The sprawling town of Masaya, Nicaragua’s third most populous city, celebrates an annual festival in honor of its patron saint, San Jerónimo.
“The Virgin of the Assumption was made the town’s official patron in 1819 by King Fernando VII of Spain when he declared Masaya a city,” says folklore expert and teacher Irene López, who I meet in a museum in the town’s Monimbó district. “The Virgin is a religious icon but Saint Jerónimo is the working people’s choice, celebrated with drinking and dancing for three months, from the end of September to the beginning of December.”
A large part of the festival’s appeal is the range of costumes, most of which poke fun at various outside groups, particularly the ruling classes. “One very popular group is ‘El Torovenado’, who use marimba music and verse to satirize current affairs or politicians,” says Irene. “Some of the dancers wear costumes that originally mocked the Spanish, such as the ‘Negritas’ or ‘Diablitos’. They used masks to hide their identity – and still do – but other groups, such as the ‘Inditas’, who wear an elaborate form of indigenous dress, do not. Then there are the ‘Húngaras’, who recall the gypsies who came here to work in the early 1900s. People were afraid of them because they thought they were witches as they used cards to read the future.”
Her friend Felipita Cermeño quotes the work of poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, who believed these rituals predated the arrival of the Spanish and may have been used in worship of the volcanoes of the region, merely changing focus as the power structure shifted.
“The music and dance changed under Spanish influence but it definitely has indigenous roots,” she says. “Flowers still used in the dances were used as perfume by indigenous women. They are also changing as the times change; for example, the present fashion is to paint the dresses. At one point people were using costumes from other countries, not just places like Colombia but also Japan. So we have brought things back to their roots. Things should stay as traditional as possible.”
Masaya’s place at the heart of the country’s craft industry is shown by its large markets, filled with a colorful choice of pottery, hammocks and fabrics among many other handmade goods. A new market aimed at the growing tourist trade lacks the character of the old one, which is also packed with stalls selling meat, fruit and clothes, and buzzes with the friendly and relaxed air of long-familiar neighbors.
“I am so proud to be from Masaya because the people here are so hard-working,” says Irene. “But it is a big responsibility because you are expected to know a lot about music, arts and crafts. If you don’t, you are not from Masaya. It is the cradle of culture and folklore in Nicaragua and also of revolution – we have been fighting the Spanish since the 1500s. We fight for justice!”
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