Whose Skin Is This, Anyway?

The Gran Poder and Other Tales of Ethnic Cross-Dressing

by | Mar 17, 2014

 Diablada dancers representing the devil’s wife in true Gran Poder, La Paz. Photo by Jeff Tewlow.


An African-American dresses as a Plains Indian, as if seen through the lens of Fellini, while Andean natives wear white masks and carry whips, pretending to be colonial overseers. Whites don blackface and blacks whiteface. But blacks also dance in blackface while Indians perform as blacks costumed as whites as imagined by slaves in the brutal silver mines of colonial Latin America. The combinations in these dances of ethnic cross-dressing are nearly endless as are their many interpretations. The caustic bite of dominant groups parodying minorities has rendered many examples of this often ribald behavior politically incorrect and unacceptable. Yet while it is true that many forms of ethnic cross-dressing can be seen as a theatre of domination, so too can many be understood as a powerful means of transformation by which groups take on new identities and nations are redefined. Fraught with ambivalence and contradiction, ethnic cross-dressing, a term that I have coined for this practice, is nearly universal. It is also a driving engine of festive behavior throughout the world.

Despite its global significance and complexity, there has been relatively little theoretical attention paid to ethnic cross-dressing, and what does exist has been generally preoccupied with condemning its racist manifestations. Without doubt, the sinister legacy of blackface, emerging from 19th-century minstrelsy, has understandably stigmatized most discussions of the subject. But even in this long-enduring tradition, one can discover meanings beyond the simple appropriation and parody of African-American forms. Michael Rogin, for example, argues that such “racial cross-dressing,” as he calls it, was an important if painful strategy in the naturalization of such marginal immigrant groups as the Irish and Jews. While acknowledging the cruelty in a tradition that makes oppression entertaining and real history invisible, it was also a vehicle for remaking identities, one of ethnic cross-dressing’s most recurrent themes. As such, it is filled with ambivalence and contradiction, or as Rogin writes in Blackface, White Noise: “Admiration and ridicule, appropriation and homage, transience and permanence, pathos and play, deception and self-deception, stereotyped and newly invented, passing up and passing down, class, sex, and race—all these elements in contradictory combination can play their role in masquerade. Because cross-dressing contains multiple possibilities in theory, celebratory accounts must enter history.” (1998:35)

An even older U.S. tradition of ethnic cross-dressing than blackface is that of “playing Indian.” While today it is most commonly associated with the fraternal orders of white, middle-aged men and the controversial antics of buckskin-clad team mascots, its multifaceted roots stretch back to the Colonial era. After all, the Boston Tea Party, one of the United States’ most sacred foundational myths, is based on ethnic cross-dressing. As Philip Deloria points out in Playing Indian, the Sons of Liberty, who dressed up as Mohawks and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, weren’t disguising their identities but rather creating new ones. By dressing up as Indians “Americans redefined themselves as something other than British colonists.” (1998:2):

“Increasingly inclined to see themselves in opposition to England rather than to Indians, they inverted interior and exterior to imagine a new boundary line of national identity. They began to transform exterior, noble savage Others into symbolic figures that could be rhetorically interior to the society they sought to inaugurate…As England became a them for colonists, Indians became an us.” (Ibid. 21-22).

While assuming Indian identities may have been a powerful metaphorical tool for 18th-century American rebels, it was no less ambivalent than the use of blackface by immigrant performers. In fact, Deloria describes the relationship of whites to native peoples in a similar way as Rogin and others do between blackface entertainers and African-Americans, or as he characterizes it, “a dialectic of simultaneous desire and repulsion” (Ibid. 4). The Sons of Liberty didn’t end with American independence either, but was reborn with the Improved Order of Red Men (I.O.R.M.) and other fraternal orders that met in tepees with assumed Indian names and invented rituals. In fact, it was membership in a New York State order called the Cayugas that led one of America’s first anthropologists, Lewis Henry Morgan, to begin work among the Iroquois. Given the name Shenandoah, he was entrusted with the task of providing a native vocabulary for the group.

Although Morgan went on to complete the first extensive comparative kinship study, he never went “native,” as some anthropologists have done. A key trope in the history of the discipline since its inception in the 19th century, the figure who is absorbed into a non-Western culture (be it an anthropologist or soldier-scholar like T. E. Lawrence) holds an enduring fascination. And yet, “going native,” just like “passing,” should not be confused with ethnic cross-dressing. When African-Americans, for example, dress up as Plains Indians to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, they are not trying to fool anyone about their real identity; nor in this instance are they using their elaborate sequined costumes and feathers to parody or ridicule another group. They are celebrating a history of mutual support and interchange dating back to a period when both groups suffered from an oppressive white culture. The African-Americans who dance with King Zulu, on the other hand, use exaggerated blackface as a type of visual double entendre satirizing whites satirizing blacks. In each case, ethnic crossing-dressing uses the “other” as a discursive strategy, regardless of the message. To “go native” or “pass” is to erase one’s ethnicity and become invisible. The ethnic cross-dresser needs to be seen.

