was found-while the statue was being repainted-that La Dolorosa was actually another figure, that of San juan Bautista. Guss adopts the ensuing controversy (in which a community must reinvent its identity through the catalyst of a local celebration) to serve as a metaphor for the case studies that follow.

Guss, an associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University, begins with the San juan Festival in Curiepe, a village near Caracas. Known in English as Saint John’s Day or Midsummer Eve, the festival is considered one of the oldest church festivals and is also a celebration of the summer solstice. Guss notes that in Venezuela the festival was adopted not by the mestizo or indigenous populations, but by the black community, where it became an important expression of resistance. The celebration became the only time during the year that slaves and free blacks could inhabit the same physical space. The statue used in the celebration was known as San juan Congo and was considered African. At this point the narratives conflict, but everyone agrees that in 1870, this particular statue was retired. The new, European-looking saint was used for the annual celebration, and San juan Congo was all but forgotten.

Then, in the 1970s, a century after it had been hidden away, San juan Congo was brought out of retirement. The celebration was for the community only; no tourists were involved. When the author finally saw the ancient saint, he was stunned. This symbol of blackness was not black at all; he had European features and curly blond hair. Guss reports, “When I discussed this issue with friends of mine in the community, they appeared quite shocked. How could I not see that he was black?” (p. 56). Slowly, Guss realized that the blackness represented was that of poverty and oppression. The saint was broken, missing fingers and toes; his painted surface was uneven. he was the epitome of poverty. The author concludes:

The fact that San juan Congo is such a powerful symbol of blackness without being black, therefore, reveals much about the issue of race itself in Venezuela. To those celebrating at the Capilla chapel, San juan Congo is clearly black. Yet it is a blackness that only they appear able (or willing) to perceive (p. 59).

In subsequent chapters Guss examines a popular culture campaign instituted by British American Tobacco’s Bigott Foundation (in which the corporation attaches its “brand” to the notion of patriotic duty) presents an analysis of the Day of the Monkey, which illuminates the conflict of interpretation between those living in the community of Caicara and those who have migrated elsewhere to find work. The final chapter outlines how the tamunangue (a danced celebration) has been separated from its African roots and made-with the help of folkloristsinto the epitome of Venezuelan “mestizoness.”

This is a wonderful book. Although the focus is on Venezuela, these exceptional case studies are relevant to all folklorists. As the author notes, “Festivals, for all their joy and color, are also battlegrounds where identities are fought over and communities made” (p. 172).

Copyright American Folklore Society, Inc. Winter 2004

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