Saraguro - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Precolonial beliefs combined animistic spirituality with the worship of gods introduced during Incan rule. The Saraguro now profess strong Catholic beliefs; nevertheless, their religion remains highly syncretic and combines Christian and pre-Conquest elements. Thus, Saraguro worship is essentially polytheistic. Catholic saints and virgins are revered along with animistic spirits associated with rainbows, rivers, and the wind, Incan sun and moon gods, supalata (agricultural spirits), and supai (demons).

Religious Practitioners . Shamanic specialists have practiced in the region since pre-Conquest times, but under church suppression shamans have been labeled as witches and have failed to attract apprentices. Several Saraguro assist priests with Mass and church maintenance. Most attend Mass on Sundays and religious holidays; families are organized to finance church celebrations through a fiesta cargo system.

Ceremonies. The Catholic religious calendar has come to overlay the traditional sowing and harvest celebrations of the Saraguro. Household rituals focus on the family life cycle, commemorating births, marriages, construction of new homes, and deaths.

Arts. Saraguro bands perform traditional Andean folksongs on flutes, panpipes, and drums and have begun to play guitars and accordions. The Saraguro are renowned in southern Ecuador for their crafts. Women create elaborate floral displays for church each Sunday. They are also skilled spinners with the distaff and hand spindle, producing very fine "S" and "Z" twist yarn. Women weave intricate belts, and some possess special knowledge of natural dyes. Men, however, are regarded as master weavers, and produce large bolts of wool fabric on backstrap looms. Women fashion this homespun fabric into the distinctive Saraguro wardrobe. Men wear a tunic, short pants modeled after colonial pantaloons and covered on formal occasions by wool chaps, a poncho, and a wide, hand-tooled belt decorated with silver coins. Women wear a wool underskirt with a pleated overskirt, a colonial-style hand-embroidered blouse of brightly colored satin, and a shawl fastened with a large silver shawl-pin or topo. Men and women both wear wide-brimmed white wool-felt hats. Women also wear large, distinctive, antique silver earrings and hand-beaded collar necklaces. All woolens, except men's white chaps, are dyed a deep blue-black. By tradition, the Saraguro are said to wear black in perpetual mourning for the death of Atahuallpa, the last Inca.

Medicine. Traditional curers such as midwives, herbalists, and shamans continue to practice in Saraguro. Pharmacists and Indian nurses have been available for consultation since the 1950s, and a government-sponsored hospital opened in the town in 1980. The most common form of health care, however, is provided by Saraguro mothers, who diagnose and treat most family illnesses at home with a combination of medicinal plants, purchased pharmaceuticals, massage, and diet.

Death and Afterlife. The Saraguro follow Catholic teachings on death and believe that behavior in life determines salvation or damnation. Baptized children who die before first communion are said to become angels. A special wake is held, and the child is placed on an altar in the home and dressed as a winged angel. Guests eat a special meal, a band plays through the night, and parents dance in celebration of their child's holy transformation.

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