The San Severino Festival: Rain, Ritual and Revelry in Bolivia
“Do you know the real San Severino?” asked the inebriated man next to me on the bus back to Cochabamba. “The real San Severino!”
I wasn’t too sure exactly what he meant; the real San Severino died over 1500 years ago. “Well, um, I know he was a saint, from Europe I think, who brings the rains…” I stumbled but tried my best to answer him.
“Bah! No one knows the real San Severino!” he blustered.
After a moment the question came again: “Do you know the real San Severino?” I knew this was going to be a circular conversation making the hour-long ride seem even longer. So I countered and turned the question on him.
“Ahh… ¡si pues!” He raised his right hand emphatically: “San Severino… he was… um… a Christian and a patriot… from the early republic, who… uh…” After an uneasy pause he dropped his hand in exasperation.
Snickering behind us, I spotted a couple of grinning chola woman looking at us. They were swearing those lovely shiny dresses and colorful bonnets typical of the indigenous women here. I smiled at them and asked if they knew who the real San Severino was.
They just shook their heads and laughed.
Apparently, even the faithful who come to celebrate the festival of San Severino don’t know who the real saint was. I admit there are a lot of Catholic saints to remember, numbering well over 10,000. But at the end of the day, when the processions, fireworks, drinking and dancing were over, here in Bolivia it really doesn’t really matter who the real San Severino was.
What matters is the celebration in the streets. A celebration for the change of seasons and a time to welcome the hot sun and the saturating rains. It is a time to revel with family and friends (and strangers, like myself) with good food and dance. It is a time to rejoice that the rains will bring growth and abundance to everyone.
Old Traditions Die Hard: Lliupacha Yuyaychay (The Andean Cosmovision) + Christianity
For thousands of years festivals in Bolivia have celebrated the unity of the physical and spiritual worlds through pagan rituals and dances, centering on the Pachamama, the supreme and life-giving Mother Earth goddess. Natural cycles, especially seasonal change, have long meant party time in the Andes.
The conquering Spanish were intolerant of the local religious traditions and tried hard to erase paganism. But Christian beliefs never fully replaced the existing practices, as is evidenced in the syncretism of such powerful religious icons as the Pachamama and the Virgin Mary. Today most Bolivians practice a combination of both Catholic and pre-Hispanic rituals.
San Severino, Patrono de Tarata
Enter San Severino, an Italian saint who died over a thousand years before the Americas were known to modern Europe. Some of his remains were allegedly brought to Tarata with the Franciscan missionaries who established a church here during their evangelical march eastward.
It is said that during the first procession on the saint’s feast day (actually in early January), it rained so hard that the locals were convinced that San Severino was responsible. This milagro (miracle) secured his fame here as the Patron Saint of the Rains.
Because San Severino was such a hit with the locals, the Franciscans conveniently changed his feast to coincide with the traditional rainy season welcoming rituals already in place. And tah-dah: the San Severino festival was born. Or born again.
Today thousands flock to Tarata to worship the saint who will bring the all-important downpours needed to replenish wells, dampen fledgling crops and quench the thirst of livestock. Farmers carry pitchers of water blessed in Tarata to sprinkle in their fields, venerating both San Severino and the Pachamama.
Tarata: Small Town with a Big Reputation
Tarata today is a one-horse town with fewer than 3000 inhabitants but it boasts favorite-son Bolivian Independence hero Esteban Arze and three former Presidents of Bolivia. The most infamous being Mariano Melgarejo, a brutal autocrat who is remembered for giving a large chunk of Bolivia to Brazil in exchange for a white horse (he allegedly traced the horse’s hoof on a map of Bolivia to designate the parcel).
Normally a quiet town, the cobblestone streets come alive as the faithful and fun-seekers arrive en masse for San Severino. Events kick off the last Saturday in November with the entrada (inaugural procession) and an evening of fireworks, drinking, dance and general revelry.
Dancing In the Streets: San Severino Sunday
The following day a solemn mass is celebrated at the church and the San Severino statue is carried through the streets. This ends the Catholic part of the celebration. The rest of the day is spent drinking, dancing and watching the energetic fraternidades (fellowships of marchers) parade through the streets in flashy costumes, dancing, and singing mostly in Quechua (the language introduced by the Incas).
Chorizo y Chicha: Full Flavors in the Streets
And of course no Latin American festival would be complete without a vast assortment of street vendors. Hand-cranked ice cream, fresh fruit, fried potatoes, sweet gelatine, good luck charms, handicrafts, ceramic jugs to carry holy water and chicha, games and children’s rides… something for everyone.
Most conspicuous were the meaty morsels in large cooking vessels that lined the main streets. Tarata is known for its chorizo sausage and there was plenty of supply for San Severino’s feast.
Of course there was chicha, the beloved corn beer that is ever-present in the Cochabamba region. Cooked above huge adobe fireplaces and fermented in oversize terracotta jugs, chicha is served up in buckets and consumed liberally from dried-gourd saucers.
Chicherías are everywhere in Tarata, just look for the little white or red flags hanging outside homes. And one mustn’t forget to spill a little on the ground in honor of Pachamama when it’s your turn to drink!
Finding Friends and More Fun
I find most Bolivians to be warm and especially courteous but today they were overflowing with affability. I enjoyed the many smiles in the streets and I made new friends over shared buckets of chicha while watching the processions pass.
I was happy to run into Mario, a CIDRE colleague of mine. He introduced me to his family and friends and fed me peanuts fresh from his farm. We spent a good time chatting and joking and enjoying the festival.
By late afternoon the processions had ended, the grilled meat stands disappeared and the chicherías slowly became quieter.
And I noticed that the sky was turning a bit darker… it seemed in every way the San Severino festival was a success!
Peter Soley is a Kiva Fellow (Class 19) serving in Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz) with CIDRE. Become a member of CIDRE’s lending team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!