I first became interested in ethnic cross-dressing in the early 1980s when my friend Benito Yrady invited me to the village of Caicara in eastern Venezuela where a celebration known as the Día del Mono or “Day of the Monkey” was taking place. It was a raucous event with huge conga lines of drunken dancers singing and tossing blue dye at one another. In a separate circle, an overweight man in a long blue dress led a group of children in blackface while another group danced in burlap sacks with red bandannas and feathers made to look like Indians. It was a wild, chaotic bacchanal. And I loved it. That night I wrote in my journal that it was the perfect “antifestival.” But I was wrong, of course. For the mestizo population of Caicara this newly invented Carib dance, which had replaced the traditional Day of the Innocents, was claimed to be a celebration of their Indian identity. And while the dance’s history as well as the ethnicity of its participants could certainly be questioned, the instrumentality of the performance in establishing a uniquely local and hence “indigenous” identity was clear.

I wrote about the Day of the Monkey along with a number of other festivals in The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism as Cultural Performance (2000). One such festival, called Tamunangue, took place on the opposite side of Venezuela in the state of Lara and was also performed to celebrate a new identity. Yet despite its indigenous name, Tamunangue was defiantly mestizo, a celebration of Venezuela’s multiethnic heritage. The dance itself, however, was derived from one of the most seminal celebrations in all of Latin America, the Dance of the Moors and Christians. Adapted throughout the continent soon after the Spaniards’ arrival in the 16th century, the Dance of the Moors and Christians provided the prototype for ethnic cross-dressing with the subjugated Moors easily replaced by Romans, Jews, blacks, French grenadiers, and even monkeys. Whatever the actors, the narrative of the Moors and Christians is a story of conquest and conversion, a theatre of domination (See Victoria Reifler Bricker, The Indian Christ, the Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Maya Myth and Ritual, Austin: University of Texas Press. 1981, and María Soledad Carrasco.“Christians and Moors in Spain: History, Religion, Theatre,” Cultures 3,1 (1976): 87-116).

While I was  completing work on The Festive State, my friend Javier Sanjines suggested that I visit Bolivia in order to watch a festival called the Gran Poder. Sanjines knew my interests and claimed that the Gran Poder synthesized them all like no other event. I was intrigued and it would certainly be a relief to be in one place after spending years doing a multi-sited ethnography. So in 1994, in the middle of the first World Cup in which Bolivia had ever participated, I took a flight to La Paz. While I had been aware of the importance of ethnic cross-dressing in Venezuelan festivals, The Festive State focused more on the way in which traditional festive behavior had been appropriated by both national and regional governments for the purpose of creating a new populist identity. The “ideology of tradition” was turned on its head and, in place of a conservative force, presented as a subversive language able to challenge and redefine concepts of race, ethnicity, history, gender and nationhood. In Bolivia, however, ethnic cross-dressing was much more than a subtext. It was the dominant idiom of nearly every celebration.

With its roots in the 20th century’s massive migration of rural Aymara to La Paz, the Fiesta del Gran Poder has become the largest urban indigenous celebration in the Americas. Its history has paralleled this large demographic change along with the ongoing conflict it has ignited with the dominant Bolivian oligarchy. In my article, “The Gran Poder and the Reconquest of La Paz” (The Journal of Latin American Anthropology 2006), I discuss how this event has provided a vehicle for not only mobilizing this newly arrived population but for remapping the urban imaginary. Recognizing that La Paz was once called Chuquiago, “the head staff” or center of a pre-Colombian Aymara world, the dance has extended itself little by little recolonizing what for centuries had been an indigenous universe. But just as the Gran Poder has remapped the city of La Paz, so too has it remade the racial and ethnic identities of its participants.

Celebrating a miraculous colonial painting of the Holy Trinity, the festival grew from a small neighborhood event in the 1920s to its current city-wide presence. The painting with its powerful image of the three faces of Christ joined together had long been outlawed by the Church and, like those who have adopted it as their patron saint, exiled to the margins of the city. But eight weeks after Easter, on the day before Holy Trinity Sunday, the members of these underserved communities gather together to descend upon the center of La Paz and the many areas once forbidden to them. With 35,000 participants organized into 57 different fraternities, the festival is an encyclopedia of Andean dance forms, both old and new. It also provides the world’s greatest showcase of ethnic cross-dressing in a single place. There are native laborers called Doctorcitos dressed as 18th-century white lawyers while others wear blackface and chains in elaborate recreations of the slavery experience. Aymara dress as Incas and Conquistadors acting out the trauma of the conquest. They also dance as lowland Tobas, parodying their “wildness” with costumes based on Sioux and other Plains Indians. And then there are the whip-wielding Caporales in their tall boots laced with bells and costumes that combine elements of gauchos, Star Wars, and Cuban rumba dancers. Young and athletic, they represent the black overseers of the coca plantations that were once worked by African slaves.

