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Venezuela’s Dancing Devils Receive Country’s First Intangible Heritage Recognition by Unesco

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One of Venezuela’s most celebrated traditions was granted Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status by the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) on Wednesday during a committee meeting of the international body in Paris.

Government officials and 22 members of the eleven guilds that make up the Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi, a network of devoted Christians who imitate defeated demons through the use of masks and choreographed movements, traveled to France earlier this week to receive the verdict and celebrate the recognition.

“We’re sure that this time the Holy Sacrament will bless us because the communities support us. The homage being paid to the most holy isn’t just through the devils but also the community which respects us and which is praying for us”, said Jose Echenagucia from the Ocumare branch of the guild before the decision.

The first attempt to qualify the Devils as Intangible Heritage happened in 2002 at which time the request was denied due to technical errors and a lack of documentation.

This time, a greater emphasis was placed on the meaning of the tradition for the local communities and more effort was made to include the people from those communities in the solicitation. “The first time, the communities weren’t consulted... But this year a team from the Center of Diversity traveled to our communities to interview the people who are a witness to our demonstrations”, said Militzo Vega from the state of Carabobo.

With the recognition, the Dancing Devils have become Venezuela’s first cultural expression to receive Unesco’s Intangible Heritage status. The measure, largely symbolic, sets standards to safeguard the practice of living traditions and provides a series of guidelines to ensure a non-intrusive conservation of the arts, rituals, and festive events.

“While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life”, states Unesco’s website.

With the status, Venezuela’s Dancing Devils take their place alongside such cultural manifestations as Spain’s Flamenco, Turkey’s Mevlevi Sema Ceremony, and, more recently, Mexico’s Mariachi music.

“It’s Venezuelan-ness that is being recognized”, said Culture Minister Pedro Calzadilla regarding the practice that dates back to the 1600s. “It’s through expressions such as that these our identity is supported”, he said.

The celebrations take place on the ninth Thursday following Holy Week in the central states of Miranda, Guarico, Carabobo, Cojedes, Vargas and Aragua. On that day, members of the local parishes dress in red and adorn highly elaborated masks representing the devil, who after hours of struggle eventually bows to the beneficence of the Holy Sacrament.

“You can’t just dance because you like it. It’s a promise to the King of Kings and to the Holy Sacrament”, said Ernesto Herrera, a 26 year-old devotee. Herrera is from Yare, Miranda state, where the largest celebration takes place, incorporating some two thousand dancers.

At noon the day before the Feast of Corpus Christi, participants arrive at the town church to receive permission from the parish priest to engage in the acts. A procession is then carried out and a vigil for the Cruz de Mayo is undertaken until dawn.

Following the vigil, the devotees assume their disguises and pay homage to those departed in the local cemetery. The dancers then pledge promises to the Lord and engage in a procession of the Holy Sacrament accentuated by various types of local music and different ritual practices depending on the locality.

“We also dance when we are invited by others. I’ve been dancing since I was 7 years old. I feel proud to be a part of this tradition. I have a spiritual commitment with the Holy Spirit as well as my great grandfather who was the first President of the Devils. He and my grandfather passed the faith and devotion to me. Although it was offered to me for 7 years, I swore my allegiance for my whole life”, Herrera said.

While the Dancing Devils are now recognized as an intrinsic part of the Caribbean country’s heritage, Vice Minister for Cultural Identity and Diversity, Benito Irady, expressed alarm at the fact that many Venezuelans are not familiar with the tradition or its characteristics.

Irady attributes this lack of knowledge to the influence that outside cultures, such as those from the Global North, have exerted over Venezuela.

For the Vice Minister, it is crucial that Venezuela continue on the path towards reaffirming it’s own cultural identity in the face of a globalized mass media. As such, officials are hopeful that Unesco’s Intangible Heritage status will help aid in raising the consciousness among the population at large with respect to the country’s rich cultural patrimony.

“The challenge is very great. It’s the need that we have to return our gaze towards ourselves - who we were and who we are”, the Vice Minister said. Activities have been planned around Venezuela’s central states to celebrate the Unesco recognition starting on Friday.

A mass and a parade, which will include the participation of more than 500 devils, have been organized to take place in Caracas on Sunday. “This will be the first, after 400 years of the tradition, that a mass with all eleven guilds of the tradition will take place in the country”, said Irady last week.

Venezuelanalysis.com has published an image set of the Dancing Devils cultural practice here.

Published on Dec 7th 2012 at 6.52pm