Orbiting streaks of blue and red and black and white and coral and yellow twirl in a flash before my eyes. Llama-haired legs bounce and jump, reminiscent of the mythological Roman fauns who attended Faunus – God of the forest, plains and fields. I was watching Juventud Latina, an Ecuadorian folk dancing group whose native country became the first in the world to guarantee enforceable rights to nature in its 2008 Constitution.
Ecuador has a large indigenous population; therefore, many are able to retain traditions that existed prior to Spanish colonization and American cultural world influence. The indigenous population is extremely diverse in that each town has its own unique clothing, food, dance, and music.
The greater New York area is a unique location in the United States, hosting a vast majority of the nation’s Ecuadorian population. Walking down the streets in Queens you undoubtedly will see an Ecuadorian, but judging from his blue jeans and collared shirt, you wouldn’t know he’s from Ecuador, and you won’t see him in his unforgettably vibrant traditional attire.
Juventud Latina, a group established in Danbury, Connecticut, brings the unique Ecuadorian flavors of the Cayambe, Otavalo, and Cañari people, 2,800 miles to our doorstep in the Greater New York City area with their powerful and playful dance performances.
The Cayambe people are Andean descendants of pre-Inca Kayambi people who were resistant to Inca expansion up until a bloody 20 year war, after which they were conquered by the eleventh Sapa Inca, Suana Capac. The town lies as the foot of the Cayambe volcano, the third highest mountain in Ecuador at 18,966 feet.
Being in the Andes, the Cayambe women battle a frigid climate with three uniquely colored layers of dresses, a large rounded thick hat, and a little bag all made out of wool.
Men wear small pants under an outside layer consisting of leather on the inner leg and conspicuously thick llama hair on the outer leg. Tops consist of long sleeves with two very thick layers of ponchos. Long multi-colored twisted wool fabrics are tied on their heads and on the very top, they wear a large round wool pressed hat.
The Otavaleños are Andean descendants of the Cara Indians who inhabited the Imbabura area of northern Ecuador about 500 years ago. The city of Otavalo is very close to Cayambe and is surrounded by the mountains Imbabur (15,190 feet), and Cotacachi (4,955 feet). Otavaleños are a common sight throughout Ecuador and are a very prosperous people due to their business savvy.
The women here dress in an embroidered white blouse with flared, lacy sleeves, and a long dark skirt with a pale underskirt, both wrapped around the body and held in place by an intricately designed woven belt. A fachalina, which can be described as a wool bandana, covers the hair. Golden beads are worn around the neck to represent maize, with a greater quantity of these golden beads signifying a higher status in the Otavalo community. Red coral bead bracelets are worn to ward off evil spirits.
Men wear white pants down to ankles and a top with a one inch thick dark blue poncho topped off with a black fedora hat. Many will wear a shimba, which is a long braid that hangs down almost to the waist.
The Cañaris are historically a matriarchal people who, much like the Cayambe, fiercly resisted Inca expansion, although they too eventually folded. Now they host the largest known Incan settlement in Ecuador.
Cañari women wear a long sleeved white blouse, white leggings, a white underskirt that goes to the ankles, and a skirt that only goes to the knees. On top of everything, women wear a wool hat much like the Cayambe, but very short. Sandals made of rubber, called alpergatas, cover the toes and back of the foot.
Cañari men wear black pants of various colors including grey, black, beige, cinnamon and navy blue, that go down to the mid-calves. They wear a poncho that is smaller like a vest in that it is cut at the shoulders. Sometimes they wear llama hair pants.
Any and all of these types of clothing are worn during Ecuadorian dance performances, and dancers invest a great deal in their myriad costumes.
Musical rhythms accompanying these three dances are in the style of either Carnivales or Sanjuanito. Carnivales is cheerful upbeat music you would expect from a festival. Sanjuanito may be a pre-Incan rhythm that resembles Carnivales, but is softer for a more romantic dance. Antara, siku, and rondador panpipes, pingullo recorders, stringed charango lutes, double reed dulzaina oboes, bombas, and drums are common instruments for both of these musical styles.
