Closely on the heals of the Summer Solstice or Inti Raymi celebrations (see a previous post), Fiestas de San Juan and San Pedro dominate the scene in my Province of Imbabura.  I’ve been really confused about the significance of all of these festivals and how they tie into Inti Raymi.  To the casual observer, the celebrations look the same.  But with the help of my Ecuadorian family, I’m starting to understand the importance of these festivals and notice the finer details between these celebrations. 

In the Andes, the Fiestas de San Juan combine Catholic beliefs with native Andean traditions.   Known in other parts of the world as The Feast of St. John, this day celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist.  The date, the 24th of June, is intentional in that it is exactly six months prior to the birth of Jesus.

San Juan, or Saint John the Baptist, is considered the caretaker of the agricultural bounty.  While Inti Raymi is traditionally an indigenous celebration giving thanks for the harvest, San Juan is traditionally the catholic celebration giving thanks for the same thing.  Since Catholicism has taken hold in the Andean Indigenous community, they celebrate both of these important days.  (When it comes to giving thanks for a harvest and hoping this will get you in good standing for next year, one can never be too thankful!)

To celebrate, the Spanish-blood “Mestizos” such as the members of my family, gather with the local Indigenous people to circle dance wherever there is space.  The dancers encircle a group of musicians that play a special genre of music called, of course, Sanjuanito.  The circle is a nod to the agricultural cycle, and it represents the path of the sun.  I admit, I thought all circles looked the same, but Jose has been educating me about the different styles adapted by each of the communities.

Over many generations, each barrio, or neighborhood, has honed their own style of celebrating San Juan.  Some barrios dance in a particular style, some have specific traditional clothes, and some have specific instruments different than the norm.  Since Jose works all over the countryside, he receives many invitations to dance San Juan in different communities.  Pablo and Margarita love dancing as much as Jose, so lucky for me, they invite their Gringita along.  Over many weekends, I have gotten a good chance to observe the subtle differences between these celebrations.  Some communities, like Otavalo, where I celebrated last year, mostly dance without singing.  But in the neighboring community of Zuleta, all the participants sing happy, fast-paced songs with lots of laugher.  The most common instruments are often guitar-like, but I’ve also seen men and women playing the 15-stringed bandolin, a 10-string small charango, a violin, a multi-tubed flute called a rondador, drums, accordions, harmonicas and melodicas as well.  

To add to the fun, the 29th of June is reserved for celebrating San Pedro (Saint Peter), and San Pablo (Saint Paul).  These saints are considered the guardians of the door to heaven.  Jose told me that he remembers as a child that this date was much more important than it is today.  People would gather on the street corners and shout “Open the doors of the sky for the love of God (to shine down on me.)”  In this way, people were asking for the purification of their soul and when the doors are open, their soul can rise up to the heavens.  I didn’t see anybody shouting on a street corner, but I did see a lot of festivities on this day.  Since some communities are celebrating San Juan, and others celebrating San Pedro and San Pablo, the celebrations hosted by each barrio all seem to run together throughout the end of June and into July and August as well.   Understandably, most people only celebrate within their own barrio or they may be invited guests to celebrate in the special traditions of another barrio.  Therefore, only fanatics like my family (and me!) go to a variety of different celebrations.

Go to to see the remainder of this post with videos included. 
Starting the festivities early, in mid-June, the primarily Indigenous village of Zuleta hosted a Gran Pregón, or a big Opening-Day parade.  After arriving and waiting for 2 hours, I started to chat with a woman named Lorena whose family still lives in Zuleta.  I learned from her that this pregón started high up in the hills, and as it wound its way down the paths of the mountain, it gathered up groups of neighbors.  By the time they arrived into the tiny Central Plaza of Zuleta, representative groups from each of the hillside barrios made an entrance with their best singing, 
dancing and always the offering of live chickens.

The tiny barrio of Angochagua even had a professional sign to announce their cooperative community.  These Indigenous communities are often very well organized with Presidents and executive personnel.  Often the leaders of these communities wear a special sash 
when they are performing executive duties. 
The rainbow colored two-faced Huma mask is a main character throughout Inti Raymi and San Juan celebrations.  The two faces are a yin-yang character inviting positive spirits while warding off negative ones.  This character usually leads and adds fun to the revelry.  The chaps, or chivos, with the whip are also an important part of the tradition.  Originally worn by the managers of the haciendas when the Indigenous were made to work like serfs, now these traditional pants are worn by the Indigenous (or anyone else playing the part) to symbolically show that they now hold the power. 
At the end of the parade route, each group entered the soccer stadium and danced for the judges.  Then a spokeswoman for each community came to the stage and gave an impassioned speech about her community.  In the end, a winner was chosen, and if I understand it correctly, this winning community will be the prioste, or host, for the events next year.  
I ended up sitting and watching the festivities for a long time with my new friend, Lorena, who I had met earlier in the day.  She also invited me to lunch with her at a neighbor’s house.  Her family was very kind and inviting.  This chance encounter served me well… more about that in a future post.  
After she left, I made friends with this Indigenous woman.  I have no idea of her name or anything about her because she only spoke her native language of Quichua.  But we had a great afternoon enjoying out all the sights around us.  Laughter is a universal language.  So is a selfie!

As I said, Jose gets invited to a lot of San Juan Festivals.  One evening at about 8pm, he said “Vamos!” and we were off to the tiny pueblo of Gonzalo Suarez.  When we arrived, several people greeted him in the streets to welcome “Ingenerio Angamarca”.  They were so excited he arrived.  He must have electrified their futbal field.  Then, he and Margarita were given the honor of carrying the bucket of chicha, a fermented corn drink, to pass around to the crowd.  The large futbal stadium was full of both women and men dancing.  But, in this barrio, I also saw a group of women standing off to the side watching the men dance.  Some Indigenous communities, as Jose explained, have very strong macho or chauvinistic roles and only the men are allowed 
to dance.  I hadn’t seen this before.                                  
On another occasion, we drove over the mountains and down into this little valley to the pueblo of Piman.  From the look of their stares, I honestly think I’m the first Gringa who has ever stepped foot in this pueblo.  The man in the green hat in the picture below is a graduate student working 
under Jose, and it was his family who invited us to the celebration.  
This San Juan celebration was a little different because the women all danced with a live chicken and boxed wine, while accordions were the primary musical instrument playing the sanjuanitas.
After circle dancing at the first house for awhile, this man led his entire community 
on a parade through the countryside from house to house.  The path was so dusty.  
Margarita, my brother Alex, our friend Faby and I waited at the bottom of the hill. 

But Jose, Pablo, and our friends, Antony and Alex carried on. 
As the sun was setting, the parade wound down the mountain and into the plaza below.  I thought sure I was in for a long night of dancing, when Jose and Margarita suddenly decided to leave.  When I responded in disbelief, they helped me understand that as guests, they had stayed their appropriate time and the festivities were starting to get a little “familial”.  I had to laugh at this, because if I used that as a gauge, this Gringita would never get to participate in anything.  That said, it was a good cultural lesson for me to be aware of unspoken rules within these tight-knit communities.
But another weekend, was all ours!  Members of the Angamarca family populates much of the barrio of Santa Lucia and in this barrio, the traditions of San Juan dancing are really unique.  Historically, I am told, it was common for men to dress up as women to dance San Juan.  Santa Lucia is one of only a few barrios that still holds to this old (and wacky) tradition.  The men accessorized with bows on their hats and flowery scarves around their shoulders.  And those that didn’t want to wear a dress, 
simply danced in their chivos.
Throughout two different nights, the men of our neighborhood paraded from house to house to dance San Juan.  The music was very different than traditional Sanjuanitos, and the steps they used to dance were quick and energetic- very different from the circle shuffle I was used to.  At each house, the host provided the crowd with food that could be eaten out of our hand such as bread, mote (hominy), popcorn, or beans.  Then, at some silent signal, the dancers would suddenly parade out of the yard and down the street.  The musicians would just follow, never missing a beat. 
On the second night of this celebration, I had decided that – after dancing late into the previous night- I wasn’t going to join in.  I had just settled into my bed when I heard pounding on the front gate and my phone rang.  It was Margarita pleading with me to make some coffee and lay out some bread because the dancers were coming to our house next!  
All I could say was, “Come home quick, they’re already here!”
San Juan Dancers in our driveway
Me, in a San Juan mask… always ready for the next fiesta!