The Arangues Festival: Cultural Resistance in Rural Venezuela

Dry heat fills the lungs of thousands of cultural workers from distant and dispersed nooks of Venezuela. For the 27th consecutive year, they have gathered in the rural village of Arangues in the state of Lara, Venezuela to create a vibrant and diverse space of cultural resistance.
Children perform in the Arangues cultural festival in the municipality of Torres, Lara State, in Venezuela (G. Wilpert)

Arangues, Lara State– Dry heat fills the lungs of thousands of cultural workers from distant and dispersed nooks of Venezuela. For the 27th consecutive year, they have gathered in the rural village of Arangues in the state of Lara, Venezuela to create a vibrant and diverse space of cultural resistance by filling the streets with fervent dancing, singing, artisan foods and crafts, and time-worn rituals for one long weekend.  

"In this town, cultures from outside were always imposed on the native traditions. This festival is a resistance to this, to make it so these traditions never die and are vindicated by the community, despite the policies of cultural alienation and transculturalization that the Empire has imposed for many years," the local Mayor, Julio Chávez, tells Venezuelanalysis.

Upon arrival, our group of participants and visitors is invited to sit in a welcoming circle on dusty brown, soft ground that begs to be danced on. Some people sit on wooden stumps, others lounge in brightly colored but worn, traditionally woven hammocks, and many rest in lawn chairs of molded plastic, which would seem out of place if the heart of Venezuela's petroleum-based chemical industry were not just a few hundred kilometers to the West.

Ignacio Vera, who traveled all the way from the southeastern Bolivar state to share in the festivities, stands and tells the group what he thinks is the most important aspect of the festival. "I have come back here year after year for the solidarity," he says. Vera is echoed by several others. "For the smiles and the hugs," says community organizer Gregoria Leal. "The people who sincerely want to listen to your experiences," another participant reflects.

Wayuu LeaderAn elderly Wayuu Indigenous man enters the circle. His short, hatcheted, and rhythmic steps guide the imagination all the way to his remote community in the conflict-ridden, coal-rich Sierra de Perijá along the Colombian border. For him, the festival has a more vital and essential significance. "In our lands, the Wayúu, Barí, and Yukpa people are fighting for our lives, our lands and to save our culture," the small, stocky man grimly reports to the group.

Sitting next to him, Mayor Chávez, who is renown for his willingness to cede power to local community councils and protect local culture, amplifies the old Wayúu man's message with precision and understanding rarely expressed by a state official other than President Hugo Chávez: "Our indigenous companions have been attacked by large estate owners, and the state security forces in the region have not come to their defense."  

The plight of the Wayúu in the face of violent elite land owners rings true in Arangues, which was originally a run-down settlement of exploited workers in the middle of a giant hacienda, or large private estate. The cultural festival, participants say, began spontaneously as culturally displaced groups sought refuge and created a space where they could freely practice the traditions they love in this remote and lightly patrolled area.

"They came, and they came and they came, and more people came over the years," Mayor Chávez recalls of the original years of the Arangues festival, when he was a student organizer. "Of course it always depended on the receptivity of the local community and the level of organization of the small farmer movement," he specifies. This year, over 4,000 come to Arangues for the festival, in a village with no more than 2,500 inhabitants.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the festival began in the early 1980s, when economic decline motivated the federal government to sign more and more deals with international finance institutions, embracing both structural adjustment policies and the culturally homogenizing model of Neo-liberal globalization.

Such festivals now enjoy the support of local government institutions, and the town has become independent from the hacienda. After being elected as mayor in 2004, Mayor Chávez opened the doors for organized communities to form a constituent assembly and re-write the municipal constitution, a chapter of which now defines cultural traditions as a "fundamental and inalienable right."

The local constitution mandates the government's obligation to support local cultural promoters, and stresses the importance of alternative media in this effort. It says cultural activity may be varied according to "the historical process of each community…with a Latin American and Universal vision." It also brings the municipal laws into accordance with Venezuela's national constitution, which was passed by popular vote in 1999.

The different expressions of solidarity at the festival not only transcend the borders of government authority, they also cross ethnicities, span generations, and connect different parts of the national territory in a way that is emblematic of this loosely-structured festival.

According to municipal community organizer Estela Lameda, for several years, a central stage was lit up with cultural activity all day and all night in the center of Arangues. But people began to see how this over-emphasized the performance aspect of the cultural activity, limited interaction and fomented competitiveness among people at the festival. Now, events are staged in the streets in all the various sectors of the town, maintaining a touch of spontaneity that reflects the festival's origins.

Lameda, whose father is one of the best-known local players of Venezuela's typical instrument, the cuatro, emphasizes that nearly two thirds of the participants in the festival this year are children. "This festival is a school for our children, who are the basis of our culture," Lameda reflects.  

Gaita de GuajiraA sweating crowd gathers on a dirt road lined with Aloe plants and cacti. Chords of cuatros and Spanish guitars, and whole-toned, high-pitched, energetic voices chime through the late afternoon air. Feet covered by alpargatas, the typical, hand-crafted shoes worn by the indigenous peoples of the northwestern region of Venezuela known as the Guajira, caked with earth, begin thumping the ground.

At first, the dancers rotate their shoulders back and forth and elegantly present their heels in front of them. Men and women dance in pairs and mimick the dancing styles and Catholic sexual norms of the Spanish-American heritage.   

With a slight music change, however, the pairs separate, and the women begin to shuffle-step toward the men, who back-peddle with their arms extended to their sides and palms facing the sky. They move like this in large circles, reflecting the traditional dances of the Wayúu people, the original inhabitants of the Guajira.

The whole sequence of dances is called the Gaita de la Guajira, according to its young performers, who represent a cultural collective named after Aquiles Nazoa, a Venezuelan writer famed for celebrating the culture of the country's majority poor classes.

The dances, songs, and ceremonies that overtake the streets of Arangues seem to go beyond resistance to outside cultures; they are living examples of the inter-weaving and integration of cultural traditions over time and in distinct historical circumstances.

From the Gaita, to the elaborately costumed Socopó from the state of Barinas, to the local story-telling dances of San Antonio, all of the cultural expositions at the festival seem to be protean in nature, fused myriads of spliced traditions.

"The whole thing is a mixture of cultures," explains one Arangues resident, a goat farmer like most of his neighbors, who is watching the San Antonio ritual. "The drums are African, the guitars are Spanish, the Maracas are indigenous, and the characters in the stories are all three."

"What is the name of the local indigenous people?" I ask.

"Xaguas," he mutters. "But they are all gone."

I think to myself, are we observing the ceremonies of an annihilated people, not even one of whom is present? "You mean they are extinct?" I ask.

"Yes," the broad-shouldered man of African, Indigenous, and Spanish blood answers plainly.

Knowing this, the intense movements of the dancers, singers, and socializers at the festival appear more and more entranced, and entrancing. Through their resistance to being obliterated by the violent onslaught of corporate globalization, the flames of an extinguished people burn on.

The Arangues festival has no website, and the town has no cell phone signal. It is full of people who know, celebrate and defend their culture, who perhaps understand the culture of the rich in the Global North better than those who practice it, and who now have local and national government allies to bolster their struggle to follow a sovereign path.