Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a group of students to Ecuador during winter break to study indigenous knowledge and water resources. Although I had previously been to the country and felt adequately prepared to experience its people and culture, New Year’s Eve—Años Viejos, the celebration of the old year—was a huge surprise.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the city skyline of Quito explodes into fiery rockets of lights in every direction. I had never experienced thousands of firework displays simultaneously erupting over a city at one time: loud explosions from every direction; fire raining down from the sky as far as I could see; thick smoke quickly filling the air as careless neighbors misdirected a rocket toward our group, which then exploded just feet away. I’ve been back to Quito to experience Años Viejos every year since, but now I know what to expect.
Fireworks are only the culmination of a day of traditions and rituals. The people of Ecuador symbolically bid the old year farewell through the burning of effigies or dummies that represent the past. Whole neighborhoods come together, creating huge bonfires in the streets. The figures often resemble political leaders or maybe children’s comic book heroes. Kids, meanwhile, jump over the flames of the burning effigies as a way of saying goodbye to the old year and to welcome the new: they’re not afraid of the future.
Young men, dressed in drag, represent “New Year’s Widows” and they form groups that stop traffic in the streets to beg for money. They ritualistically flirt with drivers and passengers, perform (often lewd) dances, and make people throw them coins before they’re allowed to pass. The idea is perhaps well-intentioned: representing the widows left behind, alone and penniless, to whom residents have an obligation to help.
Throughout the day, neighborhoods host their own celebrations with music and food. It is common to come across gatherings or block parties along streets, in parking lots, and in other public areas. Some are unique. Last year, our group attended a neighborhood celebration featuring local heavy metal bands surrounded by motorcyclists in black leather jackets. A stranger offered me a swig of his “aguardiente” to help me relax; we became best friends for a day. Quito also hosts a citywide Años Viejos celebration at La Mariscal, the nightclub district.
The city streets are closed to traffic, replaced by music stages, food vendors, and huge, elaborately decorated displays of mostly political effigies enacting major events from the past year. Hundreds of thousands of people roam around dressed in fabulous costumes of superheroes and villains—Iron Man, Darth Vader, Superman, the grim reaper, Spiderman, and more.I bought a cheap, fluorescent orange wig for $4 and funny glasses to get into the spirit. Ecuador’s new-year celebrations offered a stark contrast to the freezing temperatures and warm, crowded bars in Minnesota, where I live. I know I’ll be back to Quito again next year.
Mark Bellcourt is a student services advisor at the University of Minnesota. He leads a seminar called, “From Minnesota to Ecuador: Indigenous Environmental Knowledge,” and is coordinator for the President’s Emerging Scholars Program in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences.