El Gran Poder – dancing in the streets of La Paz

by on 3rd June, 2016

Dancing in the streets of La Paz

Every year around the end of May/ beginning of June the streets of La Paz are filled with life in honour of the Senor del Gran Poder (great power) Jesus Christ.

Its origins go back to the 17th century but as our local La Paz representative Scarlet Herrera explains, the birth of the dance festival  followed much later.

She said: “In 1924 a dance called the “Diablada” (still one of the main dancing elements today) was performed in a small parade.

“In the 1930s and 40s more and more dancers from the Yungas region joined and from 1952 onwards the festival has steadily grown into the huge dance festival through the streets of La Paz that we still celebrate today.”


Biggest party of the year

The festival is the biggest party of the year and the most important date in the calendar for the Aymaran locals of La Paz.

In recent years more and more Paceños of all cultural backgrounds have become involved in the parade, making the Fiesta del Gran Poder no longer “just” and Aymaran celebration. Today tens of thousands of dancers parade through La Paz, dancing in elaborate, colourful, glittering costumes and masks that can weigh up to 25kg.

Dancing in the parade is a privilege and dancers hope to receive the blessing of the Senor del Gran Poder, or Jesus Christ, in return.


Lavish celebration

I first heard about the event on my city tour which took me right behind the scenes of La Paz with a guide who gave me so much information on the life of the locals.

Together we visited various streets lined with shops selling expensive costumes.

In fact, this was the one thing that stunned me the most – the cost. Not only the cost involved with the costumes but also the money spent by the “preste”, a prestigious figure of the community who throws a big private party the day after the Gran Poder, for all member of his neighbourhood.

Hall hire, traditional food and music easily sets the “preste” back USD 10,000 – 15,000. No mean feat given that the minimum monthly salary is no more than a couple of hundred dollars.


Money the maker

It seemed unbelievably extravagant to me, but the prestige and respect associated with being the preste for the year (a job you usually only do once) is so high that it seems to justify the overspending and the more money spent, the more admiration for the preste.

Well, that and the belief that Jesus Christ will reward and “repay” the preste for his financial offerings.

Expensive and extravagant it may be, but to the spectator it’s a mad, excuberant and fun affair well worth planning into your trip to La Paz if you are visiting at this time of the year.

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