The largest groups, however, are reserved for the Morenada, the “dance of the blacks.” Referred to as the pulmones or “lungs” of the Gran Poder, Morenada fraternities have up to a thousand members with two sixty-piece brass bands each. The main body of the group is composed of the morenos wearing huge hooped skirts and oversized epaulettes and exaggerated black masks with protruding lips, a pipe, and a wart on the end of the nose. And topping it all is a miner’s hat festooned with fruit, feathers, and flowers, a symbol of the role these black slaves were said to have played in the silver mines of colonial Bolivia; although the costume itself is claimed to be based on a black parody of 17th-century Spanish court attire. But other dancers also participate in the Morenada: achachis, the “old men” with white masks and long braided whips, said to represent the morenos’ overseers, young figuras in mini-skirts and sexy high-heeled boots, and enormous bloques of cholasin beautiful silk dresses and shawls with expensive bowler hats and gold jewelry.

While the origin of the morenos’ enormous 60-pound costumes is in dispute, the status that they convey is universally recognized. Members of these fraternities are upwardly mobile Aymara in transition from one identity to another. “If you want to dance the Morenada,” goes a popular refrain, “You better have some money.” And it is true that the cost for a couple dancing in the Morenada can be as high as $2,000. To spend that much in such an ostentatious display certainly signals that one has arrived in the middle-class. But why do they signify it by dressing as black slaves who in turn are dressed as 17th-century white noblemen, especially when it was their own ancestors who were forced to work in the mines during the colonial mita?

Marjorie Garber notes in her book Vested Interests, a study of gender cross-dressing, that there are many interpretive possibilities for such behavior but that all of them appear to reflect a “category crisis” of some sort (1992). In the Andes, racial categories, as defined by concepts of mestizaje, seem to be in perpetual crises, causing what Mary Weismantel has referred to in Cholas and Pishtacos as a chronic condition of “racial estrangement” (2001).

Unlike Caribbean and Brazilian concepts of mestizaje that emphasize a utopian continuum in which all racial oppositions vanish, that of the Andes remains binary. And yet it is far different from the U.S. binary of hypodescent in which racial categories are fixed and immutable. Andean mestizaje is continuously shifting and relational depending on one’s location and status. An Indian in one situation can be a mestizo in yet another. For native Aymara who move from the countryside to the city with aspirations of mesticizing themselves, the Morenada is the dance of choice. As much about ethnic mobility as social mobility, it enacts the process of changing one’s skin and like so many forms of ethnic cross-dressing is about transformation and becoming.

People naturally assumed when I decided to dance that I would join one of the large and well-organized Morenadas. And it is true that I was tempted by the Rosas de Viacha with their beautiful red and black costumes and soulful band. But my wife, Kate Wheeler, had fallen in love with the Diablada and so we joined the Internacional Juventud Relámpago del Gran Poder, one of the oldest fraternities in La Paz. In fact, the Diablada was one of the earliest dances associated with the festival. Originating in the mining center of Oruro, the Diablada was a fantastic allegory in which the native gods, driven underground and demonized as devils, returned once again only to be controlled by the Archangel Michael. The conquest all over again, but with a commemoration of the millions of Indians who died working in the mines. Much more athletic and physically demanding than the Morenada, the Diablada costumes were also spectacular: huge horned masks with bulging eyes made of thermoses and teeth jutting out like knives and a three-headed serpent on top, a white wig, silk yellow pants with more serpents, a jewel encrusted breastplate, an apron of antique coins, a long black cape with red lining and gold sequins and a pair of dragons sewn on, three-feet-wide epaulets with beaded tassels all around, red gloves with flames along the sides, and tall boots with serpents and red pom poms. I was Satanás. And with my costume and mask on no one could tell I was a white guy from New Jersey. Or as my companions liked to say, “Somos todos diablos.

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

David M. Guss is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University. He has participated in and written about festivals throughout Latin America and the United States for more than three decades. He is also a founding member of the HonkFest comparsa, Endangered Species with Lipstick. He is currently completing a biography of the Scottish mountaineer and jurist, Alastair Cram. 

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