In the middle of the Atacama desert there’s a small village called La Tirana, with a regular population of around 1,200 inhabitants. The village has a few streets, some modest houses made of sun-dried bricks and tin roofs, a cemetery, and a small church. What’s interesting about this place is that each 16th of July, its population increases up to over 500,000 people, who gather in the biggest religious festivity in Chile, called “Fiesta de la Tirana.”

Eight years ago, while still living in Chile (my home country), I was invited to join one of these organized groups, called bailes, who visit this village as their annual pilgrimage. The bailes are composed by people from many different places, encompassing not only the north of Chile but also some of Bolivia and Perú. Its members usually come from challenged socioeconomic segments of the population. Their colorful dances and upbeat music have different origins: some dance moves are inspired by Inca’s worship of the sun and the Aymara’s veneration of the Pachamama. Some of their outfits incorporate elements of the clothes of old servants, miners, and enslaved peoples. The music that the bailes dance is a fusion between indigenous rhythms, African beats, Spanish music, and even classical music. During one week, the village is flooded with music, dance, and color.

The main goal of the bailes is to dance in front of the sacred image of the Virgen del Carmen, patron saint of Chile. The dance represents the bailes’s unique way to connect to the divinity. Believers ask God for protection and health, express their gratitude and devotion, and promise to come back, thus continuing the tradition.
As an outsider, it’s easy to see this practice merely as another case of religious syncretism. Given that the dances do not follow the strict guidelines of the roman rituals of the Catholic church, the practice has not always been accepted, and some have even claimed that it dangerously borders with idolatry. None of this matters to the people of the bailes, of course, who manage to keep alive a tradition that connects their inner spirituality with the divinity, through their community and culture.

What impressed me in my visit was the way the people of the bailes connect their everyday life with the pilgrimage, the dance, and their faith. Everyone has a reason to dance: some to give thanks for their newborn, some to pray for their projects and plans, some to make sense of the grief of the loss of a family member, others to request a better future for their loved ones. This led me to wonder about my own reasons for being there. Was I there to study them? Was I there as a tourist, to take pictures and to post them on social media? Beyond the lights of the spectacle, I learned that authentic religious experience is inseparable from authentic human experience. The more we learn about divinity, the more we learn about our own transcendence and significance. The closer we get to our reality, the closer we get to unravel the mystery of divinity.

The bailes’s faith and devotion showed me a deep sense of identity and authenticity, hard to find in our globalized culture. Far from alienating, religious faith seems to be for them a way of life that preserves their identity and culture, allowing spirituality and corporality to express each other on every dance move. I can only hope to live with that deep sense of reverence and respect to my culture as they do.

– Fernando Alvear (Ph.D. Candidate)