Ecuadorian folk dances are very much like unique theatre productions. They tell of stories that illustrate common themes, some as simple as celebrating their respective towns, or falling in love with a girl. Following Ecuador’s close connection to nature, some dances are about singing to the animals and flowers, and generally being friendly to the environment.
A slightly more complex dance, the Diabluma, is a joyful Cayambe dance in celebration of the maize harvest. The whole town gathers together to party, scare evil spirits away from the harvest, and keep the community together.
Juventud Latina performing at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Danbury.
Veronic Lliguicota, a dancer with Juventud Latina, described an Otavaleño dance in an interview:
“This girl takes care of the sheep. She puts a long stick with the wool around and she twists and makes this long string of wool so later she can braid and do something with that. So she goes to where they keep the animals. She is shepherding. And this guy comes who is in love with the girl. And she doesn’t want it. She’s just smiling…Women wear a fachulina (wool bandana) and if a guy comes and steals the fachulina away, she’s got to go and marry that guy. So if she gets it back its ok. But if he takes it away she has to marry the guy. So if she lets the guy keep the fachulina, she’s got to marry him. So, the guy tries to get married to the girl. He takes it away. The neighbors call, ‘Comadre!’ and the Comadre comes over to marry them and they marry and go dancing.”
Lliguicota, who dances with two of her brothers, her fiancee, and, most recently, her 9-year-old niece in Juventud Latina, said her favorite dance is the Cayambe.
“The way they dance is more sexy,” she explained. “More colorful. It’s happier. Once you hear the music you want to get moving. If you don’t like you won’t feel it. I’ve done dancing all my life. Once I hear it I start dancing.”
Unfortunately, Juventud Latina will not be dancing this weekend at the Ecuadorian Festival at Ives Concert Park in Danbury. Juventud has failed to gather the minimum required eight dancers – four girls and four guys. It’s but one sign that not all Ecuadorian Americans are holding onto their cultural traditions.
“Second generation are already losing it,” Lliguicota remarked. “Some of my nephews don’t even speak Spanish.” She said that her nephews don’t want to participate in the dance: “They just want to hang out with friends. If they don’t want it and they’re not interested in doing it then we’re going to lose everything and become Americanized and forget everything.”
Lliguicota says that part of this cultural erosion stems from lack of parental control over children’s influences.
“If the parents talk to them and say this is who we are and this is what we do over there and this is who we should be,” she said. “If the parents are not doing it people are not helping and we’re going to lose everything.” Lluguicota claims as part of Juventud, it’s difficult to inspire traditional dance in adolescents and young adults who have grown up impacted by other cultures. “Whoever has the heart will do it…if you don’t we can’t force you to do it.”
However, there’s still hope of keeping Ecuadorian traditions alive in America. Juventud is trying to catch the attention of Ecuadorian Americans when they’re young children. Her niece is only nine years old and is dancing the Cayambe along with two other children in her family. Lluguicota says that some children just have a natural inclination to dance, they feel the music deep down inside, and come back to start dancing.
An inevitable social pattern among immigrant society tells a story of second and third generations that lose freshly imported first generational traditions in the face of overwhelming American cultural influence. For now, first generation Ecuadorian Americans like Lliguicota and the Juventud dancers are keeping Cayambe, Otavelo, and Cañari customs alive in America.
Experience more Ecuadorian culture this weekend at the Ecuadorian Festiaval at the Ives Concert Park in Danbury. The festival will take place on Sunday, August 5 from noon to 8pm on the WestConn Westside campus, located at 43 Lake Avenue Extension in Danbury. Tickets can be purchased at the gate. For more information, visit ivesconcertpark.com.
Follow Juventud Latina on Facebook here.