Today I arrived at the prison at 9am on the dot since I was told the Carnaval celebration began at 9. I figured this actually meant 10, but I still wanted to arrive on time. I immediately felt the excitement in the air when I entered the women’s area and saw everyone running around, preparing for their performances. It was very endearing to watch how the women helped one and other, braiding each other’s hair, giving recommendations about costumes, and loaning out items.
As it turns out, although the prison organizes the celebration they do not pay for the costume rentals, which was the dancer’s responsibility. Every person participating in Carnaval had to rent their own costume, which came from people outside the prison. I asked one of the women how people felt about paying for their costume rentals and she said, “The dancing and the celebration is therapeutic for us.” This I believe, as there are many holidays the country celebrates with grand fiestas that the inmates miss.
While we waited, I watched the groups of women practice and fell in love with the costumes. One group had long neon pink and green fringe belts that created a lovely wash of movement and color when they danced. Another wore white top hats, white blouses, and white skirts which spun beautifully when the women twirled (which was often).
The prison tends to be very disorganized and today was no different. The celebration, which was meant to start at 9, didn’t get underway until noon! When it was finally time to leave the women’s area for the men’s courtyard there was a mad dash to the door and it was all could do to keep sight of the women that I planned to sit with. Fortunately, the women got first dibs on the seats and after it was said and done, all 200 of us were crammed into two rows of stone bleachers. The men didn’t fare as well and many had to stand for the duration of the event.
Finally the dancing was underway and groups of women and men took turns presenting traditional dances from the department of Ayacucho. All of the music was in Quechua and many of the dances told stories of life in the campo or drew on traditions associated with Carnaval (like throwing water or dancing with certain flowers). I was fortunate to have a narrator next to me, who pointed out some of these nuances.
Most of the dances presented are traditionally danced with men and women partners. Since the men and women in the prison are segregated, this was impossible, so instead, half the dancers from each group dressed up as the opposite gender. This led to a lot of laughs, especially with the men, who wore skirts, blouses stuffed with balloons, fake braids, top hats, and makeup. Although some dances maintained the festive spirit of Carnaval, others exploded into comedic and silly affairs.
During intermission I decided it was time to leave since I was hungry, sunburned, and dehydrated (despite having the women yell at me every 5 minutes to drink more water). I ducked out with two psychology students, who are completing their practical coursework at the prison, and miraculously found a guard to let us out, completing my first Carnaval celebration in Ayacucho.